If I was to play a word association game with Italian Dolomites, via ferrata would be my first pick. These mountains were a cradle for via ferrata climbing, a sport growing in popularity in recent years.
During the First World War, the soldiers constructed these routes to gain strategic strongholds over the enemy. The Great War ended eventually claiming thousands of lives, but the iron secured on the mountainsides remained.
The routes eventually morphed into tourist attractions with more advanced, longer tracks being established all the time.
With circa 50 via ferratas under my belt (and counting), today I am going to share with you everything I learnt about these routes. Hopefully this article will help you in gaining confidence to try your first via ferrata. I am sure you will get hooked or should I say clipped!
16 Things You Ought to Know Before Venturing Onto Your First Via Ferrata
1. What is a Via Ferrata?
The fact that the implements the soldiers used such as ladders, cables, stemples and legs were made of iron, paved the way for name Via Ferrata, which translates from Latin to "Iron-Road" or "Iron-Way".
As touched on before, a via ferrata is an assisted scrambling route on fixed cables that have been professionally attached to the side of the mountain. They all have different grades, lengths, offer varying amount of views and are frequently checked and maintained by the Italian Alpine Club.
As they were initially created for soldiers who wore heavy boots and carried huge quantities of supplies, during all times of the year, they weren't meant to be technical. After the war ended the old, often steel and wooden equipment was replaced with safe modern solutions.
Since German is another official language spoken in the Dolomites, in some parts you can find signs pointing to a "Klettersteig". It means via ferrata in German.
2. Do I need climbing experience to tackle a via ferrata
The quick answer is no, you don’t. Don't expect to have to dangle from a ledge only holding yourself with one finger.
Even though the objective of regular climbing and via ferrata is often the same – reach the summit of a mountain, undertaking a via ferrata doesn’t require any prior climbing experience.
The biggest difference I can think of between climbing and via ferrata climbing is that a strong part of the first one is practicing safe falling.
Whilst you do wear safety equipment on a via ferrata which is supposed to be a life saver if you lost your footing and fell, the existence of ladders, stemples and other apparatus ensures that you DO NOT fall in the first place.
Undertaking a via ferrata does require sure-footedness, an adventurous spirit and some stamina. If you suffer from vertigo and standing on steep ledges with a couple of hundred meter drop below make you want to faint, then maybe you should choose one of the day hikes in the Dolomites instead.
3. I Have Never Done A Via Ferrata Before. Do I need to hire a guide?
When it comes down to my knowledge on via ferratas in the Italian Dolomites, this is the question I get asked most. I won’t give you a straight answer because whether you need a guide or not depends on a few things.
Ask yourself, what is your risk tolerance. If your answer is low, then hiring a guide is a very good idea.
However if you are a seasoned hiker, have pretty good orientation in the mountains, can follow route markings well and you have done a good prior research on how to use via ferrata equipment or have a friend coming along, who can teach you, then hiring a guide might be a waste of your money. They aren’t cheap after all!
Start with one or two beginner paths and you will move onto intermediate or advanced once in no time. This was my strategy and I am still alive and well.
I was first introduced to the world of the Italian via ferratas by my partner. He taught himself how to use the equipment a couple of years prior with the help of a youtube video.
4. What Equipment Do I Need for Via Ferratas?
Before you set off on any route, you need the right equipment. This is probably a good time to mention that via ferrata equipment, unlike climbing equipment, is only meant to be used as an emergency equipment, in case of a fall. Remember it only works if you have it on and use it properly!
Stripping it down there are really 4 mandatory items and they are:
Rockfall is a major concern on these routes, unbeknownst to you, other climbing groups may be hundreds of metres above you. Even if they accidentally dislodge a small golfball shaped rock and send it hurtling down the mountain, if it hits you on the head it could have serious consequences. A helmet placed on your head (not inside your backpack) is a must!
On almost every route, there are memorial plaques for people who have died on these routes. Let's try not to add too many more.
As a note: A cycling helmet does not offer the same type of protection a climbing helmet does and it is not recommended, in case you were thinking about it.
A Climbing Harness - There are different types of climbing harnesses all of which will work for Via Ferrata. Your main choice will be between a sport harnesses or traditional (trad) harness. Interestingly, one of the main considerations of buying a harness will be how long you'll be sitting in when climbing. Providing nothing goes wrong, whilst doing a via ferrata, you should never have to sit in it.
You also don't need any extra or larger gear loops. Something light, that packs up small is perfect.
Another important thing to note is that climbing harnesses go out of date. Even if not used the material perishes, the life expectancy of a harness with regular use is 3 years. Personally I'd never buy second hand either.
