FF7: Via Ferrata (summer 2011)


Via Ferrata

    Via Ferrata means “iron road” in Italian and refers to a mountain hiking trail with steel cables, and perhaps ladders and bridges, anchored along the route to make passage safer and more accessible. These elements are upgrades from the wooden ladders and ropes used by Italian troops to scale the Dolomites during WWI.  Back then the Alpine hardware was to help the soldiers elude and attack the Austrians; now it’s used to create a network of high mountain trails for recreational hikers. “Klettersteig” is the German translation for Via Ferrata.

Chilling-out at the top of a via ferrata.

To us, “Via Ferrata” translates into American English as “Loads of Fun.” I lack the drive and discipline that is the hallmark of serious athletes, so having a large buffet of activities from which to choose is key for me in maintaining my fitness.

    I also know that I do much better with the carrot rather than the stick approach to motivation and the Via Ferrata hikes in the Italian Dolomites are among the choicest carrots we’ve found.  Even only doing a few Vie Ferrate each summer spurs us to push harder on our hiking speed, to keep our all-round fitness higher, and to put more effort into upper body strength training than we’d otherwise do.

    In addition to being compelling motivation for tending to our fitness, Vie Ferrate are a perfect ‘intermediate solution’ between regular hiking and mountaineering. They allow one to get many of the thrills and stunning views of mountaineering without having the skill, training, gear, or conditioning of mountaineers. Doing a Via Ferrata feels a bit like cheating and we love it.

Where To Find Them

    Vie Ferrate (the plural of Via Ferrata) got their start in the Italian Dolomites but are now scattered across Europe and around the rest of the world.  We’ve found the best concentration of them in Italian Alps, often with several available from a single village, though have ventured onto a few in Austria.

Preparatory Training

    If you are in good hiking form and relatively at ease with heights, then you can likely dive into your first Via Ferrata experience without any preparatory work. That wasn’t the case for Bill, however. His time in the map and guide book sections of Alpine bookstores whetted his appetite for doing a Via Ferrata but he was uneasy at heights and was uncertain as to whether he’d freeze on the face of a cliff or not. Not wanting to spend the time and money on a guided trip and then have a bad experience, we launched into some pre-conditioning activities.

    Ropes courses were just catching on in the Dolomites when we became interested in doing a Via Ferrata, so we put our bikes in reverse to spent a day at one in 2006. It was there that Bill sorted out that he wasn’t really afraid of heights but that he did have a lot of apprehension about doing unfamiliar physical activities.  A few hours on a couple of ropes courses and a half day on ropes and zip lines in a gorge with a guide was enough of a confidence boost for Bill that we could both proceed with our first Via Ferrata experience with the expectation of success.

    Getting a formal introduction to climbing at your local rock gym also would be excellent preparation for your first Via Ferrata. There you would gain experience with using a climbing harness, with finding unlikely hand and foot holds, and with learning how to hold and move your body most efficiently on a face. Indoor climbing walls are also a low-investment way to assess if any lurking fears might sabotage you in the wild or to take the edge off of them. We did it backwards: we did several Vie Ferrate one summer and then hit the rock gym for some training in first-language-English that winter. Definitely “better late than never” because our rock gym climbing experience made the following year’s Vie Ferrate significantly easier.  

Getting Started

    We tackled our first couple of Vie Ferrate in small groups with local guides and highly recommend guided groups as a way to begin. The guides provide the equipment, teach you the basic techniques, introduce on-the-wire etiquette, transport you to a suitable route, and keep you safe through the event. One of our guides was great, the other was terrible, but we benefited from having the range of experience on the different routes. A more expensive alternative to a small group is hiring a private guide as an instructor though learning to be a part of a group on the rocky faces is in itself a valuable skill.

    After our 2 group experiences, we rented gear a couple of times at local sports shops and Bill bravely planned our routes from books purchased in the area. Next up was buying our own equipment, which spared us the logistical problems of carving out time to pick-up and return the gear on the day of the hikes.  Starting with a guide, then renting equipment, then buying our own gear was a nice progression and by the time we were longing to have our own equipment we knew what mattered to us when shopping.

    Going with a guide also helps you safely establish what level of route difficulty is appropriate for you. Most if not all countries have official rating systems to compare the relative difficulty of the routes and there are ways to correlate the various Via Ferrata rating systems. If your guide took you on a route rated as a “B/C” and you thought it was pretty tough with coaching, then you might want to stick to a “B” for your first outing without a guide.

