Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Everything You Need To Know About Via Ferrata | What Is It? Where Can You Do It? What Equipment Do You Need? Is It Safe?

An introduction to via ferrata, and essential reading for anyone looking to get into it

Via ferrata is, in my humble opinion, the most fun you can have in the mountains. I’ve been a complete convert since the first time I tried it, in the Dolomites on my 22nd birthday. Sure, the stunning weather probably helped.

Via ferrata has everything a mountain junkie might want. A route can be short or long, on its own or part of a longer expedition, and give you access to more remote and spiky parts of the mountains without the faff of rock climbing gear. It’s got speed, exposure, great views, involved terrain and a feeling of mild peril. The perfect PG.

“Via ferrata is, in my humble opinion, the most fun you can have in the mountains”

Okay, so you’re sold on how awesome it is but what actually is via ferrata?

A via ferrata route is made up of a series of thick steel cables, rungs, ladders and chains. They’re permanently fixed into the mountainside, like a literal handrail, allowing you to access ridges and peaks that would otherwise just be a bit sketchy. You wear a climbing harness and lanyard (more on that later), so you can clip into the metalwork. This gives you a little more protection and security than if you were just scrambling up the rock face like a Free Solo ninja. Some purists will say it’s cheating to hold onto the fixed rails, but honestly who’s counting?

Pictured: Via ferrata in the Dachstein region of Austria. Credit: Maja Kochanowska
Pictured: Via Ferrata route in France. Credit: Gontran Isnard

Where can you do via ferrata?

Via ferrata is becoming more common because of the relatively accessible thrill kick. Of course some of the routes have been around since the early 1900s but there are, increasingly, more privately owned and modern developments. Broadly speaking, there are three types of via ferrata:

  1. Ones that are legit part of a footpath, free to use and open for all
  2. Ones that are privately owned and maintained
  3. Ones that are purpose built as an attraction in adventure parks, alongside zip lines and high ropes courses.

You can find via ferrata just about anywhere there is rock and it’s a bit steep. Places like mountains and canyons, but occasionally mines and quarries too, are perfect for via ferrata. They’re mostly concentrated in central Europe, where mountains form borders between countries.

It’s said that via ferrata was invented to help troops move along these borders during WW1. However, you can now find them everywhere from the USA to New Zealand. If you’re looking for specific routes, check out our guide to via ferrata in Europe and our guide to via ferrata in the UK.

What equipment do you need?

The basic via ferrata gear you’ll need has some crossover with other mountain sports. The three key things you’ll need are a climbing harness, a climbing helmet (although I have seen people wearing bike helmets, I can’t recommend it) and what’s known as a ‘via ferrata kit’. This is a specialist piece of gear that is essentially two stretchy lanyards, each with a quickdraw carabiner on the end. The good ones have a little package at the connection point of the lanyards that’s an added safety system, in case you fall. The old, bold and reckless will still use static ropes and a couple of spare carabiners, but frankly that’s the equivalent of wearing hobnail boots in the mountains.

Those three items are really all you need to get started. Some people take a spare sling and carabiner so they can take a rest in the middle of a prolonged climb. Fingerless gloves in the summer – or gloves in the winter will make you look like a pro and save your hands from being shredded by rock and steel. 

In terms of what to wear, normal mountain clothes are a good start. It really depends on where your via ferrata is (adventure park vs 3000m peak). And as anyone who’s spent time in a harness can tell you, it’s a faff to keep changing layers. Try to guess how warm you’ll be during your route and stick to that. On your feet, wear hiking or mountain boots. If it’s just a short one-off route, you might be able to get away with approach shoes or grippy trainers in dry conditions. 

Credit: Maja Kochanowska

Via Ferrata Safety

It’s easy to assume via ferrata is much safer than rock climbing and get lulled into a false sense of security. In some instances, it probably is safer, like when the rail has been just put in because of the feeling of exposure from big drops on either side. But while no one wants to spend too much time thinking about falling off mountains, let’s just think a moment about the risks inherent in via ferrata.

First of all, remember that you’re depending on wires and ladders that have been put in by someone else and left up in all elements. In the same spirit of the “holds may spin” signs at climbing walls, any of the metalwork could come loose. It’s unusual, sure – even less so on the managed and maintained routes that you have to pay to use. But a big metal wire up a high mountain can attract lightning bolts and things do get blown out of the rock occasionally. On that note, via ferrata is generally a fair weather sport…

The other thing worth talking about is fall factor. What that means, essentially, is: ‘if I slip and fall right now, how far will I travel before I stop falling?”

For example, a lead climber will fall twice the length of the rope above their highest piece of gear. On via ferrata, you are connected via your lanyard. But you’ll slide down the length of whatever you’re clipped into first, before the lanyards engage to slow your fall. The higher up a length of cable you are, the longer you have to fall. So it’s always well worth trying to clip in as high up as you can and onto the next section of cable as soon as you can.

Of course, you’ve got two lanyards for a reason: so you can always stay attached while you’re moving onto the next cable. Unclip both carabiners and you’re just standing on a mountainside.

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