Via Ferrata Lanyard
Also known as a Cow's Tail. A via ferrata lanyard has 4 main components. A strong loop to attach it to your harness, an energy-absorption system and two carabiners on the end of the lanyard arms.
The attachment loop is pretty straightforward. It's used to attach to your harness.
The energy absorption system is used in case of a fall. It's filled with extra coil so in the event of an accident, it reduces the stress on other parts of the gear and on the climber. Hopefully you'll never need it!
The two carabiners on the end of the lanyard arms, which usually have some elasticity to them for convenience, are used to clip into the cable (I'll get to the details later in the post).
If you'll be hauling yourself up on a cable all day without gloves within a few hours your hands will be red raw and blistered.
Fingerless climbing gloves are good for via ferrata as they still allow dexterity on the rock but protection from cable burn.
However personally I prefer these full fingered gloves, because I have cut my finger tips a few times when a piece of wire was sticking out on a cable. Extra protection never hurt nobody, right?
Harness and helmet are the two items you should try before buying to ensure safe and comfortable fit, but with free shipping and returns you don't have to drive to the stores personally.
Some via ferratas have subterranean sections so you'll also need a head torch because there is no natural light to guide you. The two examples are via ferrata Giovanni Lipella and via ferrata De Luca.
Also if you get lost and it gets dark, a torch is a very useful item to carry with you.
There are loads of reputable brands making via ferrata equipment such as Black Diamond, Petzl, Mammut, Edelrid, Camp and Salewa. The last two were established in the Dolomites! You can mix and match brands as much as you want! The ones I linked to above are the ones I own myself and highly recommend.
5. Can I Rent Via Ferrata Equipment in the Dolomites?
Yes you can. Most towns have outdoor rental shops where you can rent gear. Look for anything that says "noleggio" because this means "hire" or "rental" in Italian.
Rental equipment costs around 20€ a day for a via ferrata lanyard and a harness. A helmet (which is an absolute must), gloves and a torch usually cost a few Euros more.
If you plan on tackling multiple via ferratas, or thinking about taking up scrambling and via ferrata climbing as a hobby, it might be more cost efficient to buy your own gear. The whole via ferrata Kit will set you back around 200 Euros.
So as you can see the price point is around 9 days of renting to completely pay for your kit. If you're climbing more than 5 times this holiday, maybe it's better to have your own stuff instead of old smelly gloves that have been worn by a hundred people. After all it will be an investment.
6. How Do I Use a Via Ferrata Lanyard?
First you attach the Via Ferrata lanyard to the harness through the belay loop. All Via Ferrata lanyards will have detailed instructions on how to do this. It's a really simple knot called a cow hitch.
As you may have noticed, after playing with the carabiners, they are designed to be automatically locked. This means they won't open whilst on the cable.
They can be opened by pressing your palm into the release and opening the carabiners with your fingers. It's a technique that you'll end up using hundreds of times and will become second nature, but it's good to practice with your lanyard at home.
As you approach the first section of cable, properly harnessed up, your helmet and gloves on and your via ferrata lanyard attached, you'll attach BOTH carabiners to a cable.
After a few metres you'll get to the first fixed cable loop (where the cable is attached to the mountain, usually by resin screws). Unclip one carabiner and clip it back in to the other side of the loop, then repeat the action with the second carabiner. The important thing is you always do it one carabiner at a time. The good way to do this is by using only one hand, that way you will eliminate the possibility of unclipping both carabiners at the same time.
I've seen people on Via Ferrata routes only having one carabiner attached at a time, alternating the lanyard arms between the cable sections. This is wrong. In the event of a fall by having only one attached, it doubles the stress on the lanyard risking it being ineffective.
Try to only use one hand for clipping and unclipping the carabiners, same way as you should only use one foot when driving an automatic car!
I know it can be difficult to envision the words. I recommend that you jump onto youtube and watch this great video showing the use of a lanyard and carabiners. Just don't be put off by the difficulty of the ferrata showcased in the video! As the guys mention at the beginning of it, this is probably the toughest of the toughest ferratas out there!
As with everything it takes practice to become good at something. I remember on my first few routes I always forgot to clip out and back in on the different sections, which resulted in me getting ahead in the route, but my lanyard staying behind. I then had to climb down to the last section to do it.
Later I figured out it's easier to rest the carabiners on the palm of my right hand (the one I use for clipping in and out of the cables) and slide them along the cable. Cables are there to help you with climbing and using them to get ahead is definitely a good idea, especially if you are a beginner.
