In this post, I tried to do a guide for beginners to via ferrata, what you need, why to try it, and where to try it out.
What is it!?
The photo below shows me doing a via ferrata in Kentucky. Note my harness, the footholds/handholds, the steel cable, my helmet, and the rock. The idea is that a course is set and the minimum number of rungs/cables are set to allow you complete the course while remaining safe. Obviously,the courses vary in difficulty. The easiest via ferratas allow you to take a short walk with the safety of a cable/ladder to experience a fantastic look-out from above (similar to the photo above) while the hardest ones can be both very difficult and very long climbs through mountainous areas with no climbing aids and exposed rock.
It was first invented as a way of traveling and fighting in the Dolomites during World War I by the Italians and the Austrians. You can still see/climb some of the old military routes today in the heart of the Dolomites, which is quite cool. Today, it's popular among Italians who treat it like most of us treat hiking: a fun way to get some exercise. It's most popular in summer when you don't need to worry about snow in the mountains, which can be an issue in winter/fall/spring depending on the location.
Why try out Via Ferrata?
- Exercise! You will be surprised how sore you are the next day in the arms.
- Incredible views of hard to access areas. Imagine discovering a secret waterfall that nobody else can see except within the gorge you're climbing up (photo below).
- Can be done solo unlike many other forms of climbing.
- Adrenaline rush.
- Most of all, it's fun.
Do I need a professional guide? How much is it?
If you live in the US, there are via ferratas located in Kentucky, California, Colorado, West Virginia, and Utah that will carefully explain everything and take you on your first via ferrata. This isn't true for every country as many via ferratas are not as regulated, but it's possible to find a guide. This is especially true in the mountains areas in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia. There are via ferratas in other countries all over the world, so it's worth looking into options close to you.
If you're looking for guides, more than $200 USD for one day is on the high end as you can typically try it out for roughly $100 per person with a guide and equipment for one day if you're in an area with many via ferratas. You can do better in terms of pricing, but it depends on the location. I paid about $50 for my first via ferrata at Torrent Falls (Kentucky,USA) and $100 for climbing Nelson Rocks (West Virginia, USA).
If you're considering it on your own, the internet has a lot of resources in terms of via ferrata routes/advice, but I would still recommend buying a Cicerone Guide if available. It's a succinct guide to the local routes that will help you find the beginning of the routes and assess difficulty. I should warn that even if you read about a route online, it might be very difficult or impossible to find without a guide. Most via ferratas are fairly remote, so you might need to take a ski lift, a long hike, or even drive to a small local cemetery (like we did) in order to find the route before hiking for 2 hours. Finding the beginning is non-trivial and it can be helpful to have a GPS locator to locate some of the routes you'll find on SummitPost or Wikiloc.
What do you need?
- Travel Insurance. Just in case.
- Minimal fear of heights. Admittedly, I get vertigo sometimes, but if you're not comfortable with climbing tall ladders and hiking with a drop below you, this may not be for you.
- Surefootedness. It's the ability to be sure in your steps and trust yourself when you're hiking on a path. I admittedly struggle with this, but this improves the more that you hike and do via-ferrata.
- A climbing harness. Any climbing harness that fits you well (they are sized) and is in good condition will do, however this can be rented if you don't own one. This can be used for any climbing activity, so it's a good investment.
- Carabiner. You use this to allow you to rest attached to the cable or the rungs. It's better to get a large carabiner with a screwlock (instead of a ball lock) in case emergency resting to make it easy for you to get connected to the rungs. Due to the thickness of the rungs, it's good to ask at the climbing store/outdoor store for a large one (at least 21mm opening). At most $10 and reusable for so many things. I own the AmD from Petzl.
Via Ferrata Set. This is your lifeline. This is how you are attached to the cable, but this is for emergency use only. If you fall, there is an Energy Absorption system inside the little pack that prevents you from falling off the rock as long as you're hooked into the cable properly with both clips attached. I've heard that it takes a decent fall or a mistake that prior to the fall to damage it, but if you have a fall, it is standard practice to check that it is not damaged. If it is damaged, you have a serious problem.
