Via Ferrata Virgins – getting started at via ferrata

If you have never done a via ferrata before, then there are some things you need to know and consider to have fun and stay safe.

Me on the Via Ferrata Lamon.

Your level of experience

If you are a confident rock climber or a hiker with experience of scrambling, then you should feel comfortable with much of the practice of via ferrata.  You are also likely to have the essential skills and knowledge that comes from being in the mountains that you need to keep you safe.  However, even with these skills and knowledge, I would recommend getting yourself familiar with what a via ferrata involves before trying one.

Even though I came to via ferrata with rock climbing, scrambling and hiking experience, I found reading up on the subject and speaking with friends I knew who had done via ferrata to be really useful.  In terms of viewing and reading, the British Mountaineering Council’s Alpine Essentials DVD and the book The Complete Guide to Climbing and Mountaineering by Pete Hill both have good chapters on via ferrata.

If you have little experience of being in the mountains and, particularly, if you have little experience of climbing rock, then you may want to think about going with a qualified mountain guide or experienced friends on your first few via ferrata.  There are companies that run guided via ferrata holidays (e.g. ISM and Exodus in the UK) as well as non-guided, but organised, holidays (e.g. Colletts Mountain Holidays).   You can hire qualified mountain guides at the alpine schools in major towns in the Dolomites and you can find mountain guides on the website of British Mountain Guides.

Whether you have the experience of mountains or not, make sure you know how to use the equipment needed to do a via ferrata.  Read the manufacturer’s instructions, get help from an experienced friend or a guide can help with this and look at the resources mentioned above.  Petzl have also produced a good guide on how to use lanyards.

Equipment

The most basic and essential equipment you need to climb via ferrata are a set of via ferrata lanyards, a pair of via ferrata gloves, a climbing helmet and a climbing harness.

Modern lanyards consist of a length of webbing sewn together and contained in a pouch.  This webbing connects to two lanyards that end in self-locking carabiners that can be opened with one hand.  These carabiners are clipped to the via ferrata cable and have been designed to cope with the wear of running along a cable.

These lanyards have been specially designed to withstand the high forces generated by a fall and it is essential they are used.  Do not be tempted to use quickdraws, slings, daisy chains or another combination of climbing kit you could put together yourself.  These things will not stop a via ferrata fall.  For further information, see Mammut’s good explanation of why lanyards are a must.

All the major climbing gear manufacturers make these lanyards, helmets and harnesses.  Which you choose can be a matter of personal preference, your budget and what feels comfortable when you try them.

I use Edelrid lanyards and find they work well, but quite like the look of the new Mammut ones.  Petzl and Black Diamond lanyards are popular.

I find fingerless gloves work better than full finger gloves.  A rough, rather than smooth, finish on the palm of the gloves also seems to hold better on cables, ladders and stemples.  My gloves are 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 and either a hybrid or hardshell is probably better for via ferrata because of the risk of rock fall.

In addition, you will need walking or mountaineering boots with a fairly rigid sole.   If the boots flex too much, you will get tired after a while standing on ladders, stemples and holds and find it harder to climb on smaller holds. They also need good ankle support and to be able to take a bashing against rocks.  A good option are boots that are designed for scrambling and/or alpine use because they have these features and are relatively light.

As things such as helmets, harnesses and boots need to fit you properly, I suggest going to a good outdoor gear store to find something that suits you.   Try to go for an outdoor gear store that has sales assistants who go rock climbing and mountaineering a lot in their spare time as they are more likely to have the knowledge to help you make the right purchases.

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.).

Insurance

Most via ferrata are in countries in which the cost of mountain rescue and medical care fall to the individual.  Make sure you have whatever insurance you need to cover the costs if you do have an accident on a via ferrata.  As a lot of insurance companies see via ferrata as a high risk activity, you might need to get specialist cover or talk with your existing provider about extending your cover.  If you are in the UK, then the British Mountaineering Council is a big provider of insurance for via ferrata and other alpine activities.

Exposure

Before starting out on your first via ferrata, there are a few things for which you should be prepared.  In particular, you need to know that via ferrata often have a lot of exposure.  “Exposure” is a rock climbing term that refers to the sensation that you are high above the ground and with a lot of air between you and the ground.  When you stand on the edge of a steep cliff and look down, then you may feel the exposure.  A route on a mountain that is exposed or has exposure usually involves steep, long drops and which may be to several sides of you. Climbing in such situations can be really fun, but it can sometimes be a bit unnerving, particularly if you start worrying you might fall.

