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What are Via Ferrata?
Via ferrata holidays combine rock scrambling with dramatic rock faces, cliffs and gorges – promising incredible views and a fun physical challenge. This is one of the best sports to get into if you’re looking for something a bit different and a little more invigorating than a standard hill walk, but not quite as technical as pure climbing.
A “via ferrata” translates as “iron path” in English. It refers to metal rungs, ladders or permanently fixed safety wire as a means of crossing otherwise tricky and steep rocky terrain. If you love a vertical track and thrive in usual situations, you’ll love exploring via ferrata courses around the world.
Here’s everything you need to know about them, including what they are, where to do it, and what you need to get started.
How It’s Done
Consisting of metal ladders and thick wires positioned strategically over rock faces, via ferrata courses require a certain level of fitness and a head for heights. But generally speaking, no prior experience is required. Wearing a harness with two cow’s tails (ropes with carabiners attached), you can, as long as you use the equipment properly, secure yourself safely to explore the course.
By remaining attached to the wires at all times, you can take on challenging terrain and you will never fall far even if you slip. For added security, it’s also recommended for climbers to attach themselves to other members. This is particularly important if you are trying out a course with children.
For beginner climbers, via ferrata routes are a fantastic way to ease yourself in. They’re also the perfect sporting alternative for those who want the same thrill without the need for advanced climbing skills.
Wire bridges can add a bit of excitement too, giving you the chance to traverse over gorges or get from one mountain to another. Some even have tyrolean zip wires so you can zip all the way back down from the top.
Where it All Began
The origins of via ferratas can be traced as far back as the mid-19thCentury, but they became prominent during the First World War when the Italian Army used them as a means of getting troops across inaccessible mountain locations in the Alps. Shortly after this, via ferratas rose to popularity for other purposes. But prior to WW1 something similar had already existed for many years.
Simple protected paths made with ladders helped to connect villages to their high pastures long before the modern via ferrata construction began. These paths were also used during Alpine exploration and tourism in the 1800s. A route on the Dachstein in Austria, built under the direction of Alpine researcher Friedrich Simony, included iron pins, hand hooks, footholds and ropes; this was one of the first early examples. In 1869, a rope was fixed between the Grossglockner summits (the highest mountain in Austria) for tourists wanting to climb the ridge safely. And later in 1873, fixed protection was installed on the Zugspitze, the tallest peak in Germany, for the same reason. Similarly, iron climbing aids were being installed in the Pyrenees from 1880 onwards.
But the Limestone areas of the Alps saw the first routes still in use today as via ferratas. And over the decades, via ferrata has developed into a sport in its own right, and there are now courses all over the Alps as well as other parts of the world.
What to Wear / Equipment
The bare minimum you will need to do via ferrata is a harness, a helmet, and a via ferrata kit containing the specialist shock absorbing cables and carabiners required to attach yourself to the course. With our via ferrata and multi-activity holidays, all the equipment will be provided for you.
Other things you will need include:
- Padded fingerless gloves are not essential but will help to provide comfort and grip when you are climbing.
- A small rucksack – you will need to be completely hands-free so bring a small backpack for essentials such as food and water.
- Walking boots or sturdy trainers – via ferrata is more like extreme scrambling than climbing so you won’t need to most high-tech boots on the market. However, good quality walking/hiking boots or trainers with grip are recommended.
When is the Best Time of Year to Do It?
To be able to do ferrata safely requires good weather conditions. That means avoiding days with rain, electrical storms, snow and ice. During the winter, via ferrata is much more difficult and is not recommended for tourists as it can be slippery and dangerous. Snow and ice covering iron cables makes the activity harder and courses will take twice as long to complete. Special equipment such as ice axes, crampons and snowshoes are also essential for via ferrata experts who are brave enough to venture out in winter time.
For tourists looking to book a via ferrata holiday, the best seasons are summer, late spring and autumn. If you’re trying via ferrata for the first time, be sure to check the weather in advance and keep an eye on live weather updates before you head out to the course.
One thing to bear in mind about travelling in the peak summer season though is that it can be much busier and some areas can be crowded. If you would prefer to avoid the crowds, travel in the shoulder months.
Best Places to Do It
The sport originated in Italy and the Dolomites has the greatest rock architecture for climbing. As a result, the Dolomites mountain range in north-eastern Italy has the highest concentration of via ferrata routes around. This makes it one of the top destinations for via ferrata enthusiasts.
With such close proximity to Italy, the Southern French Alps is just as excellent a location for via ferrata courses. This region was the first to start installing via ferratas in France, with the very first installation being Via Ferrata de Freissinières, created in Briançonnais in the year of 1988. There’s a fantastic selection of courses to be tried here. And due to local expertise and passion for the sport, the routes have developed quickly over the years to be some of the most exciting and adventurous.