7. The Climbing Protocol Along A Via Ferrata
Do you know that asshole who will tailgate you thinking it will make you drive faster, even though you are already driving at a speed limit, eventually overtaking you in a sketchy spot a couple of minutes later so you can catch up to him at the next traffic light intersection anyway? Yeah we all do.
Occasionally you will meet those in the mountains too. Luckily this is more of an exception than a common occurence. Generally mountain folks are friendly and chill.
If you need to pass someone along the route, make sure to do it in a safe place (for example a wider ledge). The person being passed usually just has to stop and wait, whilst the other climber clips one, then the other carabiner around them. This often results in a short hugging session with a stranger, but it's part of the experience!
The safe way to climb with a partner is always staying clipped in to separate cable sections and remaining at a safe distance. That way if one person looses their footing and falls, the other person isn't pulled with it.
If you happen to set off some loose rocks shout 'below' as climbers do. That way any party who might be on the lower sections looks down and not up!
8. Is there an official grading of the route difficulty?
At times it seemed to me that amongst the locals there is only one grade for a via ferrata and it's called - via ferrata. If it has cables and ladders, it's marked with crosses on the maps and if the route requires the use of a via ferrata kit to complete it then that's it!
Funny enough the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) adopted the Italian scale for grading the difficulty of a via ferrata as its international standard. You can read all about this grading on the UIAA website.
Yet I've never seen a plaque at the start of any of the routes with the information on the difficulty grade of a via ferrata using the scale created by the Italians. To me it immediately poses the question: what's the point of having a scale if you are not going to use it?
Another unofficial grading is the Smith/Fletcher rating developed by the authors of the Cicerone guidebooks on via ferratas in the Italian Dolomites. The scale uses numbers 1-6 and letters A-C. But what do they mean?
The number is reflective of the technicality of the climb. The number 1 is a walk that may be exposed in parts, the numbers 5 and 6 have sections of vertical or near vertical climbing where sustained arm strength is required.
The letter represents the "seriousness". This is mainly how quick you can get back to civilisation in an emergency. So a C, would represent a long remote climb potentially with no escape routes. An A would represent a shorter climb, located near civilisation with potentially several escape routes.
Personally I think the Smith/Fletcher rating is much better than the official international standard grading, but it certainly isn't perfect. I imagine it's a difficult job rating a via ferrata difficulty, because a lot of variables come into it.
Sometimes I felt that some 4C ferratas were easier than a 3B, but at the time something simple as my current experience or fitness level or even how 'pumped' i felt on a particular day when tackling a route, could influence my judgement.
9. Does it Matter Which Way You Follow a Route?
Yes it does, some routes should only be done in certain directions. This is because of passing issues. If you have two groups going in different directions with no safe place to pass, it can take a long time logistically and potentially be dangerous.
This is especially true on popular via ferratas such as Torre di Toblin.
If a certain way is recommended, it will be reflected in the literature and sometimes on the Tabacco Maps with a solid arrow in the permitted direction of travel.
10. Are Via Ferratas Dangerous?
All climbing has inherent risk and for anyone to say "Yes, they are safe" would be a lie. That being said, if you are properly prepared, well kitted out and choosing routes within your limits, the chance of having an accident is low.
Falls can still be bad though, if you're at the upper end of a cable and slip, you will travel the length of the cable down, plus the length of the via ferrata lanyard, this can be several metres.
It's worth noting that after a fall, your via ferrata lanyard should be replaced as it will be weakened. You should frequently check your energy absorption system, on the inside there's a tear-off label that indicates whether it's fit for purpose.
If the label is broken, do not use it. You should also check your harness and via ferrata lanyard for knots, cuts, tears, wear, rust, chips or missing parts, regularly.
Always have adequate insurance with you, which covers mountain search and rescue! World Nomads offers insurance that covers outdoor sports including scrambling, via ferrata and climbing. No matter what insurance you are buying, always make sure to read terms and conditions as sometimes restrictions apply.
11. Are Via Ferratas Suitable for Children?
Yes absolutely. I have seen plenty of children on via ferratas. More frequently on easier grades. The process is exactly the same as for adults.
Just take extra time explaining the procedure and practice with them several times so they understand not only the procedure but also the implications of not following it.
Bear in mind that your group is only as strong as your weakest climber. Even if you are a pro, don't take an inexperienced child on a 5C via ferrata.
I remember once seeing a teenage girl on a route covered in tears, stuck on one of the ledges, too terrified to keep going. I felt really sorry for her. Clearly her party overestimated her abilities.
