For those who want to branch out from regular hiking but don’t fancy taking on anything quite so extreme as rock climbing or out-and-out mountaineering, there exists a very fun, safe, and no less thrilling middle-way that might just be exactly what you’re looking for—the via ferrata!
In this article, we take a look at this hiking-climbing hybrid in more detail and offer a selection of tips to help newcomers to the sport get those all-important first few routes under their belts.
Before that, let’s take a quick look at how via ferrata rose from grim beginnings to become the world-renowned sport it is today.
A Short History of Via Ferrata
Via ferrata routes first began to appear in northern Italy and southern Austria-Hungary in the latter part of the 19th century, but became famous for their role in the First World War’s “White War,” which was fought between Austro-Hungarian and Italian forces throughout the mountainous terrain of the Italian Front.
During the White War, both the Italians and Hapsburgs installed cables, ladders, and iron spikes into the rock as a means of transporting troops and ferrying supplies to high-altitude, otherwise inaccessible garrisons, gunning stations, or eagle’s nests located high in the mountains of the Dolomites, the Ortler-Cevedale Group, and the Julian Alps.
In the aftermath of the war, the popularity of the routes was such that new routes were added and the old, war-time ones renewed for recreational mountain-goers, thereby opening a new means of reaching previously inaccessible summits and protecting routes that were otherwise too tricky or exposed for the average hiker.
5 Tips to Help You Tackle Your First Via Ferrata
Today, there are over a thousand via ferrata routes in Europe alone and the sport has become a popular source of tourism in its own right in destinations as diverse as Spain and China, Colorado and Kenya.
1. Get Your Gear Right
The single most important factor in ensuring your safety on any via ferrata route is your gear. In the case of a slip, fall, rockfall from above, or any other accident, your harness, helmet, carabiners, and leashes are all that stand between you and the nearest landing spot below, however far that may be.
Either buy a pre-made via ferrata kit for yourself or make your own one and then spend some time getting to know how to use it on easier routes before venturing onto anything overly testy or exposed, preferably with a guide of someone with extensive via ferrata experience.
You can make your own kit by simply buying two six-foot lengths of climbing rope to use as lanyards (8 or 9mm rope is best), one locking, screwgate carabiner, and two key-lock carabiners.
Tie overhand knots in the ends of both ropes and attach one end of both ropes to your harness with the screwgate and clip the others to the remaining bights to use for clipping into protection on the route.
2. Choose your route carefully
A via ferrata’s a via ferrata, right? It’s got chains, wires, bolts, rungs, ladders, and that’s about all there is to it.
Well, yes and no…
The presence of the above features may lead us to believe that all via ferratas are essentially alike and easily doable for anyone with a bit of a head for heights and a reasonable level of fitness. This, however, would be a mistake.
Via ferrata routes vary greatly both in terms of the challenge entailed and the environment in which they are situated. Various rating systems are used in different parts of the world, each of which takes into account the length, difficulty, exposure of any given route and also the technical ability required.
To give you an idea of how these gradings may look, below we’ve added the descriptions given for varying route difficulties in the Italian grading system:
- F—An equipped/assisted walking path
- PD—A shorter route with limited exposure
- D—A medium-length route with some exposure and potentially overhangs or vertical sections. D-rated routes generally require a good head for heights, technical proficiency, and a relatively high level of fitness
- TD—Exposed, technical, and sustained routes with angles no less than vertical
- ED—The toughest via ferrata routes out there, ED-rated routes usually feature sustained exposure and require a high level of technical skill, some rock-climbing ability, and the strength to negotiate overhangs with minimal assistance from rungs or stairs
If you happen to be new to via ferrata, we’d highly recommend starting off with a few routes at the lower end of the scale before venturing onto anything with sustained exposure and/or vertical or overhanging sections.
As with climbing, many newcomers to via ferrata underestimate the importance of footwork in improving their technique and performance.
On first impressions, it may seem that any fancy, delicate footwork is unnecessary in via ferrata, and on many routes this may well be the case. Owing to the presence of large steel rungs, ladders, stakes, chunky cables and chains, many novices to the sport choose to pull themselves up their route using an inordinate about of upper body strength.
While this approach is doable and on shorter, easier routes you’ll probably get away with it, on anything trickier or longer you’re likely to tire yourself out far too soon, leaving little gas in the tank for the latter stages of the route.
The remedy for this mistake is simply to make better use of the far larger muscles in your legs by stepping up instead of attempting to haul or muscle yourself up with your arms alone.
One simple way to achieve this is to view the fixed protection in the rock for your arms and hands as there purely for balance and instead do all the pushing with your legs.
4. Avoid complacency
Perhaps the gravest risk in via ferrata arises when climbers have got their first few routes under their belts and start to get just a little too comfortable and relaxed with regard to safety, particularly when it comes to clipping in their carabiners on the fixed protection.
We come to a slightly easier section of route or simply want to speed things up a little by minimizing handling of our gear and so start clipping in with only one ‘biner or, worse, go ‘biner-free, relying on our grip on the fixed protection to keep us safe.
But what if we happen to take a slip? Or if rockfall from above knocks us off balance?
The key to staying safe while doing a via ferrata route is to ensure that we have at least one cord and carabiner clipped into the fixed protection at all times.
This, of course, is why via ferrata kits use two cords (lanyards) and ‘biners instead of just one—so we can unclip one ‘biner and move it between bolts, rungs, or sections of cable without leaving ourselves unprotected in that second or two between unclipping from one piece of fixed protection and reclipping to another.
As you might have guessed, the best way to avoid any accidents caused by overconfidence or complacency is to be meticulous and patient, taking the time to use both ‘biners on all available protection even on the easiest sections of your route.
If that doesn’t convince you, a quick Google image search of “via ferrata injuries/deaths” ought to do the trick!
5. Go early, stay safe
While via ferrata routes are devoid of many of the objective dangers present on out-and-out mountaineering routes—avalanches, crevasses, unstable seracs on glaciers, and so on—and even lessen many subjective dangers like slips or trips on steep rock or ice by virtue of the protection offered by the cables and your ferrata kit, that doesn’t mean that they are without their risks.
One of the greatest threats to the wellbeing of users of via ferrata routes beyond that of simple human error with equipment is that posed by the presence of other parties on their route.
Because many via ferrata routes are not vertical and often feature substantial ledges along which climbers can walk, there is a high risk of stones and rocks gathering on said ledges and clumsy or careless climbers further up the route knocking them down on parties below.
To avoid falling foul of other climbers’ lack of consideration or simple bad luck, it’s a good idea to set off early so as to be the first group on the route.
Not only will this reduce the risk of getting caught in a rain shower of rock but also mean you won’t have to wait for any larger, slower-moving parties who happen to beat you to the start of the climb.
Via ferrata offers a fun and thrilling way to experience and explore high-mountain routes that, for most of us, would be just a touch too testy without the protection of our carabiners, lanyards, and all that “ferrata” (literally: “iron”) that give the routes their name.
For those of you keen to get into via ferrata, we hope the above tips will help quell any fears you might have had and inspire you to get out on the iron for the first of many happy adventures to come.