Translated as “iron way”, Via Ferrata can be one of the best ways to access the mountains without the need of complicated gear or technical climbing ability. Steel cabling is attached to natural lines in the rock at intervals creating protected climbing routes for all abilities and often include the assistance of steel rungs, pegs, steps, ladders and bridges. Basic technique, specific but simple equipment and a head for heights are needed for routes that can range from easy scrambling to steep overhanging climbs that demand strength, exposure and fitness. These routes allow people to access the mountains using a method somewhere between high level walking and serious climbing.
Even the “easiest” of grades can feel airy and exposed in places so shouldn’t be taken lightly. That being said the views are almost always expansive and rewarding and the climbing enjoyable when you get into the rhythm of it. The descents tend to be a mixture of down climbing on wire and scrambling but sometimes it’s possible to simply walk off.
Here in the Dolomites, home of the Via Ferrata, there are hundreds of routes. Many come to the area just to explore them especially as it is possible to link many together, staying in rifugios overnight.
The majority of the Dolomites VFs were constructed between 1915 and 1918 during WW1, to aid troop movement when the Italians and Austrians were fighting. Ropes, ladders and tunnels were laid into the rock so that soldiers could transport ammunition and supplies high up into the mountains to places of strategic importance.
In 1930s the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) and the Societa Degli Alpinisti Tridentini (SAT) began working to improve access to routes in the Dolomites. They took care to follow natural lines in the rock and kept climbing aids to a minimum and replaced the ropes and iron with the steel cable we use today. Many of the routes deliberately don’t access summits so as to encourage climbers to enjoy the VF, not just use them as a tool to get to the top.
In the 1970s and 80s tourism benefits were recognised and they were further developed by alpine clubs, local communities, outdoor centres, cable car companies and rifugios.
The very first VFs date back to the 19th century due to the growing popularity of alpine exploration and tourism. The first recorded VF was on the Hoher Dachstein, the second highest mountain in the Northern Limestone Alps in 1843. In 1869 a rope was fixed between the summits of the highest mountain in Austria, Grossglockner. Then in 1873 fixed protection was added to the Zugspite. Austria’s example was followed in the Pyrenees in 1880 when protection was added to the Pic du midi d’ossau in 1880 and the Ordesa 1881. Other routes then began to spring up in the Northern Limestone Alpa throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Over one thousand Via Ferrata now exist most in Europe and around the world. Here are some of the best international Via Ferrata locations around the world.
- The Dolomites: Italy has around 400 routes. More than half of these are in the Dolomites. It is regarded as the home of the sport and rightly so.
- Austria’s boasts approximately 550 Klettersteige routes of all difficulties.
- Chang Kong via Ferrata in the Shaanxi Province of China includes a tough trek up steep/near vertical steps, a gondola ride and rickety plank walk to the Taoist temple and teahouse.
- Ogden Via Ferrata in Utah is accessed only by guided tours but is a great choice for beginners with its specialist training wall. Climbing on the vertical walls of Waterfall canyon the views of the waterfall, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake and the surrounding ski country make it a destination of choice.
- Chamonix is a popular location for thrill seekers from all over the world with extreme climbing, skiing, paragliding, base jumping and much more it’s not surprising that it has a VF too. The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier sits up above the town and the VF route starts from the town centre. Ladders descend from the train station onto the MDG climbing trails and end at refuge du Courvercle. France itself boasts around 200 routes.
- In San Juan mountain range, Colorado sits Telluride. This is a popular location for outdoor sports, especially during the winter season. The VF follows an old mining trail with impressive vies of Box Canyon.
- Yes Africa has a Via Ferrata. In fact it has the world’s highest in Mount Kenya national park. At 16,355 feet above sea level the VF climbs through the dramatic canyon crevasse filled terrain of an extinct Volcano.
- The Aletsch in Valais Switzerland is the largest alpine glacier at 46 square miles. The VF route circles a dammed glacial lake turned reservoir and includes steep cliffs, tough hiking, and the longest suspension bridge in the Alps. Switzerland has around 150 routes in total.
