Tips for via ferrata

These are my top ten tips for how to have a safe and fun time on a via ferrata.

1) Don’t fall off

This may sound obvious, but it cannot be overstated.  There are two reasons that falling off a via ferrata could be serious and should be avoided.

Tip 3 – Always clip onto the cable

The first is that the fall factor involved in such a fall are very high and higher than you are ever likely to take in a rock climbing fall.  Via ferrata lanyards are designed to take the high energy involved in such a fall, but you will still experience a high impact force (i.e. a very big jolt and shock to yourself and your gear) when you come to a stop.

Mammut have written a good explanation of the fall factors involved in a via ferrata fall.

Secondly, there is a good chance that as you fall you will bounce off, and collide with, things.  These things include the stemples and ladders that make up that via ferrata as well as rock ledges and protruding rocks.

Injury is therefore a strong possibility and you should see your lanyards only as an emergency fail-safe that will keep you alive if you fall.

2) Use proper via ferrata equipment and take some “just in case” climbing gear

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.

In addition, it is worth taking a 25m to 30m single rope with you.  Each person in your group should also have two or three slings, three or four screwgate carabiners, a belay device and a couple of prussic loops.  This gear is basically an emergency backup for situations where someone needs to be roped up and belayed (e.g. to get them past a section they are having trouble climbing) or to abseil past difficulties.

3) Always clip onto the cable

You can often see people climbing via ferrata in the Dolomites who do not clip the carabiners of their lanyards to the cable.  This is presumably because they want to move quicker and/or they find the climbing easy.  Whether you clip to the cables should not be determined by how easy the climbing is, but by what will happen if you fall.  It only takes a slight stumble for a fall to begin.

I remember seeing someone descending a series of rock ledges on the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona with his lanyards clipped to his harness rather than the cable.  Stepping down onto a ledge, he put his feet onto some gravel and his feet were swept out from under him as the gravel acted like ball-bearings.  He landed on his butt and slid towards a sheer, 80m drop.  This climber stopped with both his legs sticking out over the edge and only his butt in contact with the rock.

Click here for a useful explanation from Petzl on how to use lanyards and some other technical tips for via ferrata.

4) Remember to clip past the pins

It is easy to focus so much on climbing a via ferrata that you don’t clip past one of the pins that connects the cable to the mountain.  I’ve had plenty of occasions when I’ve done this and come to an abrupt halt as my lanyards hit the pin and prevent me moving forward.  This can be problematic if it happens after you have just done a tricky move or two and then have to down climb to clip past the pin.

Tip 9 – Climb the cable if you want

5) Keep your distance

Someone falling on a via ferrata will go down the cable as far as the nearest pin that connects the cable to the mountain, and then probably further if their lanyards deploy several metres of cable to cushion the fall.  If you are below this person and either above or closely below this pin, they will collide with you.  This could see you falling together and could have potentially fatal consequences for you both.  Keep your distance from the person in front.  You are also entitled to expect the person behind you to keep a good distance from you in case you fall.  This, unfortunately, is not the case in many situations as quite a few tourists are not properly aware of the risk they’re creating.  A good solution, if the route is not overly crowded, is to stop somewhere safe and let them climb ahead of you: you have more control over the distance ahead!  Don’t ever let yourself feel rushed by others as this is when mistakes happen.

A reasonable rule of thumb is, at a minimum, to not be on the same section of cable (i.e. between the same two pins) as someone else and to leave some extra space between people on trickier sections.

5) Be aware of the weather

Most via ferrata are in mountain, and often alpine, environments with all the vagaries of weather this can bring.  Make sure you have suitable clothing and equipment with you to deal with changes in the weather and any emergency situations.  Also remember that via ferrata get treacherously slippy when wet.

Thunderstorms can come in surprisingly quickly in alpine environments and you do not want to be attached to a metal cable running up a mountain in the event of lightning.  Quickly and as safely as possible find somewhere safe to detach from the cable and move away.  This may not be straightforward and you will have to use good judgment to work out how make yourself safe.

The tunnels and caves that you can find on many via ferrata in the Dolomites are not safe places to shelter from a thunderstorm.  This is because any lightning hitting the mountain will take the shortest route down and in a cave the shortest route is to jump through you.

For further information on what to do if you are in the mountains when lightning starts, please click here.

7) It’s ok to overtake, but do it safely

It’s acceptable for you to overtake slower moving climbers and, equally, you should let climbers moving faster than you overtake you.  Look for wider ledges or other places where it is possible to move out of the way to allow overtaking.  People should never unclip to overtake, but they can move carabiners closer together on the cable to make it easier for people to clip past them.

8) Start early

Some via ferrata can get very busy, with long lines of people slowly snaking up them.  This can be frustrating.  Try to avoid the crowds by starting early.  In alpine areas this can also help to avoid rain and/or thunderstorms, as clouds are more likely to develop in the afternoon.

