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Via ferrata

What is a Via Ferrata?

The via Ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) is a mountain route equipped with steel cables, ladders, and other fixed anchors, for example wooden walkways and suspended bridges. The artificial equipment renders feasible an exposed route even to the inexperienced climber, and allows those not versed in climbing technique to hike on ledges, climb vertical walls, and reach the peaks of mountains.

Origins
The idea to facilitate access to a hill, a peak, or a mountain hut, goes back many years: in 1492 Antoine de Ville, a captain in the French Army, wrote that he had used a ladder to reach the top of Mont Aguille.

However, one had to wait until 1880 forthe first Italian Ferrata, when the Alpine Guides of Madonna di Campiglio in the Western Dolomites equipped the eastern side of the Cima Brenta to facilitate climbing for their clients.

In the following years, especially in the Eastern Alps, many mountain iteneraries were equipped which allowed mountain troops passage in places particularly inaccessible, for the purpose of controlling the warring front. In fact, many vie ferrate, especially in the Dolomites, often have a military origin and were equipped during the difficult frontier war fought in the years 1915 to 1918.

Climbing up the ferrata degli Alpini - Col dei Bos


A little known fact: the first Ferrata in Cortina, “the Queen of the Dolomites”, originated thanks to the cleverness of Luigi Gilarduzzi “Minighèl” in 1907. He was a smith by profession and the keeper of the former Wolf von Glanwell Hut, built in the Travenanzes Valley and destroyed by the Italian artillery in August 1915. This man realized that he could build a more direct and quicker route to the Cantore Hut (today the Giussani Hut). And so, by himself, he forged and placed almost 200 iron pins on the vertical wall. Today, the Ferrata is known as “Minighel’s Ladder“.

Tourism has significantly revalued the Vie Ferrate. Today, the use of Vie Ferrate is an activity accessible to all, an activity that consists in following a sporting itinerary splayed out across rocky walls, equipped with cables, steps, ladders, and other elements that can be used to facilitate the climb while at the same time guaranteeing safety.

Via ferrata equipment

In addition to the normal equipment used to hike in the mountains (adequate clothing, boots, backpack, first aid kit, food and drink), in order to travel a Ferrata with safety, one has to have the proper equipment specific to a Ferrata: Helmet, Harness, a Ferrata Set, Ferrata gloves.

Via Ferrata set
The Ferrata Set is a purpose-made via ferrata lanyards, it consists of short lengths of rope, carabiners, and a braking device. In rock climbing, the dynamic rope performs adequately the function of an elastic stop in case of a fall, but in a Via Ferrata, since one travels singly, the Ferrata Kit has two very short rope lengths: this creates a high Fall Factor. Fall factor and impact force are two important concepts in the physics of climbing falls. To understand a climbing fall, it is important to recall a basic law of physics: when an object falls, it stores energy. 

The Fall Factor “Fc” is the ratio of the height of the fall to the length of rope used to stop the fall. In a normal roped and belayed rock climb, the maximum fall factor one can reach is 2. On a Via Ferrata, however, the Fall Factor can be significantly higher than 2. Learn more about Fall factor.

Without going into arcane technical details, one has to realize that the higher the Fall Factor, the graver the consequences of a fall. To minimize these consequences, the two short rope lengths are equipped with a braking device that absorbs the energy of the fall and drastically reduces the Fall Factor.



Many tests have shown that in case of a fall, the lack of a proper braking device can result in the breaking of the carabiners and, in some cases, the breaking of the rope segment. It is not that uncommon to see people doing via ferrata in the Dolomites using normal rock climbing slings with a couple of carabiners attached and/or quickdraws to protect them in the event of a fall.  Such jerry-rigged setups will not save someone if they fall off a via ferrata because they will not be able to take the fall factors involved. Do not copy these people.  Please use purpose-made via ferrata lanyards. They are not that expensive, are increasingly sophisticated and are designed to stop a via ferrata fall.