What I see occasionally is that not only are the children using the lanyards to clip in to the fixed cables, they are also roped to their parents for extra security. In the case that a child forgets to clip in, or clips in incorrectly and slips, they are still attached to their parent (who will hopefully be correctly clipped in).
12. How Can I Find Via Ferratas In THe Dolomites?
I have made 3 lists that should get you started. They are beginner via ferratas, intermediate via ferratas and advanced via ferratas. Each of the articles links to separate posts describing individual routes.
If you prefer a tangible version to carry with you I highly recommend the Cicerone guidebooks, particularly volume I.
I have used them myself on several occasions and although I did sometimes find the grading a little bit off, this is mainly due to my personal experience, not a professional eye of a mountain guide.
Via Ferratas Of The Italian Dolomites: VOL 1 by James Rushforth
Via Ferratas Of The Italian Dolomites: VOL 2 by Graham Fletcher & John Smith
13. How to dress for a via ferrata
Weather accordingly and comfortably. You want to be able to lift your legs without tearing a hole in your crotch (speaking from experience here).
I always like to wear long hiking trousers or leggings, even on warm days, to prevent any cuts and scratches on my legs caused by sharp rocks.
My favourite go to brands for hiking trousers are Fjallraven or Revolution Race. Both are Scandinavian brands and when it comes down to outdoors the descendants of vikings really know their stuff!
Wear synthetic or merino wool shirts, never cotton. They dry a lot quicker and absorb any funky smells better. Sweating bucketloads is part of the experience!
Make sure you have UV sunglasses and a hat to cover your head. The sun in the mountains is unforgiving and I try to avoid sunburns at all costs.
I often get asked what boots should be worn on via ferratas. There are a few via ferrata dedicated boot designs, but to be honest any hiking boots will do. As long as they have good grip and are comfortable!
14. Do I need a map to tackle a via Ferrata?
Waymarking in the Italian Dolomites is excellent. There are signs on every fork and red/white or blue/white paint marks on the rocks along the paths.
As long as you pay attention to where you are going and know the name of the place you are heading to, you should be fine without a map.
However, personally I am a big fan of printed maps. I have a whole collection of the Tabacco maps from the Italian Dolomites and I always encourage people to purchase them. It gives me a sense of security.
Of course, nowadays there is plenty of online choices and apps, but I don’t like to rely on my phone batteries (ahmmm….former Iphone user speaking here). My inner geek also enjoys studying maps for the names of the surrounding peaks.
During the 7 months I spent on hiking and climbing in the Dolomites I have only lost my way once and as it happens it was because I did not have an adequate map with me on that day.
15. What if I have an accident WHILST ON A VIA FERRATA?
In case of an emergency the most important number to keep saved in your phone is 112. This is the so called Pan-European emergency number where the operator will redirect you to an emergency service line in the country you are currently in.
118 is the direct number to Medical Emergency and Ambulance in Italy.
Whilst the phone reception is generally pretty good in the Dolomites don't count on it entirely. There are many spots where there is still none, especially on longer and remote routes.
If you spend a lot of time in the mountains consider investing into a GPS device such as Garmin InReach Mini with a month to month plan.
I only purchased mine after I had an accident in the mountains. Luckily I came out of it unscathed, but don't make the same mistake as me. There is no price you can put on your own life.
And once again don't forget about the insurance! Being an Alpine Club Member has its perks as it often comes with Mountain Search and Rescue insurance.
16. When Are via Ferratas Accessible?
The official hiking and via ferrata season in the Italian Dolomites is relatively short and usually stretches between the third week of June and the end of September, or in some parts mid October.
If you were wondering why it's so short, it's because the snow in the mountains doesn't melt entirely even well into July and then starts falling again in September/October (although you can even expect it in the middle of the summer)!
If you plan on going to the Dolomites in the spring then pack your skis instead of the via ferrata equipment.
Always plan your excursions for early in the mornings. Not only you will avoid the midday sweltering heat on your climbs, but you will also be safely back down before the thunderstorms roll in.
Thunderstorms are a big part of the dolomiti weather cycle, expect them in June, July and even August. Generally the most stable weather is in September.
October is a bit of a gamble. It can be absolutely amazing with warm and sunny days, but it can also already bring lots of snow and road closures with it. Most of the chairlifts will also already stop operating until the winter season, which means often prolonged approach times on some of the via ferrata routes.
That's pretty much all you need to know about via ferratas. However if you do have any questions, please put them in the comments below. I take pride in thoroughly answering every single comment on my website.
If you're planning a trip to the Dolomites, you will find my independent Italian Dolomites Guide very useful!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.