Historically, Via Ferrata have been often underrated, misunderstood and summarily dismissed by hill walkers and climbers alike. But Ian Fenton explains the basics to help you get some ironing done this summer.
Some found them too adventurous, others said it was cheating, still others realised how potentially dangerous they could be if not approached properly. But following some recent advances in safety equipment, and better knowledge of how it may be employed to protect such routes, the Via Ferrata are enjoying something of a renaissance.
What are they?
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.
OK let’s work from the head down. A helmet should be worn to protect both against stone fall or head impact. Additionally, many Via Ferrata follow horizontal rifts and ledges, and like caving, there is a continual chance of catching your head. Choose one that is light and comfortable, and well fitting. Next is a comfortable harness - either a standard sit harness (with chest harness if you feel the need) or a full body harness. Again, comfort is important as you will be wearing it for the whole route, and it should move well with your body since high steps and wide strides will be the order of the day! Then a pair of light soft gloves are useful (leather is possibly best), as your hands will receive a lot of abuse pulling on the rungs and cables, particularly if any are damaged. But remember to check that you can operate a karabiner with these on.
And now the single most important piece of equipment specific to Via Ferrata - a purpose designed shock-absorbing system made from dynamic rope. This is essential. In the past people have used standard (static) slings clipped to the wire cables for protection, but this gives potential for very, very high fall factors, (up to 5!), which can cause catastrophic equipment failure. The danger of such a potentially high fall factor cannot be stressed enough, since in normal climbing situations the greatest fall factor you’d usually encounter is 2, and this is often regarded as grounds for retiring equipment.
There are a number of these special shock absorbers on the market, produced by Mammut, Camp, Petzl, Simond amongst others. They consist of a length of dynamic rope threaded through a KISA (Kinetic Impact Shock Absorber), which leads to a rope or tape “Y”, with a Klettersteig karabiner at the end of each arm of the Y. If you make your own shock absorber, as you can with a Camp KISA (a.k.a. a knuckle duster!), you should follow the instructions religiously and the karabiners should be specific for the purpose. Check there is a K in a circle on the spine of the krab - if there is an H in a circle it is an HMS karabiner for belaying, and is NOT designed for Via Ferrata use.
With footwear, you have a certain amount of personal choice, from approach shoes with sticky rubber to full mountain boots; but whatever you choose must be supportive and sturdy. Your choice should take into account the approach to and descent from the Via Ferrata and will probably vary from route to route.
Your clothing and whether or not you carry a rucksack will depend on the location of the route and the time anticipated on it – remember to err on the side of caution and pack for every eventuality. It goes without saying it is not good to be on a Via Ferrata if thunderstorms are forecast, as they make fantastic lightning conductors!
This is like teaching someone how to climb a tree – basically you get to the start of the route, clip both krabs into the cable and away you go! The main thing to remember is to never have both krabs unclipped at the same time, so at re-belays (where the cable is re-anchored to the rock, usually every 5m or so) you unclip your leading crab and re-clip it past the re-belay, then follow with your second krab. Some shock absorbers have different coloured arms in the Y-shaped section to prevent twisting. If not, you can use different colours of insulation tape on the spine of your karabiners to differentiate between your leading and seconding ones.
You can also use one of the krabs for resting on a vertical or overhanging section if your arms are tired. Just unclip one of the arms of the Y from the cable, clip it into a rung and sit in your harness - the shock absorber will not slip unless shock loaded. But always remember to keep one arm of the Y clipped into the cable.
As these routes are essentially man made they can and do fail, and should be treated with the same caution as any fixed equipment in the mountains. A brief visual inspection should be made as you travel over them and keep an eye out for any obvious signs of wear; badly rusted or loose ladders, loose cable anchors etc. Bear in mind that the ladder rungs in particular are subject to wear from passing climbers and in combination with extremes of weather do occasionally become bent or loose.
Even though the routes are generally technically straightforward, there are a couple of other points to bear in mind, especially if you are in a mixed ability group or with the kids. Firstly, there can lot of arm work involved, and on harder routes it’s possible that less strong climbers may become exhausted and be unable to continue. Start with some of the easier Ferrata, try to pick routes that are within the ability of the whole group, and always make sure an experienced climber, instructor or guide is with you if there are doubts.
Consider employing a top rope for steep or difficult sections if someone isn’t too confident. Secondly, though kids will love the climbing, their hands may be too small to operate the Klettersteig karabiners properly, or they may lack the grip strength required for their repeated operation. Check this before setting off and keep a sharp eye out en-route.
The style of Via Ferrata varies with location. Some are almost roadside adventure playgrounds, others are full on days in the mountains requiring thousands of feet of ascent and descent. Before heading off, take time to think about your planned adventure. Some Ferratas start or finish on already very exposed terrain, and short-roping inexperienced members of the party may be required.
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. See “Via Ferrata - Scrambles in the Dolomites” by Cicerone for information.
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.
So, now you’ve got the low down on the “iron ways”, why not get out there and have some of the best fun on the hill!
Ian Fenton was BMC Youth Officer, but now is back instructing and coaching in the UK and Southern France. See www.mountfenton.com for more details.