Discover Via Ferrata
Writing for Outdoor Enthusiast Magazine, Hendrik Morkel shares his hints and tips for getting into Via Ferrata and explains why they are the ideal way to explore the mountains without the need for technical climbing knowledge and experience.
The word Via Ferrata is Italian and means “Iron Path”, which gives us a little insight into the origin of these fixed-rope routes: La Grande Guerre, and the grim battle between the Italians against the Austria-Hungary Empire in the mountains of the Dolomites and the surrounding Alps. Both sides fought for the control of the summits in order to observe and strafe the enemy. These iron ladders, pegs, staples and ropes were fixed to the mountains to enable faster and easier movement and supply.
After the war these precipitous paths were neglected, but many years later mountaineers begin to equip these paths with steel cables to enable faster travel to their climbing routes. It’s fair to say that since the mid noughties, Via Ferrata has experienced something of a renaissance. Equipped with the latest in safety kit, mountain adrenalin junkies can now explore new attractions in addition to the old, refurbished routes. These include suspension bridges over deep gorges, rocky overhangs next to raging waterfalls, as well as steep traverses and vertiginous climbing, all offer fresh perspectives on the mountains.
Via Ferrata is an ideal day out from the valley, or as part of a hike or from a hut. Especially in the Dolomites, you can hike from Refugio to Refugio and make a few routes part of the trip. Make no mistake, you need a head for heights and a good degree of fitness, but these iron paths are a fantastic way for outdoor enthusiasts without previous climbing experience to experience the thrill of moving in vertical terrain.
The growing popularity of Via Ferratas is sadly reflected in the increase in accidents over the last few years. The most common issues are misusing the equipment, and underestimating the route. Don’t end up as a statistic.
Take a trip to Ramsau, Austria, and take the “Via Ferrata License” course. The iron path to the nearby Dachstein summit was one of the first Via Ferratas in the Alps, over 170 years old. Under the guidance of a certified mountain guide, beginners learn the techniques of Via Ferrata hiking, including weather and equipment. It’s a great way to start out, especially for families.
Reit im Winkl in Germany set up the first TÜV certified Via Ferrata in 2013, and set a new standard for safety on Hausbachfall Via Ferrata. The equipment is in superb condition, and an information board at the start explains the route. Family and friends who don’t want to join you on the route can take the path on the other side, watch you climb your way to the top, where you can enjoy a “Brotzeit” together!
Weather & Rockfall
The clue is in the name – Iron Path! Via Ferrata routes can act as lightning conductors and increase the already high risk of lightning in the Alps. A good degree of weather awareness is advised, plus an early start – summer storms often develop in the afternoons. When the weather turns, get off the route and into a hut as quickly as possible. Rockfall is also a risk. If you’re on a route and kick a rock loose – call out “Rock!” to warn others. If you hear this from above, you’re well advised to not look up. Instead, pull yourself close to the wall and make yourself as small as possible. Trust your helmet to protect you.
Difficulty and Fitness
Via Ferratas, like climbing and mountaineering routes, come in different flavours – in Europe a 5 tier system from A (Easy) to E (Extremely Difficult) is used. Beginners should get comfortable with on easy ‘A’ routes before they head onto more difficult challenges. Are you a fit and able scrambler? Try ‘B’ first. English grading is different, with ‘technical difficulty’ graded between 1 and 5, and ‘seriousness’ between A-C. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) reckon most confident scramblers will be relatively happy on 3B and over, but the guidebooks listed below describe the routes in detail and show possible escape options.
Some physical fitness and a clear head for exposed terrain is as important as the kit and knowledge of how to use it. Via Ferratas often demand endurance, strength and courage, especially if they have an easy start, and where the difficult crux is in the middle or towards the end. But, there’s no doubt that if you bring all of these things together, unforgettable adventures await you on the iron trails of the Alps!
Via Ferrata Gear
Via Ferrata requires more specialized equipment than a scramble or a walk in the hills, but if you’re heading to the Alps you’ll be able try before you buy, and rent locally. Essential for your safety are a harness and a Via Ferrata Set, which is tied into the harness and protects you in case of a fall. A UIAA certified helmet and good gloves are also must haves. Approach Shoes have a sticky rubber sole, which has better grip on rock, a climbing zone at the toe, and can make the day a lot more enjoyable.
The VF set is made from a tie-in loop, a shock absorber and two arms with carabiners at the end. Make sure you’re using a modern, certified set and not just a piece of rope or a sling – these have a shock absorber (also called a “tearing energy absorber”) that minimizes impact forces in case of a fall. Nowadays, carabiner arms mostly come in a ‘Y’ configuration, and both arms stayed clipped into the steel cable. Look for certified K (German for “Klettersteig”) carabiners; these have a wider opening than normal, have an automatic closure and have passed UIAA tests to withstand high fall factors. If you’re taking kids, check that they can operate the carabiners as intended – they can be quite large for little hands. It makes sense to secure children with a rope as well as the VF Set, on more advanced and exposed routes. Finally, if you own a VF Set of your own, take have a look at the manufacturer’s website before you head out. There are regular call-backs of Via Ferrata Sets.
- The Dolomites – Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata by James Rushforth, published by Rockfax.com. You can download the routes via an App on your phone and leave the heavy book in the Refugio. It also covers climbing routes and has travel and accommodation info.
- Via Ferratas of the French Alps by Richard Miller, published by Cicerone. Includes 60 Via Ferratas in the French Alps, and information on accommodation and travel.
Give it a go in the UK
The Lakeland Climbing Centre in Kendal offers the first indoor Via Ferrata training ground in the UK; the Skyline. The Skyline brings the classic Italian mountain experience to your doorstep, packed with exciting challenges enroute. The course benefits from the use of specialist lanyards which ensure you are always connected to the safety cable, so even beginners can give it a go with confidence!
Hendrik Morkel for Outdoor Enthusiast Magazine
Outdoor Enthusiast is the UK’s leading outdoor pursuit’s magazine. Published bi-monthly Outdoor Enthusiast will inspire and motivate you to explore new parts of the world and try new activities. Our gear editors are qualified mountain leaders giving you informative and unbiased reviews in each issue.
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