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.
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.
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.
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.