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BLOG | TECHNIQUE | 06 July 2016

Via Ferrata Climbing

What is a Via Ferrata route and what do you need to climb one?
Each year, Via Ferrata climbing attracts more and more people who want to get out into nature and have a climbing adventure that doesn’t require the same amount of experience required for sport or traditional climbing.

The first via ferrata routes were equipped in the XIX century, in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but these were relatively unimportant until the outbreak of WWI, when they were used to help troops reach inaccessible areas in the Dolomites.

In Ordesa National Park, in the Spanish Pyrenees, the famous pitons of Cotatuero were placed in 1881 to facilitate access to the Brecha de Roldán for British hunters of Pyrenean chamois. The ironmonger from the nearby village of Torla certainly did a good job, because the pitons are still used by thousands of mountaineers each year.

Until 1917, Italian and Austrian troops fought fiercely in the Dolomite mountains. Their objective was to gain control of the mountain summits so that they could install observation posts and artillery. In order to facilitate access for soldiers to the difficult, exposed terrain, thousands of metres of fixed ropes, wooden ladders and hand rails were installed. It wasn’t until WWII that this infrastructure was replaced by steel cables, metal ladders and pitons, with the aim of conserving such a complicated structure.

Today, in Europe, many via ferrata routes are maintained by mountaineering clubs and associations. Sometimes a special permit is required to climb the route and others may require payment.

Photo 1
In 1911, in the Colorado National Monument National Park, John Otto opened, what could be considered to be the first via ferrata. Steps were chiselled into the sandstone rock and metal pipes were placed about a metre apart, as rungs for ascending the 200m sandstone tower, known as Independence Monument. All the pipes have disappeared over the years (except one), leaving the holes and chiselled steps as a distant memory of the John Otto’s via ferrata.

Nowadays, John Otto’s Route is one of the most popular sandstone tower routes in the American desert. A 4-pitch free-climb rated as 6a, which would be impossible to ascend if it weren’t for the steps cut into the rock and the pipe holes. Nowadays, it can no longer be classified as a via ferrata route, but it can be described as man-made. Photo 1 shows chiselled steps cut into the final pitch of the rock and the old pipe holes.

A via ferrata ascent can be varied. It may be entirely vertical or include a horizontal traverse or even a combination of both. Reaching a via ferrata route can also vary a great deal; many are easily accessed from ground height but other routes may start at 1,000m or more.

The route itself can also vary in length and include ascents, descents and horizontal traverses. While many routes take no more than an hour or so to complete, some, such as those in the Dolomites take several days and involve carrying a pack for sleeping in the mountain huts provided.

The kind of rock can also vary from solid granite to soft sandstone.

Photo 2
Most via ferrata routes follow a natural, logical ascent line and connect smooth slabs, overhangs and chimneys with shelves and balconies. In Photo 2 you can see the wall that is equipped with the Telluride (Colorado) via ferrata. 80% of the route is a traverse. At the start of the route is a popular sport climbing area.

The objective of a via ferrata routes is to connect the whole ascent with steel cables, placed approximately three to ten metres apart. Metal rungs, hand rails, ladders and steps cut into the rock and sometimes even bridges help the climber ascend. Photo 3 shows metal rungs and via ferrata cable. Such diversity of artefacts help climbers who are less familiar with climbing techniques progress safely and enjoy the experience.

As a general rule, the climber will be attached to the cable via a dynamic lanyard system. On more difficult pitches climbers can use a rope and belay device, as well as the cable to give additional security.

Photo 3
The fall factor is used to quantify the severity of a climbing fall. Generally, it has a value between 0 and 2 in climbing, and the higher the fall factor, the higher the forces that are generated. During a via ferrata ascent or in adventure parks, you run the serious risk of a factor 2 fall or higher, which can lead to a forceful impact and injury. This is due to the use of a static lanyard or life-line, which doesn’t allow energy to be absorbed. Whenever you climb above an anchor, a belay point or the cable, you can provoke a fall of factor 2 or higher, if you are tied on with a conventional lanyard, without an energy absorber. When you climb a normal climbing route, you use a dynamic rope and place anchors as you climb, to offer protection in the event of a fall. The distance of a fall and the amount of rope fed out by the belayer determines the fall factor.

Therefore, when tied into a secure anchor via a static lanyard, you should never climb above that anchor. You should always use a dynamic lanyard with an energy absorber to offer protection in the event of a fall on a via ferrata route. This way the impact produced in the safety chain, during a fall, will be less dramatic.

Lightweight, efficient safety equipment should be used on a via ferrata ascent so that you can climb freely.
  • Harness. A certified waist harness should be lightweight and comfortable. Children (up to approx. 8 years old) should use a full-body harness. A waist harness is more comfortable than a full-body harness as it allows greater freedom of movement. If the climber is wearing a heavy backpack, a chest harness should be used to prevent the climber from turning upside down in the event of a fall.
    Our Selection of Harnesses
  • Lanyards. These should be dynamic and include an energy absorber. Nowadays there are numerous options available when it comes to choosing a lanyard with energy absorber. Apart from choosing one that is CE or UIAA certified and with a good safety system, it’s important to try and choose one that is lightweight and easy to use.

    Lanyards are usually Y-shaped and made of webbing, with two carabiners at the ends. The webbing is attached to an energy absorber system, which, absorbs impact in the event of a fall. The lanyard is tied to your harness belay loop with a lark’s head knot. The carabiners are normally oversized to allow the climber to move smoothly on the cable.

    There are several ways to improvise a lanyard system on the spot. The following example is safe and simple. You’ll need the following: an energy absorber, two slings, two wide locking carabiners and two oval screw-links. The energy absorber is attached to the belay loop of the harness via a screw-link. The second screw-link is attached to the other extreme of the energy absorber and this will be attached to the webbing slings. A locking carabiner will be attached to the end of each sling. The result is a double lanyard that absorbs energy. In photo 4 you can see a via ferrata lanyard (left), an improvised

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