Our Via Ferrata Skills article aims to give some key guidance and tips for anyone wanting to try this exciting and accessible branch of mountain sports. We really hope you find it useful.
What Are They?
Via Ferrata means ‘iron way’ in Italian (‘Klettersteig’ in German). They are networks of metal cableways leading enticingly through impressive mountain terrain in many alpine regions. The cables are sometimes just for protection while at others they are used as handrails to aid progress. Often the cable is supplemented by metal stemples that are used as hand and footholds.
The routes range from short blasts lasting a couple of hours through to full day adventures. Some are simple and others will test all your mountain judgement skills. A grading system is used to help work out the right route option for your experience level. The most popular system uses a five step technical scale (1 to 5). Usually, this is supplemented by an A to C seriousness grade. So, a short easy route might be graded 1A through to a very challenging serious proposition at 5C. In my experience, competent scramblers will be quite comfortable starting out on shorter grade 3B or 3Cs. Bear in mind, though, that even routes of the same grades vary in difficulty.
How Did They Get There?
Common knowledge credits the construction of Via Ferrata to the Italian and Austrian armies who needed an efficient way to move troops through the mountains during wartime. Infact, they were mainly constructed by early alpinists who used them to assist in ascents of popular alpine routes. Via Ferrata’s were also said to be used by shepherd’s and villagers moving between settlements.
Where Are They?
Italy is still the Via Ferrata mothership. There’s a massive selection centred around the Dolomites and many other options dotted throughout the country. However, many other European countries also have lots of routes. You will find a great selection in places like Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France. Less well known destinations like Slovenia also offering exciting options for the adventurous. Oh yes. Don’t forget we’ve even got a few in the UK too. There are iron ways in the Lake District and Scotland. Most areas are covered by good quality guidebooks and, as usual, there is loads of good supporting info on the net.
What Equipment Do I Need?
As we hope our Via Ferrata skills guide will show, the great thing about the equipment needed is the relative simplicity. You don’t need much specialist kit to get into some really wild and wonderful situations. Even better, participants with a background in other mountain sports can use a lot of equipment they already own. So, here’s a guide to the essentials and some personal recommendations.
Helmet – Loose rock, high potential for people to be climbing above you and steep mountain faces. It certainly makes sense to wear one. As with most modern equipment there aren’t really any bad helmets from the main manufacturers. The choice largely comes down to finding one that’s comfortable and lightweight.
Harness – Most UK climbers use their existing sit harness and this will do the job just fine. You will also see some people using full body harnesses. They have a higher attachment point and this means you are less likely to get tipped upside down in a fall situation. You can always use a normal sit harness and add a chest harness when you feel the extra support would be useful.
Via Ferrata Lanyard – A lanyard is the clipping system that you use to attach yourself to the cables as you progress along the cables. It is an essential link in your safety system because Via Ferrata offer the potential for falls with very high fall factors. There’s lots of info on these issues on the Petzl website here. The Petzl site also offers a lot of general Via Ferrata skills advice. It is possible to make a lanyard yourself but in my opinion it isn’t really worth it. You need to know exactly what you are doing to make a safe system. Also, by the time you buy all the bits and bobs you probably aren’t saving much money.
If you decide to go for one of the commercially produced models you will have plenty of choice. I’ve used models by Petzl, Mammut, Simond and Camp. They all performed well. They all use a system based around an energy absorber. There are two arms to clip yourself to the rope and a method of fastening the lanyard to your harness.
The energy absorber is typically either a length of rope designed to slide through a friction brake or a ‘screamer’. A screamer is a tape block with stitching designed to rip in a shock-loading situation. The screamer style is far more popular nowadays and we would always recommend these. They are simple and compact but do have the disadvantage that once the stitching is ripped it can’t absorb a shock again. This could leave you half way up a route with a lanyard that is ineffective. However, you would be very unlucky to suffer two significant falls on one route.
Lanyard Carabiners – The other crucial part of the lanyard is the karabiners you use to clip to the cable. Via Ferrata karabiners are specially designed with an auto locking system. They also have large gate opening to allow them to clip onto thick cables. They are designated as type K (K for Klettersteig) and you will find this stamped (in a circle) on the spine. We explained about these designations on our Choosing Carabiners article here.
Pulley – New Via Ferratas are springing up all over the place and some modern additions have all sorts of exciting additions. One popular feature you will often find is a Tyrolean traverses. Your guidebook will tell you if there are any but when you come across one you are likely to need a pulley. Make sure you choose one designed for cable rather than rope.
Gloves – Complete a few Via Ferratas and your hands will be screaming for you to wear gloves! The friction of the cable, stray shards of wire and the constant clipping of biners all wear your skin at a wicked pace. I would class gloves as an essential. The cheap option is something like leather gardening gloves or cycling gloves. However, if you are planning repeated ferrata adventures it is worth investing in some purpose made efforts. Several of the main manufacturers make something suitable.
Rope and hardware – Some people don’t carry a rope but I consider it an essential item of Via Ferrata equipment. A nervous companion who needs a rope for confidence, a section where rockfall has destroyed the cable or an emergency retreat. A rope certainly has its place, provided you have the skills required to use it safely.
I normally carry a 30-35 metre length of skinny single rope. Light enough not to be a burden but still rated for leading. Some manufacturers do make via ferrata specific ropes. I back this up by carrying a few 120cm slings and screwgates (including an HMS). I also carry a light belay plate that can be used in guide mode, some prussik loops and abseil ‘tat’.
Boots – The type of footwear you choose depends very much on the length and location of the route. It also depends on the nature of the descent and the weather. If the route is easily accessible and has a straightforward descent then approach shoes do the job well. If there is a tricky descent or the route is in an exposed mountain location then I would choose boots. Some models are specifically targeted for this type of terrain. In reality well fitting supportive walking boots will do the job too.
Other stuff – The rest of it is your everyday mountain kit. I try to keep the weight down by choosing lightweight clothing options and prefer a climbing focussed pack that sits quite high on the back. About 30 litre capacity is perfect. Depending on the route and the descent from it I usually take a map and compass. I also pack a torch, sunscreen, sunglasses, lightweight bothy bag, mobile phone, first aid kit along with enough food and drink. I also write out, photocopy or screenshot the guidebook descriptions. This means I can keep the route topo easily accessible in my pocket. Finally, I find an altimeter really useful to keep a check on how far up the route I’ve got.
What Specific Via Ferrata Skills Are Needed?
Our Via Ferrata Skills guide hopefully highlights that simplicity is one of this mountain sports big attractions. In principle, as long as you have the skills to clip your lanyards safely and can transition past the intermediate anchors then you have the key Via Ferrata skills. However, because you are clipping into to a length of cable, a fall can create a massive shock load. You are also still operating on technical terrain and often in high mountain environments. All the usual risks are there. Please make sure you have the skills to keep yourself safe. If not, please ensure you develop those skills or seek professional instruction
And that’s it. A few specialist essentials, some of your regular kit and a lanyard and you have what you need for a great adventure. As always, though, the skills are easily as important as the equipment. If you’d like to explore some Via Ferrata with us our Costa Blanca trips offer opportunities for some great iron way adventures. To try a Lake District Via Ferrata adventure we highly recommend our friends at The Adventure Element. They even include a helmet, harness and lanyard – the perfect way to cut your Via Ferrata teeth.