- If you're renting gear, have an expert carefully check your gear for any rips/tears before you go. Also, ask them what a tear/rip looks like if you'll be doing it without a guide.
- For anyone trying it out without a guide, find out a tear/rip looks like in the seam from an expert. This might save your life if you have a fall, but you're not sure if your gear is damaged. I researched my gear a lot and I ended up buying the Easy-Rider from Black Diamond, which has large clips that allow you to clip into the cable more easily. $90-150 USD.
- Helmet. This is required as you're often climbing directly on the rock and rock MIGHT fall on you. Jacob actually witnessed a rock fall on someone during a via-ferrata, but luckily their helmet stopped anything serious from happening. More generally, if you know there's falling rocks, don't look up and keep your head down to protect yourself better. Rentable from anywhere that rents via ferrata gear. I own the Half-Dome one from Black Diamond and it was $59.
- Gloves. Your hands will get very cut up from gripping the rocks. Similarly, your hand will sweat a bit, so it makes it a lot easier to grip the rocks. It's better to have half-finger gloves due to being able to use your fingertips. This is optional, but I've seen it make a huge difference in my own climbing. Not rentable, but cheap and worth it. I bought mine through Black Diamond for about $15 USD.
- Comfortable sports clothes that fit tightly and hiking shoes with good grip. Typically, you'll need to hike and climb ladders, so you don't want to use rock climbing shoes if you own them. The grip is important as I often find the rock is the best way to get a good foothold. Shoes that go above your ankle are a good idea to prevent you from ankle-injuries. Bring an extra layer since it can get cold at higher elevations.
Where to do it?
Some areas to consider within Europe:
- The Dolomites in Northern Italy (you can fly into Venice or Verona).
- Southern Dolomites: Close to Lake Garda/Brentas. If you're considering this region, Arco is the major hub for climbing and you will be able to rent via ferrata equipment.
- Northern Dolomites: Canazei, Belluno, Cortina and Bolzano Cortina is a major hub for climbing and I believe you can rent via ferrata equipment here.
- If you're considering doing a vacation here, you can actually take a ski lift up to a high point and do via ferratas in between mountain huts.
- Austria. The largest number of via ferratas of any country. I haven't done a via ferrata in Austria yet, but the Rax mountains are quite close to Vienna.
- France. Mostly in the Pyrenees mountains mountains closer to Toulouse, however there are some via ferratas closer to Lyon/the Italian border.
- Switzerland. A nice assortment of different routes catered to different interests in the various mountain ranges, mostly in the SW part of Switzerland and close to Bern.(Link here to a guide to one in the beautiful Lauterbrunnen valley in the Swiss Alps!)
- Spain. Less well-developed via ferrata system and not as well-maintained, but present in the south: Pyrenees and close to Sierra Nevadas. We did one via ferrata known as the Stairs of Death in Ronda, which gave an incredible view of Ronda's famous bridge as we climbed up the sides of the gorge.
- Triglav National Park in Slovenia. and the Julian Alps Full of beautiful lakes and incredible via ferrata routes. You can rent equipment in Bled.
- Nelson Rocks is a longer via ferrata located in West Virginia that is 4ish hours. It's not technically difficult, but it's quite beautiful and you will be quite high up. You are climbing up these two strange fin formations seen below. You go with two well trained guides who will help you through any difficulties (or just nervousness). The scariest moments depend on the person, but I'd say it was turning onto the fin for me with the drop below me and walking across the bridge for a friend of mine! The whole area is STUNNING and even more so in fall with the leaves turning.
- Torrent Falls. Located in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. It's more of a technical training course, as it has several separated courses of different levels. It's kind of nice since you have the opportunity to try some courses above your level (and fail miserably) as well as rest/get a snack between courses. I've been here twice now and the staff is incredibly knowledgable.