An exposed position on the Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina

For times when you may be scared or unsure that you can climb a particular section, it is a good idea to have a 25m to 30m length of single climbing rope so that you can be tied on to the rope and belayed past any difficulties.  Belay devices, screwgate carabiners and some slings are also essential for this.  Just as essential is that you know how to safely use these pieces of equipment.  This is another reason for either going with friends who have the necessary skills or a qualified guide.

Altitude and fitness

A good level of fitness certainly makes doing a via ferrata more fun.  Fitness can help with the fairly high altitude at which you find many via ferratas and which you can sometimes make climbing them feel harder than doing the same sort of thing at sea level.  You can particularly feel it if the ascent to your chosen via ferrata for the day involves being whisked up to a higher altitude by a cable car.  A staged cable car takes you from the 1,100m or so of Cortina in the Dolomites to not far from the 3,244m summit of Tofana di Mezzo and the start of the Via Ferrata Lamon.  I felt the difference when moving around up there.

Via ferrata can also be long, with few places to stop to rest and few, if any, escape routes.  Although some via ferrata can have people going in both directions on them, the traffic on many via ferrata is moving in one direction.  This can make turning around and going back down difficult if you get tired.  This means that once you have started a via ferrata, you can often be committed to finishing it and this makes planning important.

Your first via ferrata

Plan via ferrata like you would plan any other trip into the mountains.  Make sure the route you want to do is within your capabilities both in terms of your stamina and skill level.  This includes considering how hard and long the ascent and descent from the ends of the via ferrata is.  Check the weather forecast and don’t go if it’s wet or thunderstorms are possible.  Think about where and how you might turn back or otherwise change your plans if the weather or something else forces you to rethink your plans.

To help you get familiar with how to climb a via ferrata, it is better to start out on lower grade via ferrata.  You can then increase the severity of routes that you do when you feel more comfortable.  My first via ferrata was the Via Ferrata Piz da Cir V near Corvara and it was just the right sort of thing to start out on.  At 2B, it was just the right balance between being easy and interesting.  It could also be done in half a day.

Before starting climbing, get someone else to check your equipment to make sure it is fitted properly and safe.

Hopefully this information will make starting your first few via ferrata both safe and fun.  You can read some tips of how to do via ferrata and stay safe doing them by clicking here and you can get more useful information off the websites listed here.

This post started life as a reply to a comment left in response to my Tips for Via Ferrata post.  My reply to this question about what gear a person new to via ferrata needs was probably too long, but it got me thinking about what essential information you might need if starting out and so this post was born.

22 thoughts on “Via Ferrata Virgins – getting started at via ferrata

  • Hi, interesting and informative, thank you 🙂

    One thing I was wondering about though is the following scenario:

    You slip and fall half way up a mountain, you are uninjured and recover, but you are now half way up a mountain with no safety device, because via ferrata sets are only designed for single use. What do you do in such a situation, when you have no choice but to continue either up or down? Is there a via ferrata set that can be reset/reused?

    • Thanks. I’m glad you liked the post.

      You’re asking a really good question and the scenario you describe is something I wondered about a lot when I first started doing via ferrata.

      There are some models of lanyard that use a length of rope passed through a KISA (Kinetic Impact Shock Absorber) as the means of arresting a fall and you might be able to pull the rope back through the device and carry on climbing with it until you are able to leave the via ferrata. However, I would really not recommend doing this as you would have no idea of the true extent of the damage to the lanyards and whether they would be able to take another fall. They might not and it’s just not worth the risk.

      The best option is probably to have some rope and some climbing equipment with you on a via ferrata as an emergency back-up. You and a partner can then protect yourselves and belay as you would on a rock climb. The aim should be to escape the via ferrata as soon and as safely as possible. Either climb up, descend or abseil until there is a point you can safely leave and walk out. You can always come back another day with a new lanyard set to finish the via ferrata.

      Interestingly, Edelrid have recently brought out a Via Ferrata Belay Kit – I’ve never used it and I think it’ll be less versatile than a regular rope (e.g. I don’t see how you can really abseil with it), but you could check it out. Beal also make a specific via ferrata rope.

      I hope that helps and that you never end up in that scenario.