Currently, the Southern French Alps boasts one of the best courses in the country, the Grande Fistoire Via Ferrata in La Motte du Caire. It features different levels that increase in difficulty as you move forward. This creates the perfect challenge for those who really want to push themselves, but it’s just as easy to break off from the course if you don’t quite feel up to it. The biggest highlight of this course is the giant zip line for getting back down, as well as the wire bridge that tests many people’s nerves as they traverse it from great heights. This features in our Summer Multi-activity Holiday in the Alps and is suitable for older children as well as adults. In 2020 they have also created a kiddie via ferrata course so you can bring your little ones along for the thrills!
If you’re looking for even more of an adventure, local French guides have taken via ferrata to a whole new dimension by creating a fun underground version with cave crossings. This has been named as “via souterrata” (translates to “underground iron path”). Right now, there are only two in existence in the world, and both of these can be found in the Southern French Alps.
Do You Need a Guide?
Via ferrata doesn’t require as much skill as climbing, and as long as you follow the course it’s impossible to get lost or stuck. However, the biggest risk factor for this activity is safety. Even though you’re attached by cables and fully secure even when you fall, there’s a lot to think about when you’re at such a great height. Checking and double checking your cow’s tails (and those of your children or group) is the most important responsibility for anyone looking to go out on their own.
So while it’s perfectly possible to do via ferrata without a guide, having one is highly recommended – no matter what level you’re at.
The majority of accidents happen when people misuse their equipment, forget to double check their attachments or are distracted by looking after others. For families, this is especially the case as parents are often focused on ensuring their children are safely clipped on that they forget to check their own cables. A guide not only has years of experience in traversing these courses with groups, but they act as an extra level of security. It is a guide’s job to check everyone is safely attached to the course and/or each other. They will be there to make sure there is rope between participants as a secondary security in case someone forgets to connect themselves to the course.
A guide will also help with technique and give you pointers. A beginner should definitely do via ferrata with a professional guide rather than going it alone. And families, even ones with plenty of experience, should consider it too when taking their kids out for the first time.
At Undiscovered Mountains, our guides are fully qualified UIAGM high mountain guides or climbing instructors. In short, they know the mountain ranges like the back of their hand, are excellent at spotting dangers, and have experience in keeping people safe in groups.
Scale of Difficulties
There are many different scales used for grading via ferrata courses. The most well-known include:
- Italian scale
- Austrian Scale (Kurt Scnall)
- German Scale (Eugen Hülser)
- German Scale (Paul Werner)
- French Scale
In 2016, the UIAA Mountaineering Commission decided to adopt the Italian scale for grading, so this is an international standard that you may see in various parts of the world, not just in Italy. In the French Alps, the French scale is often used.
In France, there are six scales of difficulties:
- F (Facile): easy, suitable for a first introduction to via ferrata
- PD (Peu Difficile): a bit difficult, ideal for kids and beginners
- AD (Assez Difficile): quite difficult, best for beginners who are accompanied by guides or more experienced climbers
- D (Difficile): difficult, suitable for those who have done via ferrata quite a few times
- TD (Très Difficile): very difficult, for those who are confident with technical courses
- (Extrêmement Difficile): extremely difficult, reserved for those who have lots of technical experience
Via ferratas are generally designed for adults as children may struggle to reach the wires and ladders. However, there are a number of specialised kiddie via ferratas available in the Southern French Alps. There are different age restrictions based on grading, with most being from age 9 or 10, and some starting from as young as age 7.
Is It Dangerous?
Compared to traditional rock climbing, via ferrata is much easier. You don’t need the same amount of climbing skills to take on intimidating rock faces, and cables act as an added level of security. But there can be just as much risk and danger involved in via ferrata, especially if you don’t know how to use your equipment properly.
While via ferrata is more accessible and easier to pick up, accidents can and do happen. This is why it is absolutely essential that you have the right equipment, know exactly how to use it, and understand the safety checks required.
Our tips for staying safe include:
- Always go with a guide – a guide isn’t just someone who knows the mountains and the best climbing techniques. A professional guide knows how to work with groups, ensuring everyone is safe. They act as another layer of security, by checking everyone is securely attached to the course.
- Make sure you are physically fit – being “hill fit” should be a basic for anyone who wants to try via ferrata for the first time. Experienced hikers and hill walkers who have scrambled before are ideal for trying this sport.
- Check yourself first – it can be common for parents taking their kids on a via ferrata holiday to forget to check their own carabiners because they are preoccupied with their child’s safety. Always make sure you are attached before helping others attach and move along a course.
- Don’t go if it’s bad weather – the right conditions are essential for a successful via ferrata trip. Avoid rain, snow and ice and pick a dry day instead. If the weather suddenly changes, turn back around.
- Keep your helmet on at all time – it can be tempting to take your helmet off during breaks, particularly in hot weather when you’re feeling a bit sweaty. But helmets should be kept on is possible to protect your head from any rock fall.
Find out more about our via ferrata holidays or other multi-activity breaks in the Southern French Alps. If you have any questions about trying via ferrata for the first time, enquire with our experts online now.
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