Getting started on Via Ferratas
You might have been rock climbing for a while or scrambled a bit in the UK and keen to do something adventurous - how about trying a Via Ferrata? Via Ferrata can take you to places you've never dreamed of, and surprisingly, you don't need to be a climber to have a successful Via Ferrata experience.
What is a Via Ferrata?
A Via Ferrata is a rock climb route protected by a metal cable bolted to the rock. Using a special lanyard and karabiners attached to your harness you move along the route, protected by the cable. Many routes also have a mixture of ladders, metals steps and wire bridges within them - hence the term via ferrata or 'iron road'.
Via Ferratas are a fantastic way for even novice climbers to get to places that only the super talents rock climber might venture. They are an incredibly fun way to explore the mountains around Europe and planning your trip is really easy to do.
Where can I do this?
Via Ferratas are commonly associated with routes in the Dolomites in northern Italy, where they were initially created to help the movement of troops and supplies over the mountains. There are certainly some epic routes in the area, making use of the old World War 1 routes as well as newer routes created just for the fun of it.
There are also Via Ferratas in Spain, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and even a couple in the UK (although they are typically guided here and have an entrance fee).
But I'm not a good climber, can I still do it?
Yes! The only requirement for via ferratas is a good level of fitness and not too put off by exposure, as many routes have sheer drops beneath them and some moves require stepping out across voids.
That said, you're attached to a strong metal cable, with two karabiners so even if you're new to climbing with the right determination you can move along the routes in relative ease. The best bit is you don't have to put your trust in another person to belay you - it's the closest I'll ever get to soloing big routes!
If you have little experience of climbing its worth going with experienced friends. There are also plenty of companies that run trips with qualified mountain guides. But the fun of Via Ferratas is the chance to be out on big routes, leading yourself and the whole experience costing no more than the lift pass to the start.
What kit do I need?
The essential kit you need is:
- Climbing helmet
- Climbing harness
- Fingerless rock climbing gloves - the cables will blister your fingers after a few different routes and if they have rough palms then they help to grip the ladders and cables.
- Walking or mountaineering boots with rigid soles - if the boot flexes too much your legs will tired after a while standing on ladders and holds.
- A set of via ferrata lanyards
- Spare Screw gate karabiner and sling
Specific lanyards are essential - don't be tempted to make your own from slings and karabiners as these will not break your fall effectively when your on a cable. Most climbing equipment companies sell Via Ferrata sets and they cost around £40-70. Lanyards can also be hired in popular via ferrata locations.
Mammut's website has a good description on it for why they are important to use. As well as being able to absorb the shock of a fall the lanyards also have self locking karabiners that are easy and quick to open but automatically lock. Making moving along the cables quick and safe.
What else do I need to think about?
Via Ferrata routes have a lot of exposure as you are high above the ground with a lot of air between you and terra firma. For moments when you start to get disco legs or feel like you need a break in a tricky spot, its worth having a spare screwgate karabiner to attach to your belay loop which you can then attach yourself to fix features such as ladders or metal stemples (Steps like staples). Occasionally you might also need a sling to make this possible.
In Europe many routes start high, at the top of a series of ski lifts, and many continue to ascent to the top of the route (although a few do traverse instead). This means that you can quickly find yourself at a high altitude. For example I did the Piz de Lech route last year in the Dolomites which started at the top of two lifts above Corvara. From there we ascended the 200m rock face of the route to reach over 3000m. It wasn't until we got off the cables at the top and walked to the summit of the mountain that I realised quite how high we were and how knackered I was!
A good level of fitness can ensure that routes are fun and don't feel too committing. Via Ferratas can be long and with very few places to break - thankfully the traffic is usually in one direction so no issues of people passing one another. It does mean that turning round is really difficult if you get tired.
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