      Best wishes,

      Robin

  • Thanks for a very useful article. It was a good read.
    I’m off to Bad Gastein in Austria in two weeks for a work related conference. We’re a small group that have booked a guide for a day of Via Ferrata. I don’t think it will be too advanced. We’re after all a bunch of 40-year old project managers. Equipment will be provided for us but it’s hard to know what the temperature will be like and dress accordingly. Looking at the village itself it seems like quite warm in September, about 17°C average during the day. But I guess it will be quite different on the mountain. If you have any experience or advice it would be much appreciated.
    /Marcus

    • Hi Marcus,

      Knowing what to wear on a via ferrata can be surprisingly tricky. If it happens to be a sunny day in the Alps with little wind, then you could be comfortable in a T-shirt and light trousers. If the cloud is low and the wind up, then you could need a couple of fleeces and a wooly hat. This is what I had to wear last year when I did a via ferrata in the Cristallo range in the Dolomites in September with fresh snow on the ground. There’s also the possibility of the weather changing during the the day. Plus, you don’t want to take too much spare or bulky clothing because it just adds to the weight you have to carry when climbing. However, I’ve got some suggestions to make it easier.

      It’s best to take a few lighter layers than one or two thicker layers. This gives you more versatility, as you can wear them in different combinations, and more easily change what you are wearing if need be. This is useful because you are likely to be warm or hot when walking to the via ferrata and climbing it, but may get cold when you stop for a break or when you are on exposed ridges.

      My usual clothing for climbing in consists of a pair of light-weight walking trousers, a T-shirt and a light softshell jacket. The softshell jacket cuts out the wind and provides a bit of insulation. It’s also more breathable (and so more comfortable for climbing) than a waterproof. If it’s warm, the softshell goes in my rucksack as a back-up. I wear walking trousers with zip-off legs so that I can be in shorts if need be (although I rarely find it warm enough for that). If the weather is cold, then I use softshell trousers (e.g. Mammut’s Base Jump trousers) instead of the walking trousers so as to get a bit more warmth. I might also change the T-shirt for a long-sleeve thermal top.

      Plus, I take a fleece jacket that I can wear under the softshell jacket if need be. A jacket with a close fitting hood (e.g. Mountain Equipment Shroud Jacket) means that you don’t necessarily have to carry a spare hat. If its a cold day, you may find you need to wear this fleece and so think about throwing another light top in your rucksack as a back-up.

      A down or synthetic fill jacket made for mountain use (e.g. Rab Generator Alpine Jacket, Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket) is good for throwing on to keeping you warm at rest stops and as an emergency warm layer. Another useful back-up are a pair of light gloves with a tough palm (e.g. Marmot XT Gloves) to use instead of via ferrata gloves if its cold on the mountain tops.

      A waterproof jacket and trousers are essential because getting wet and cold can be a killer in the mountains. However, you probably won’t be climbing in them as vie ferrate are not fun to climb in the rain (your guide would probably get you to do some other activity if it were raining) and they can stay in your rucksack until needed.

      A sun hat can also be a good idea for the walk-in and walk-out as the sun in the Alps can be fierce.

      It’s worth bearing in mind that it might be hard and dangerous to take off or add a layer once you are climbing the via ferrata. It’s not just that it’s difficult and risky to get changed while climbing a ladder or balanced on a ridge. As it’s best to wear all your clothes under your harness, taking a top off may involving loosening your harness and, depending on where you are, this could be dangerous. It’s good to start a via ferrata feeling just a little cold as you will warm up once you start to climb and climbing while dripping in sweat isn’t fun. The one caveat I would make to this is that groups on via ferrata can move at the speed of their slowest member and, depending on your group, you might be hanging around for a while and get cold.

      My last suggestion is to check your travel insurance to see whether it covers climbing vie ferrate.

      Have a fun trip.

      Best wishes,

      Robin

      • Thanks for your reply Robin. It’s really appreciated that you take the time to give advise.
        Looking at the current weather reports it seem pretty cold so I’ll probably go for a pair of soft shell climbing trousers, tshirt and a thin fleece and a waterproof shell jacket. If its warmer I’ll pack the jacket in my backpack. It’s easier to add a jacket on route if I get cold I think. Bought a pair of gloves as well. Hadn’t though about gloves at all before I spoke to you. Hat and trousers are now on the shopping list. 🙂

        Thank you again for you time Robin.

  • Great post thanks. Planning to head back for a second week of Via Ferrata in the Dolomites in July. We went on the Exodus “Intro to Via Ferrata” trip in 2012 and used hire kit (great trip if anyone fancies this with a whole variety of routes up to 4B and excellent local guides!).

    This year we are looking at buying our own gear. I see that Edelrid have brought out a “variable friction” VF belay set. I presume that this uses some kind of webbing based friction brake rather than the webbing-tear or KISA rope friction devices on cheaper systems? Have you seen it and do you have any thoughts? Especially in consideration of the discussion on having a fall half way up that renders your VF break inoperable. It is hard to get information on whether this new type of devices is “reusable” in the event of a fall. We will take along a safety rope in any case.