Tip 8 – Start early (to avoid the crowds)

9) Climb the cable if you want

Some people think that climbing using the cable is cheating.  However, further to Tip 1, it is much better to use the cable than to fall off.  If you feel more comfortable using the cable, then do so.

It’s a good idea to wear fingerless gloves when doing via ferrata as this can protect your hands on cables, ladders and stemples while still allowing you to feel the rock.  However, gloves with a smooth leather finish have poor grip, particularly on cables that are cold or damp.  A suede or ‘rough’ leather finish on the palms is gives better grip on metal.

10) Watch out for rocks (and wear a helmet)

Take care not to dislodge rocks onto the people below you.  If you accidentally do dislodge a rock, shout a warning.  Depending on where you are doing your via ferrata and who is around, it could be “below!” in English, “rock!” in American English, “sasso!” in Italian and “stein!” in German (click here for a dictionary of climbing terms).

If you hear anything that sounds like such a shouted warning about a falling rock, pull yourself close into the mountain and don’t look up (it’s much better if a falling rock hits the top of your helmet than your face).

In the Dolomites, many of the routes to the start of a via ferrata, and back down again after the end of a via ferrata, involve sections of scree.  Some routes at the end of via ferrata can also be quite precarious.   A single hiking pole can come in useful for these ascents and descents.

UPDATE: I’ve written a new post with tips, suggestions and important information for those who are trying out via ferrata for the first time and you can read it here.

25 thoughts on “Tips for via ferrata

  • Hey there,
    thanks for this it was really useful,
    what great do you recommend for entry level?
    thanks
    tania

    • Thanks Tania, I’m pleased you found the post useful.

      You will need a set of via ferrata lanyards, a pair of via ferrata gloves, a climbing helmet and a climbing harness. All the major climbing gear manufacturers make these things and which you choose can be a matter of personal preference, your budget and what feels comfortable when you try them on. I use Edelrid lanyards and find they work well, but quite like the look of the new Mammut ones. Petzl and Black Diamond also make lanyards. I find fingerless gloves work better and use ones made by Metolius and my fiancee uses one made by Climbing Technology. Both work well. The British Mountaineering Council does a great guide on helmets (http://www.thebmc.co.uk/bmc-helmet-campaign) and either a hybrid or hardshell is probably better for via ferrata because of the risk of rock fall. I’m afraid that as things like helmets and harnesses need to fit you properly, I’m going to cop-out of recommending something and suggest you go to a good outdoor gear store (that has sales assistants who go rock climbing and mountaineering a lot in their spare time) and get them to help you pick what works for you.

      In addition, you will need walking or mountaineering boots with a fairly rigid sole (if they flex too much, it’s tiring after a while standing on ladders, stemples and holds). They also need good ankle support and to be able to take a bashing against rocks.

      In addition to this, you will need the normal sort of clothing and provisions you might take for a day in the mountains (e.g. waterproofs, a warm top or two, foot, water, personal first aid kit, emergency whistle, map, guidebook, etc.).

      I hope you don’t mind me asking how entry level you are. The reason I ask is that, if you are a confident rock climber or hiker with experience of scrambling, then you should feel comfortable with much of the practice of via ferrata and have the skills you need to keep you safe when climbing them. However, if you have little experience of being in the mountains and experiencing exposure (i.e. being over big drops), then you may want to think about going with a guide or an experienced friend on your first few via ferratas. There are companies that run guided via ferrata holidays (e.g. Colletts Mountain Holidays in the UK), you can hire qualified mountain guides at the Alpine schools in major towns in the Dolomites and you can find UK guides on the website of British Mountain Guides (see http://www.bmg.org.uk/).

      Even though I came to via ferrata with rock climbing experience, I found the BMC’s Alpine Essentials DVD and the book The Complete Guide to Climbing and Mountaineering by Pete Hill useful when I was getting started. Both have chapters on via ferrata.

      In my post I recommend taking some basic climbing gear. Another reason I ask about experience is that you should only really take this stuff if you know how to use it. If you don’t, then its unnecessary weight. If you are with a guide, then they should have some back-up climbing gear for emergencies and can show you how to use it.

      I hope that helps. If you let me know what sort of things you might be doing and what your level of experience is, then I am happy to offer some further suggestions.

  • I keep on asking myself why our rescue website http://www.cnsas.it and its project http://www.sicurinmontagna.it haven’t at least an English version,since this service is mainly composed by guides and volunteers who often risk their own lives to save ours…in any case,in the Dolomites call 118,specify the nature of the accident,answer their questions and hold on;normally they have English-speaking operators and an elycopter,which in some cases could cost 137€/min…Vie ferrate count several mortal accidents every summer,especially for those who don’t follow any of your wise tips above.
    Greetings from Dolomiti and congratulations!
    Paolo

    • Thanks Paolo.

      That’s very useful and important information.

      I hope I never need to make the call to mountain rescue, but I’m very glad they are there in case I ever do need them. I’m thankful to the people who give their time and take risks to help those who get into trouble in the mountains.

