Historically, via ferrata have been often underrated and misunderstood – but hill folk are beginning to wake up to just how much fun this sidelined sport can be. Ian Fenton and Dan Middleton look at what you need to know to get some ironing done this summer.
What are via ferrata?
Via ferrata literally translated is "iron way", or "climbing-path" from the German version Klettersteig. They are routes through what may often appear to be inaccessible ground, opened up by the placing of metal rungs or footplates and protected by a continuous wire cable. This cable may also be used for your hands, (for those who don’t want to use the rock, or in wet and slippery conditions) but it is usually just clipped into for your protection. A via ferrata may be horizontal, vertical or indeed anywhere in between and can involve both ascent and descent.
There is a popular myth that the routes were created in wartime for positioning guns, but most date from attempts in the infancy of mountaineering to equal out the grade of popular alpine ascents. An early example of this implementation from 1869 can still be traced along the way between the two summits of the Grossglockner. Numerous records exist of the manufacturing of more iron ways prior to the First World War, with the routes becoming enthusiastically adopted by mountaineers. But it was in the 1930’s that they first really exploded in popularity, and many more were created as either routes in their own right, or as a way of easing the approach to established climbing areas. Initially, the key principle was that the routes should facilitate the way to summits or traverse below them, but should not be the sole means of ascending a peak. Inevitably, this ideal was broken, and these days a whole range of routes are present from roadside attractions to serious mountain adventures.
How hard are they?
The main guidebooks use a two tier grading system. Technical difficulty goes from 1 to 5, and seriousness from A to C. Hence an easy short route in unthreatening terrain would score 1A, whereas a long, hard mountain route would weigh in at 5C. As a rough guide most confident scramblers should be happy jumping on a 3B and above.
Where are they located?
Traditionally, the main focus for via ferrata was the Dolomites, extending into Austria with a few (generally poorly equipped) routes in other areas. Plenty of information on these areas is readily available in the UK as they are popular and long established. Cicerone publishes a two-volume guidebook series to the Dolomites, available to purchase from the BMC online shop:
Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 (North, Central & East)
Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 2 (Southern Dolomites, Brenta & Lake Garda)
The only disadvantage is that they can get rather busy in the summer months, even to the extent of queues forming. Now, many areas are having something of a resurgence in the creation of new via ferrata, particularly in the mountain regions of France, with a large number of routes recently opened in the Dauphine and Haute Alps. In true tradition many of these new routes have been manufactured to follow spectacular situations in their own right, and do not take in any summits. The main way of getting information on these routes is through the local Bureau de Guides; a quick web search or call to the Club Alpin Francais will get you their contact details. There is also a Cicerone guidebook to the French Alps:
Via Ferratas of the French Alps (66 routes between Geneva and Briancon)
So, now you’ve got the low down on the “iron ways”, why not get out there and have some fun?
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