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 lanyard with energy absorber (centre) and a normal lanyard without an energy absorber, which is not recommendable for via ferrata climbing (right).
    Our Selection of Lanyards
    Helmet. A lightweight, certified climbing helmet is adequate.
    Our Selection of Helmets
    Carabiners. Wide locking carabiners or auto-lock systems. The carabiner should run smoothly along a cable and clip easily to rungs, so small carabiners should not be used as they may not fit easily onto all via ferrata anchors.
    Our Selection of Carabiners
    Belay systems. If you use a rope during a via ferrata ascent, you should have a good belay device. Choose from a manual belay device or automatic one, such as a Grigri or use a Munter Hitch. To descend you can use the same belay device or a figure-of-eight.
    Our Selection of Belay Systems
    Slings. It’s important to carry a number of shoulder and belay slings for setting up a belay point or for anchoring. If you use a rope you’ll need some quickdraws for clipping to the anchors on the route.
    Our Selection of Slings
    Backpack. A lightweight and comfortable backpack that doesn’t pull you back too much for transporting all your gear, such as water, food, warm clothing, a headlamp and first-aid kit. Try to keep it as light as possible so that you can enjoy the ascent. A heavy pack can also pull you back on vertical sections or overhangs.
    Our Selection of Backpacks
    Footwear. Lightweight boots or shoes with a good grip for moving on rock.
    Our Selection of Men’s Footwear
    Our Selection of Women’s Footwear
    Photo 4
    The ascent process is simple. The lanyard is connected to the climber’s harness via a lark’s head knot or screw-link.

    The carabiners at the two ends of the lanyard are clipped to the cable and these slide along as we progress. During the ascent, it’s important to use your feet and legs to prevent over-tiring your arms. This same principle is used for rock climbing, as your lower extremities are much stronger than the upper.

    Photo 5 shows a climber’s progression on vertical terrain with the help of metal rungs and the natural rock holds. When you reach the end of a cable section or joint, one carabiner is changed to the next section and then the other. Photo 6 shows a climber’s progression with two carabiners on the cable. Ideally only one person should progress on each cable section, to avoid dragging down the second climber in the event of the first falling. It is therefore recommendable to allow the first climber to pass onto the next section before setting off. It is useful to connect a sling with a locking carabiner to your harness as this can be used as a provisional anchor, on steps, for example, when you want to stop for a rest.
    Photo 5
    Photo 6
    On a horizontal section of a via ferrata climb, the same principles apply as on a vertical section. Photo7 shows a horizontal traverse. No more than two people should progress at once between each anchor and one person is preferable. If you need a rest, you can either lean back on the lanyard or use your auxiliary sling. You can also hold onto the cable or a rock hold with one hand on a horizontal section, as shown in photo 8.
    Photo 7
    Photo 8
    On certain occasions you may feel safer if you use a rope to progress on a via ferrata route. There are several reasons for this:
    • The route is difficult
    • The route is vertical or overhanging
    • Your climbing partner is new and inexperienced at height
    Whatever the reason, the same basic safety principles apply as when rock climbing. The rope should be dynamic and no longer than 40m in length. The diameter can vary, providing it is certified as a single climbing rope. Photo 9 shows a rope being used to belay a climber during a via ferrata section with a fixed rope.
    Photo 9
    1. Roped Teams
    When progressing as a roped team, you should remain tied in and keep a distance between you and your rope team that is greater than the distance between the cable sections. This is a simple technique on non-difficult routes for progressing quickly. The lanyard will be used in the same way as described above. The rope between the climbers should be kept taught and passed through the anchors where possible. On some via ferrata routes the rope can be passed through permanent anchors on the route. The lead climber can also place some runners or carabiners on the route to facilitate passing through the rope if there are no permanent anchors available. The second climber will remove these anchors during the climb.

    2. Belaying on Pitches
    If the situation demands, you can belay your climbing partner on more difficult sections and set up a belay point for each pitch. The lead climber passes the rope through the intermediate anchors as he is belayed by his partner. When the lead climber reaches the belay point, he will belay the second climber from the belay point using a Munter Hitch, Grigri or other belay device. This gives greater control of the rope than belaying from your harness. This process is repeated as many times as necessary. This process is slow but safe. Photo 10 shows a climber being belayed on a via ferrata route in Sacs, Benasque.
    Photo 10

    A via ferrata descent can be varied
    • some routes can be descended by walking down a path – this is the most usual
    • other routes can be descended by a rappel, if the route is equipped for this
    • some occasions may require you to retrace the climb, for example if the weather changes to a storm or lightning or if you find you progress too slowly and won’t finish before nightfall. Or in the case of an injury to one of the climbers. Whatever the reason, the process for the climb down is the same as for the ascent, using all the same anchors and safety measures (photo 11)
    Photo 11
    Before setting off on an adventure, climbing a via ferrata route, it is important to study the route and check that you are able to take on the challenge. At the same time, you will need to check that you have the right gear to complete the route safely. You may find that there are other climbers on the route above you, in which case, you will have to look out for possible rock fall or other objects. Maintain a safe distance from the other climbers and keep an eye on the weather conditions, especially if thunder and lightening are a possibility.
    Photo 11
    After reading this post, hopefully you are eager to go climb a via ferrata route. After all, this is one of the greatest thrills you can have as an outdoor enthusiast. Travelling along one of these routes is a unique way of enjoying a climbing experience and is a great option for those who want to experience climbing in nature but don’t have the expertise required for traditional climbing.

    Text and photos:
    José Carlos Iglesias, Guía de Montaña UIAGM

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