      Best wishes,
      Robin

  • Thanks Robin,
    now i add that,obvious enough but of vital importance,in most of accidents you have to rely on yourself or on your ropemate for a long,always too long,time,so knowing at least the basics of the
    intervention techniques codified by UIAA and Basic Life Support tecniques is often crucial.
    In any case,British climbers are actually at the bottom of our rescue statistics!
    See:www.aiut-alpin-dolomites.com/english/statistics_2012.html
    Greetings from Dolomiti,
    Paolo

      • Well,i agree with your tips and i can only remark that too many people lack of specific training both on the essential climbing tecniques which should be a requisite even on vie ferrate and on how to use properly via ferrata gear,if they have it. On the other hand,too much confidence can kill,personally two years ago the death of a personality like Kurt Albert made me think a lot.

        • Thanks Paolo.

          I agree that a lot of accidents wouldn’t happen if people had been given the right training. Just knowing some simple things about how to avoid dangers and get out of trouble could make a big difference.

          It’s also about good decision-making and that why I agree with you about the dangers of getting too confident. Confidence can help someone’s climbing, but it can sometimes make them complacent and take unnecessary risks. I’ve seen that on via ferrata when people, who look like experienced mountaineers, haven’t bothered to attach themselves to the cable so that they can move quicker.

          I wonder how people can be helped to be safe. Encouraging people to take courses and learn from guides can work with some people. Other people could learn from more experienced friends. But what about the rest? I’ve thought about stopping and talking with some people I’ve seen doing something risky on a via ferrata, but I’d have to hope they speak English because my knowledge of Italian is limited. With those people I have tried speaking to in the past, they haven’t seemed convinced they need to change what they are doing.

          What do you think?

          Best wishes,
          Robin

          • My opinion is that people rarely listen to each other,mostly due to the fact that climbers,hikers etc. have often a conservative attitude,at least in the Eastern Alps,for example i was used to climb with Vibram boots till 6-/6 Welzenbach scale even though specific climbing shoes were evoluted and even produced near home,so it was the same with self-made sets for via ferrata until 5 or 6 years ago and so on. I’m against the proliferation of new vie ferrate (via ferrata degli Alpini was built in 2008,for technical tests and military training,so useless work,for me) for environmental reasons and can create dangerous confusion on beginners’ approach to rockwalls and i could go on for hours telling either funny or scary stories happened on vie ferrate. Climbing,mountaneering,ski etc. can be seen like a balance between confidence and fear,so that when i’ve started to get bored on vie ferrate,i bought the first lanyard of my life and even clipped its karabiners on the cable almost always! Experience and statistics were against me,i realized,but how many people weren’t so lucky? Because mountains,as guides used to say,are an unpredictable environment.
            Best Regards,
            Paolo

  • Interesting stuff on the Via Ferrata. When I was in the Dolomites way long ago the most dangerous sections were not on the rock but across loose scree ending at the top edge of vertical drops. Path the width of your boot and no cables or any possibility of protection. Then it’s all in the mind.

    • Thanks.

      I know what you mean. It’s still like that in places, with some routes worse than others. Try coming to the UK though, we often get scree slopes without the paths.

      Best wishes

    • Thanks – I’m pleased that you liked it.

      That looks like it will be a really fun trip. The Dolomites are wonderful and a brilliant place to experience via ferrata for the first time.

      Ideally, footwear for via ferrata should be reasonably lightweight, quite narrow / not bulky and have a fairly stiff shank as this will make it easier to climb in. Whatever you wear on your feet needs to be good for climbing on rock and for climbing ladders and stemples. If the shank is quite stiff (i.e. the boot doesn’t bend too much) it means that you will use your muscles less when standing on small holds or a bit of metal work (i.e. ladders, stemples, pins, wire bridges). However, you don’t want a totally rigid boot as you need something that is comfortable to walk to and from the via ferrata.

      About from those crucial features, it is really down to individual preference what you wear. I’ve seen lots of people doing via ferrata in approach shoes as they are light, designed for climbing and have a bit of stiffness (not all approach shoes do though). Equally, lots of people climb in boots and that’s what I go for. The advantage of boots is that they are tough, fairly stiff and good for the walk-ins and walk-outs. In the Dolomites getting to and from via ferrata often involves scree slopes and steep mountain trails, so the extra protection and ankle support of a boot can be really useful. However, some people have strong ankles and seem to manage with an approach shoe.

      I prefer doing via ferrata in a pair of alpine boots because they have all the crucial features and are designed for climbing. That’s what I’m wearing in the photos in this post. However, I worn those boots out a couple of years ago and so I’ve had to use normal 3 season walking boots recently (see this post for an example of that). It works well enough, but it’s not ideal and I’ll start using alpine boots again as soon as I can find a pair that fits me.

      I hope that helps. Have a good time on the trip.

      Robin

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