At times, an ice axe and crampons can prove useful, and a head lamp is indispensable when one enters in the numerous tunnels excavated by the military during WWI.

Progressing up the cable and Technique

  • Before intiating the climb,  put on the climbing harness, Ferrata Kit, and helmet, in an area protected from involuntary stone falls from climbers above.
  • In a Ferrata, one procedes by securing one self, that is by connecting directly to the anchoring cable utilizing the carabiners at the end of the two short rope lengths. One carabiner is not sufficient to connect safely to the cable: the anchoring cable in fact is connected to the wall with pins which prevent the carabiners from sliding beyond. Thus it’s necessary to unhook from the cable and to re-hook immediately after the pin. Using only one carabiner, one would not be securely attached to the cable during this phase, with obvious risks to one’s safety.
  • The two carabiners must be used in succession, unhooking the second only after the first has been hooked past the pin.
  • One hand must hang on to the cable while with the other can make use of holds offered by the rock. The two carabiners must always be in front of the hand following the cable in such a way that they are always readily available.
  • It’s very important to use your feet and legs while progressing on the Ferrata, thus minimizing pulling on the cable with your arms, which would otherwise quickly become very fatigued.
  • Two climbers should never find themselves on the same segment of Ferrata (the portion of cable between two successive pins). In case of a fall from the first climber, the second climber would also be swept away with consequences easy to imagine.
  • After a fall, it’s indispensable to change the Ferrata set since the fall likely caused damage to the set which might not be visible to the naked eye.

Via Ferrata and Dolomites: Difficulties and dangers

The difficulty in a Ferrata derives mainly from the steepness of the wall and the quantity of holds and supports, whether natural or artificial. The easiest Ferrate are usually called “Sentieri Ferrati” (“Iron Trails”), while the more difficult ones are defined as “Vie Ferrate”.
One needs to underline that technical difficulty is only one of the components of the difficulty of a Ferrata.
A route, even if easy, can become extremely difficult in case of snow and ice;  a quick change in weather conditions and the arrival of a thunderstorm can create serious problems for the climber. Remember that the blessed cable is certainly a great help but can become a lightning rod under the appropriate conditions.

Finally, even the length of the itinerary affects the degree of difficulty of a Ferrata.
For example, take the “Sentiero ferrato Ivano Dibona” on Monte Cristallo. This panoramic “walk” doesn’t present technical difficulties, but statistics tell us that it is here that we have the greatest number of rescues.
In fact, even if easy, it’s a very long sentiero ferrato which puts to the test the physical endurance of the unfit.
Furthermore, reading in the various guides that it’s an easy route, it attracts all sorts of excursionists, many of whom start in late morning,  often with inadequate equipment.

Difficulty level

Just like climbing, a ranking system for the vie ferrate has been set up to assign difficulty levels to them.

Via ferrata difficulty levelFerrata characteristics
EASYNot particularly exposed ferrata, unchallenging with long sections on footpaths.
MEDIUMFerratas which are sometimes long and exposed but require only limited strength and facilitated by wires.
DIFFICULTFerrata with short sections of overhanging rock face requiring physical strength and fitness, exposed for long sections.
VERY DIFFICULTFerrata requiring great agility and technical skill and requiring upper body strength and no fear of heights whatsoever.
EXTREMELY DIFFICULTAs well as being very difficult (see above) the physical fitness and strength required are greater in that the difficult sections are long and continuous. Sometimes “extremely difficult” ferrata have been deliberately created to challenge those doing them to the limit. In this case there is usually a danger sign indicating this before the section concerned.

Find “your ferrata”
In closing, here is an interesting program that allows you to find the Via Ferrata most suitable to your needs and fitness levels.
The  program, interesting also for lovers of statistics, has been developed by our friend Mauro Boni, a passionate lover of the mountains and someone very knowledgeable about numerous Vie Ferrate.
Click the button and find your ferrata

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