- The Sacred Valley VF, Ollantaytambo, Peru has a 984 foot vertical climb up steel rungs. From the top views of Sacred Valley and the Urubamba River can be taken in before making the choice between rappelling down or taking the often preferred zip wire!
- Coldback Mountain VF at Isafjordur, Iceland is the countries only Via Ferrata. It traverses a narrow ridge before scaling the side of the mountain with expansive views of fjords below.
- United Kingdom: Though our mountains may not be as big we too have Via Ferrata. Honister VF in the Lake District is in an old slate mine. Climbers are given the choice of classic and extreme. The more extreme version has more exposure, vertical climbs, a bridge and cargo net crossing. There’s also a VF in the Yorkshire dales at How Stean Gorge.
There’s a number of ways of grading VFs.
- The Smith and fletcher scale is widely used and numbers them 1-5. One being the most basic and five the most difficult. The Dolomites now has a 6 too.
- The Kurt Schall guide books grade them A-E (F was also recently added). In this system Via Ferratas can also be intermediately graded, for example C/D.
- The website www.klettersteig.de also uses 1-6 as a climbing scale.
- In France they use the following system: F Facile, PD peu difficile, AD assez difficile, D Difficile, TD tres difficile, ED extrement difficile.
Here in the Dolomites we use the following scale to explain VFs to our guests: 1-5 (The technical difficulty of the climb itself in terms of exposure, hand and footholds etc. Sometimes the scale will extend to 6) and A-C (The remoteness of the VF in terms of aid, escape routes etc). Cia Spitz for example is an excellent entry level VF and is graded as a 2A. Whereas Magnifici Quattro is the most difficult Dolomites VF at 6B.
All you need is a harness and a set of tails/lanyards (Two carabiners attached to you by a piece of rope or safety cord), a helmet and a good pair of shoes. As long as you have a good head for heights these routes can get you into places that would be impossible to hike normally. You get the achievement of a big mountain day without as much difficulty as an actual climb. This not only makes it an attractive choice for the less experienced but also well-practised climbers as they can cover a lot of ground quickly without needing a climbing partner. That said it is best to do these routes with company for safety reasons, like any big mountain day.
Originally VF climbers used to use carabiners fixed to short lengths of rope/slings attached to the chest or harness. Although effective at keeping the climber on the wire this did not prevent serious injury as the short length of rope was unable to absorb the energy of a fall. Gaps in the anchor points mean the fall factor (a scale to measure impact force effected by the climber’s height, weight and the rope/gear they are using in event of a fall) can be much higher than in normal rock climbing. Therefore the risk of equipment failure and serious injury was high.
New devices have been designed as shock absorbers or progressive brakes with the aim to dissipate the energy of a fall.
Modern VF sets use one of two systems.
The first and more popular will have an energy absorbing system, usually an extra length of coiled rope/cord that will release with great enough force. It is sewn together specially to allow progressive tearing. It can only be used once if a serious fall has happened.
A metal braking device with a rope passing through it to the harness is the second design. The device provides large resistance if the rope is pulled which gradually absorbs the energy. The advantage of this is they can be used multiple times after a fall. However a fatality due to equipment failure in 2012 with this system means that they have been largely withdrawn and are often less favoured.
VFs can cover a lot of ground and varied terrain. Depending on time of year, altitude and location the equipment that should be taken changes greatly. A helmet, lanyard and normal climbing harness should always be worn. It is important that climbers do not try to construct their own VF lanyards using rope and or slings due to the high falling force. On long, harder VFs special padded gloves may be worn and in some of the WW1 routes head torches will be useful for sections of tunnels. During early season or if attempting a winter VF crampons, ice axes, rope, and belay devices will be necessary. In terms of footwear it comes down to personal preference. Some like to have sturdy boots, especially if attaching crampons whereas others prefer approach shoes. As long as they are tough and have good grip it should be just fine.
For more information on any Via Ferratas in the Dolomites please don’t hesitate to ask a member of staff in one of our office hours. VF kits with helmets, harnesses and lanyards can be hired easily and inexpensively close to the chalets and guidebooks are to hand with excellent route descriptions. Via Ferratas are a fantastic way to see a new side of the mountains, up close and personal.