Via Ferrata

These notes are intended to assist the walker or climber who has already gained considerable knowledge of British mountaineering and scrambling and is fully aware of its risks but is still interested in exploring the wonderful world of Via Ferrata. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way. Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead!

Above: The fantastic Senterio delle Bochette Centrale in the Brenta Dolomites, Italy

Via Ferrata is the name commonly used to describe the high level footpaths found in the Alps that use fixed cables for protection and steel ladders to surmount difficult sections (another name is Klettersteig).

Originally via Ferrata were constructed in the Italian Dolomites and Austrian Tyrol to enable troop movements in during the First World War. After the war these protected high level paths were taken over by mountain guides who used them as an easy way to get clients to the foot of climbs. Gradually the network was extended by these guides and via ferratas became an pastime in their own right. In recent years other countries have noticed the increase in tourist revenue that the Italian via ferratas have engendered and now modern and in many cases steep and exposed via ferratas can be found all over the alps.

Although they break just about every rule of aesthetic mountaineering ("Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints etc"), Via Ferrata are very enjoyable and highly popular, and give nearly everyone an opportunity to move through spectacular and often extremely exposed alpine scenery with a minimum of equipment.

To enjoy Via Ferrata at their best it is worth staying at the huts so that only a small amount of equipment is required to be carried.

A cable protected section in the Dolomites

Looking down the steep upper wall of the Via Ferrata de la Tour du Jalouvre in the Haute Savoie of France. The himalayan bridge can be seen below

A steep ladder on the SOSAT in the Brenta Dolomites

Looking up the same wall. The leader is protecting an inexperienced member of the party by use of a rope run through "Pig's Tails" at the cable junctions. When the rope comes tight the second person will start to move. For steeper sections, more rope can be employed and a belay taken

Alex Reid (aged 13) on an exposed section of the Via Ferrata Yves Pollet-Villard in the Haute Savoie of France,

and Right on the awesome monkey bridge on the Via Ferrata de la Roche a Agathe near Thone in the same area.

Each member of the party will need

Helmet Not essential, but advisable as there is always a danger of stonefall from above.
Harness Essential – a lightweight alpine type harness is ideal as you will not be racking much gear on it not sitting in it for long periods. However a standard rock climbing harness is also fine.
Via Ferrata Clipping System It is essential to have a properly produced Via Ferrata Clipping System which includes an impact reducing device, as the fall factor induced in a short fall onto a length of rope or sling clipped directly from the harness onto a ladder rung can be so high as to break a karabiner and/or seriously injure the climber. For this reason too, they include a system whereby the attachment to the karabiner is fixed so that the pull is always along the karabiner at its strongest point and never cross-loaded. The Mammut website has a full explanation of possible Impact Forces attainable on Via Ferrata. There are many good Via Ferrata Clipping Systems on the market - please follow the link for a selection.
Cow’s Tail In addition to the Via Ferrata Clipping System above, on steeper Via Ferrata, it is worth having a separate cow's tail that enables you to clip into a ladder rung and have a static hanging rest. Such a device can be easily made by lark's footing a 60cm Sling onto your harness belay loop, and fixing a Via Ferrata Karabiner on the other end using something like a Petzl String to hold it in position, so that it does not get cross loaded.
Rope If taking young or inexperienced members in your party, it is worth taking 25 or 30 metres of light rope (8mm or thereabouts is ideal). Generally most of this will be tied of in coils with only 5 or 6 metres of rope tied between yourself and the other person. This can then be flicked into "Pig's Tails" en route as seen in the photos above. For more difficult sustained sections the coils of rope can be dropped and the full length of rope can be employed by taking a belay when the difficulties ease. It is worth having a Belay Device for this, though it is possible to belay by using an Italian Hitch.
Crampons & Ice Axe Crampons and an ice-axe are generally unnecessary, and there are few glaciated approaches. However early in the season in higher alpine areas steep snowfields can linger and it may be worth having at least one pair of walking or mountaineering crampons, an alpine axe and 25m or so of dry half rope per party.
Insurance Important in case of an accident as mountain rescue is not generally free in Continental Europe. The major two alpine insurance providers in the UK are the BMC and the Austrian Alpine Club. The latter is usually cheaper, lasts all year, and also gives you discounted stays in many alpine huts, but it is rescue only and your equipment is not covered. The BMC charge extra for a hut discount card but they do insure your gear.
Other Via ferratas are mountaineering and it is important to consider all the usual things before embarking on them, including the weather forecast - being caught on an exposed iron ladder in a thunderstorm is not a good idea! Many are long, with long approaches and descents and queues on difficult sections can make them even longer. Take water, food and sunscreen, plus waterproofs and warm clothes. There are also quite a number of Via Ferrata Guidebooks.

Photo: The Tuckett Hut - an excellent base for operations in the Brenta Dolomites.

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