    Peter

    • Thanks – I’m glad that you liked the post.

      I’ve never used an Edelrid Cable Vario, but it looks to be a very interesting and clever idea. An issue with most via ferrata sets is that they may not work if the person using the set is of insufficient weight to cause the webbing to fully deploy. If it doesn’t deploy properly, then it won’t be so good at reducing the impact forces that come in a fall and so there is a higher risk of injury. This is more likely to be an issue with someone who doesn’t weigh much or with a child. From what I can tell by looking at the Cable Vario on the Edelrid website (and in the window of a shop in Cortina the last time I was there), this set can be adjusted with an Allen key so that the case and webbing deploy with different user weights. It appears to use the tearing of webbing to absorb impact forces rather than a friction brake.

      The Cable Vario doesn’t look more reusable than other via ferrata sets to me. The manual states:
      “Following a fall load or in the event of damage, the personal protective product should be withdrawn from use immediately and passed on to an expert of the manufacturer for checking…”

      I hope that helps. Enjoy the Dolomites trip.

  • Hi, thanks for your article.

    I have a question, as I am learning climbing, and I have already via ferrata gears:

    Can I use the harness and the 2 carabiners of the v.f kit for climbing as well?

    My climbing partner claims is not safe, but the carabiners of v.f. look quite solid too.
    I was thinking to use one of them to hook the reverse – to save the money of the carabiner
    What do you think?

    (Actually I already bought the harness for climbing that has the difference to have the main ring rotated by 90 degrees, in vertical plane. This means that, in order to use the reverso with a v.f. harness one should hook 2 carabiners + reverso…but thatś another story.)

    Thanks

    • Thank you – I’m glad that you liked the article.

      Climbing and via ferrata gear are designed for specific uses and the way they are used is the result of a lot of past experience. I’m struggling to think of situations in which I would use via ferrata lanyards on a trad or sport climb. I can’t think of what benefits it would bring, particularly when there is gear which is specifically designed for rock climbing that can do the job perfectly well. Plus, I can imagine situations in which using via ferrata lanyards on a trad or sport climbing situations would be dangerous.

      It’s a little hard for me to say more on the basis of what I know about your gear and what you want to do. However, what I would say is that you and your climbing partner both need to be confident in the gear being used. So, if your climbing partner feels that something is unsafe, then you may need to re-think it in order to ensure that you have their confidence. If in doubt (or you and your climbing partner really disagree), then you can show a qualified climbing instructor your gear and talk through what you want to do they should be able to offer some advice on the right thing to do.

      I hope that helps.

      Best wishes,

      Robin

  • Hi
    Can you recommend me a via Ferrata trip for a first timer visiting the cortina area?
    I am fit with good stamina and good resistance to heights with very little rock climbing experience.
    I was considering just heading out there and booking up a guide. Is that something you would recommend?
    Thanks dean

    • Hi Dean,

      Booking a guide is a good way to start, particularly if you have very little rock climbing experience. There is a guide office in Cortina where you can find a guide. A qualified mountain guide can take you through how to do a via ferrata, give you safety instruction and probably help you do a via ferrata that you might have been unsure about doing by yourself (crucially, they can also help if anything doesn’t go according to plan).

      My first via ferrata was a grade 2A near Corvara called Piz da Lech. My feeling is that 2 is about the right grade to start out on as it’s got enough difficulty to be interesting, but not so much that you can’t comfortably get familiar with the kit and how to climb a via ferrata. There are some grade 2 via ferrata near Cortina. Unfortunately, as I understand it, the cable car that used to take people to the start of both the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona and Via Ferrata Marino Bianchi is no longer running. The other grade 2 via ferrata are the Via Ferrata Lamon and the Via Ferrata Formenton. Both are fairly high altitude and on big mountains, so not to be underestimated. However, the climbing on the Via Ferrata Lamon is straightforward and the views amazing (don’t go on a cloudy day, as you would really miss out). As a beginner (particularly if you don’t have experience of alpinism and/or rock climbing) you might want to do just the Via Ferrata Lamon to the summit of Tofana di Dentro and then turning around and going back to the cable car station. Via Ferrata Formenton involves some sections of down climbing, scrambling and walking without cables near some big slopes and drops (so it’s obviously more dangerous). If in any doubt about whether to do any via ferrata, I’d suggest speaking to the local mountain guides as they will be able to make a better assessment of your abilities than I can do and give you information on local conditions and weather.

      Hope that helps. Have a good trip.

      Best wishes,

      Robin

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