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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.