Via Ferrata

Via Ferratas are common across Europe and give accessible adventures for those brave enough to try them. Dave Talbot gives us some pointers.

Via Ferrata

Via Ferrata Introduction

“via ferrata”, Italian for “iron paths” are found scattered across Europe and give access to a vertical mountain world, usually reserved for experienced climbers and mountaineers.

A via ferrata is a series of ladders, metal staples and steps, attached into the cliff, with a long cable running along side. The adventurer clips into the cable, which provides some protection should they fall.   

Simple mountain paths, with ladders and basic protection aids, have probably existed in the Alps for centuries. However, the via ferrata explosion is linked to the First World War when multiple via ferrata routes were created to aid the movement of troops and supplies across the Dolomite mountain range in Northern Italy.  

Back in the early twentieth century the via ferratas were relatively basic. These days however, the via ferrata routes have become increasingly intricate and difficult. Via ferrata climbing is now considered a sport in its own right. Huge overhanging energy sapping sections, long wire bridges stretching across stomach churning voids and wildy exposed moves above dizzying heights are all to be found on modern, harder routes. Most of the European Alps have via ferratas dotted around each town and finding out route information can be sourced from a guide book, the internet or from the local tourist information centre. The routes themselves are usually free to use and are owned and maintained by the local government.

You can use via ferrata routes on your own since you don’t need anyone holding your ropes, unlike with normal rock climbing. If you do go solo, it’s always recommended that you tell someone where you’re going and what time you’re due back for safety reasons.  Going on a popular route solo is a great way to meet people in the vertical world.

Via Ferrata

The first time I ventured out of the UK for a via ferrata holiday, I was just 18 years old and fresh out of college. The three of us travelled to Italy over a long two day period via public transport. We then spent ten glorious days camping, walking into routes whilst getting lost, scared and excited by what we found on these 1,000 metre high inspirational cliffs of the Dolomites. A close call came early on, when on a long via ferrata ridge and whilst being attached to the metal cable, a lightning storm engulfed the mountains around us. The cable we were on started to buzz and hum with electricity, our carabiners rattled and we had no way off but to continue on, hopeful of our completion……. This was not an experience I would like to repeat again.

Stepping foot onto one of these courageous wire journeys requires you to have some knowledge of what you’re doing; alternatively you can hire a local guide. Usually, with just a few hours of guidance and instruction, you’ll have the skills to be self sufficient. The difficulty of a chosen route is indicated by a dual numeric and alphabetic grading classification. The numbers 1 – 6 represent how hard the climbings is likely to be. 1 being reasonably straightforward and 6 being reserved for people with arms like gorillas. The alphabetic grade represents the routes ‘seriousness’ from A to D.  Routes that are graded A mean you can nip back into town and grab an espresso easily, while routes graded D mean you’re on a remote expedition and need careful decision making on what to take and weather considerations [and issues if rescue or assistance is needed?]. Therefore a route graded 2B is easier than one graded 4C. Start easily and build up your confidence and ability before jumping in at the deep end and being reduced to a nervous wreck.

You’ll need a selection of equipment in order to move in relatively safety on these routes. A good, well fitting climbing harness is essential, a climbing helmet and stiff soled shoes are very handy and often overlooked. Gloves are a must as you’ll be pulling on metal rungs and cables. Leather palmed are best but any gardening type glove will work. A via ferrata lanyard is also needed. This device is attached to your climbing harness and has two shock-absorbing ‘arms’ which you clip into the wire cable. Notwithstanding this kit, a fall on a via ferrata is best avoided! Falls can be very dangerous and if your tiring biceps are going to give up then a rest using a short sling and addition carabiner to one of the metal rungs is recommended rather than falling. If you’re not sure on the correct techniques and how to use the equipment then go in search of qualified guides to assist you –

If you intend on exploring via ferrata routes for a few days or more then I highly recommend going to the Dolomites. The mix of first class via ferratas married with the history of World War 1 and 2 is as fascinating as it is stunning.

So, stay safe but go and explore these iron mongering delights and brace yourself for an unforgettable adventure.