What does via ferrata mean?
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.
On these routes the risk of a fatal fall is minimized by having a steel cable run along the trail – to which you can attach yourself with a via ferrata set. Running along ledges, up vertical rock walls and across exposed mountainsides, the artificial equipment makes the peaks accessible to everyone with a good level of fitness.
History and origins of via ferrata
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 for the 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.
The first via ferrata in the Dolomites
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 in Dolomites. 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. Although not essential, the via ferrata gloves are useful to protect your skin from the cold and from abrasions.
The ferrata set is fastened directly to your harness and is formed like a Y. Two stretchy arms go away from your harness and have a carabiner each at their end.
On the market there are various brands and types, but be careful, there are a few things to pay attention to!
Before buying pay attention, for example, to the carabiner on the via ferrata set. Make sure you pick a set where you like the handling of the carabiner.
The locking sistem must absolutely not be screw-lock. A good example of functional carabiners is that of the Hercules and Horai carabiners, produced by CAMP.
The Horai is a super strong via ferrata carabiner featuring an ergonomic design to increase grip and improve handling action. Large gate opening, special inner geometry and keylock nose facilitate clipping and unclipping of cables and anchors. The locking mechanism is very user-friendly and super safe — the gate opens by squeezing the back lever and gate together.
Via ferrata set
The Ferrata Set is what you use to connect yourself to the iron rope and fixtures that are attached to the mountain or rock. It 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 Set 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. Have a look at this video – it is in German, but the pictures speak for themselves 🙂
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.
A great product that I recommend the Kinetic Gyro Rewind Pro. It is the non plus ultra for the most demanding users.
The authoritative German magazines Alpin and Bergsteiger focused on via ferrata sets and assigned award to the CAMP Kinetic Gyro Rewind Pro. The Gyro system on the CAMP via ferrata lanyard was judged the best anti-tangling system available on the market.
Harness is another fundamental piece of via ferrata equipment. There are a many kinds of climbing harnesses out there, but mainly we there are two different types: sitting harness and full body harness.
The harness that I recommend is the sitting harness.
A sitting (or sit) harness consists of a waist belt and two leg loops which are normally connected in the front of the hips through a permanent webbing loop called a belay loop. These are the most commonly used harnesses, as they afford a wide range of movement while still maintaining a high level of safety. These harnesses comes for both men and women.
The full body harness combines the features of a sit harness, which supports the hips and upper legs, and a chest harness, which supports the shoulders and chest.
It is less comfortable than the sitting harness, and it also becomes uncomfortable to put on or take off a fleece or windbreaker.
This kind of harness is most commonly used in industrial/rescue situations, and also commonly used by small children instead of a sit harness which is easier to slip out of.
Full body harnesses are the best choice for children. For adults, this type of harness is not recommended. Only if you are carrying a heavy backpack or heavy load, a full-body harness is a better choice.
The helmet is just a mandatory piece of equipment. It is essential to be able to safely climb the via ferrata.
Many People tend to think that a climbing helmet is just to safeguard your head from falling pieces of rocks. However, the function of a good climbing helmet goes much deeper than that. It can save your head even when suffering a fall as well.
What are climbing helmets made of?
Today, most shells are made out of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS).
There are three main categories of helmets:
1 – Hardshell helmet
2 – Foam shell helmets / In-mold helmets
3 – Hybrid shell helmets
For via ferrata I suggest a robust hardshell helmet such as the classic CAMP Titan. If you want to learn more about this topic, click the following link to read the post I wrote about rock climbing helmets.
The most important part of your clothing are, of course, the shoes. Be care, don’t go to the mountains with sneakers.
I recommend approach shoes. You should take a good look at the fitting, binding and a robust edge of the sole, as well as a profile with a “Climbing Zone” at the toe for maximum sensitivity and friction on the vertical walls.
Scarpa is my main and reliable sponsor. This high level brand provide me with approach shoes, climbing shoes and ski boots. Just one word: Great!
I love SCARPA boots for their high level of safety and durability. The constant technical innovations guarantee a product suitable for every path.
Via ferrata gloves are a really useful accessory. Recently in the Dolomites, the old metal cables have been replaced with thicker cables that offer a better grip, but not being as smooth as the previous ones, they tend to cause blisters on the hands.
I strongly recommend to bring a pair of gloves as even a small injury in the long run can make the climb difficult and dangerous. To avoid this annoying inconvenience, I strongly recommend the use of via ferrata gloves, which allow a firm grip on the via ferrata cable and protect your hands from injury and from the cold.
On the market you can find two types of via ferrata gloves, half-finger or full-finger.
Although most vendors recommend half-finger gloves, I personally prefer and always use the whole ones.
Disclaimer: Guide Dolomiti participates in the Amazon Affiliate Program and receives a small percentage on purchases made through the links on the site. Affiliation with Amazon does not increase the price of the product, but it is a form of support for the site. It allows me to improve the content and quality of the site day by day.
Headlamp, ice axe and crampons
At times, an ice axe and crampons can be useful or fundamental. Especially in the beginning of the season the snow is still present on the highest peaks and on the north side of the mountains. An easy but unequipped trail can become difficult and dangerous if snow or ice are present, and having adequate equipment with you can save your life.
Also, a head lamp is indispensable if you want to explore the numerous tunnels excavated by the military during WWI.
How to climb via ferrata
Learn more about climbing a via ferrata.
- Get ready
Before tackling the via ferrata, study the route on the map and find out (ask at local people) about any escape routes. Before initiating the climb, put on the climbing harness, Ferrata Kit, and helmet, in an area protected from involuntary stone falls from climbers above. Go early to avoid the queue!
- Hooking and unhooking the carabiners
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: theanchoring 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
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. Your experience will be more comfortable if you wear ferrata gloves and take a small rucksack.
- Use your feet and legs
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. Use your legs to push yourself upwards and minimise the pull on the cable with your arms.
- Keep the distance
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 consequenceseasy to imagine.
- Check your equipment
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.
The equipment is super safe. The main risks are rockfall (it is not rare than climbers above you moves some stones) and injuries resulting from a fall. If you fall, a ferrata can be very dangerous because you fall down to the next attachment of the cable. The lanyards and carabiners are strong and will catch you, but you will fall you could easily hurt an arm or leg and snap a few bones. The rule on ferratas is: dont fall!
Another danger would be getting off-route on the way up or on the way down. In the Dolomites the trails are well marked, but it is still definitely possible to get lost.
A route, even if easy, can become extremely difficult in case of snow and ice; at the beginning of the season it’s not rare to find snow along the way: have a look at this page to know if there is snow on the ferrata that you want to climb.
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.
Don’t forget, however, that if you are a beginner and have no experience on ‘vertical terrain’ hiring a mountain guide will not only be a safety guarantee but is also the best way to learn how to use the technical equipment, get an insight into the tricks of the trade and climb via ferrate on your own.
Difficulties & Difficulty level
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.
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.
Just like climbing, a ranking system for the vie ferrate has been set up to assign difficulty levels to them.
|EASY||Not particularly exposed ferrata, unchallenging with long sections on footpaths.|
|SLIGHTLY DIFFICULT||Ferratas which are sometimes long and exposed but require only limited strength and facilitated by wires.|
|DIFFICULT||Ferrata with some sections of overhanging rock face. The ferrata requires physical strength and fitness. Exposed for long sections.|
|VERY DIFFICULT||Ferrata requiring great agility and technical skill and requiring upper body strength and no fear of heights whatsoever.|
|EXTREMELY DIFFICULT||As 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.|
Brief description of ferrata in Dolomites around Cortina d’Ampezzo
Cortina d’Ampezzo has more ferratas than any other Dolomite area!
Click on the button to read a brief description of the via ferrata in the area.
Check out more via ferrata photos