Crossing the bridges isn’t so hard but they aren’t for the faint-hearted.

    We learned, much to our chagrin, from our first guided experience that our biggest shortcoming was that we were too slow on the trails, especially on the downhills. We were humiliated but clear: if we were going to finish day hikes with Via Ferrata segments in a day, we’d have to significantly pick-up our speed.  Improving our speed on the trails became the focus of every subsequent hike and continues to be a skill we work on.

    To have the greatest odds of actually going on your first Via Ferrata in the Dolomites with a guide, you’d do well to book yourself a room for 2-3 nights (or more if the weather is unsettled) in a single village with a mountain guide organization that escorts groups, like Ortisei or Cortina. When you arrive in town, locate the guide’s office and check their door for business hours, which usually begin about 5pm. Return at the appointed hour and then commence with the dance to get on the schedule.

    The guide staffing the desk that night will ask you questions to establish how difficult a route they can put you on and then tell you which days of the week they have a group forming for the suitable routes. Your ability; how frequently they go to the suitable routes; the number of other people signing up for the same route; and the weather all influence when you’ll go, which is why you can’t just blow into town and be assured of being on a route in the morning. Being willing to pay the premium for a private guide should however get you a next-day outing, weather permitting.  If you have a car, you might be able to accelerate the process of getting on the wire by checking the schedules at the mountain guide offices of several villages.

   Be sure to budget time the night before your guided outing to buy suitable picnic lunch and snack supplies. Take cash with you as well as you are likely to have a stop-over at a mountain hut for mid-afternoon refreshments in which you should plan on chipping in for the guide’s fare as well as your own.

The Gear

Required Equipment

   The minimum gear is a harness, a Via Ferrata set, and a helmet. Any climbing harness and any climbing helmet will do but the ‘Via Ferrata set’ is specific to Via Ferrata. The ‘set’ is a pair of shock absorbing devices on short ropes, each with special carabineer on the end. The carabineers are specific for this sport because they open more widely to accommodate the thick steel cables and are rated for falling loads.  It is cheapest to buy all 3 items together though you can customize your gear by buying them separately.

Our very basic via ferrata gear.

    We use our bike helmets as a compromise because we are carrying this gear while cyclotouring but we recommend using a stronger, proper mountaineering helmet. (You must remove your bike helmet visor if it has one).

    We bought our very basic Black Diamond webbing climbing harnesses in the States because they were significantly cheaper and because we could find less-bulky models than in Italy, which we needed for hauling on our bikes.  The leg straps clip into place, instead of being a ‘step-through’ design, which is delightfully more stable when ‘gearing up’ on loose-rock slopes.

    We purchased the Via Ferrata sets in Italy because that was where we found the greatest selection and after using rented equipment, Bill had very specific tastes in carabineers. Having easy to open and close carabineers is a huge help to beginners because you’ll be performing that pair of movements hundreds of times in a day.

Near-Essential Equipment

    In addition to the required gear, we always use gloves. I found soft, fingertip-less leather gloves at a worker’s safety supply shop (Sanderson’s Safety in Portland, OR) for under $5 a pair. We tried cutting the tips off of other leather work gloves but couldn’t keep the stitching from unraveling. The fingers on biking gloves aren’t quite long enough and the gloves designed for the sport are quite expensive ($50+) and don’t always give as much finger coverage as our cheapies.

    Gloves are nice for several reasons. Gloves protect your hands from the harshness of gripping the cable for hours and from puncture wounds from the occasional frayed wire on the lines.  We also like them for protecting the palms of our hands from scrapes and punctures when securing hand-holds on the rocks. I also carefully place my heavy leather gloves between my sit bones and the rock during lunch.  Gloves were not included in our group experiences or when renting equipment and we highly recommend having gloves for your first experience because beginners benefit from gloves even more than the experienced folks.

Suited-up & ready to go.

    The first year we did Vie Ferrate with guides, we bought boots in deference to their requirements. But like any hiking, a wide range of foot wear will do. We have done a number of Vie Ferrate in our Chaco sandals and Vibram 5 Fingers with no regrets. And actually, the 5 Fingers are more like climbing shoes than boots and allow more options for foot holds than bulkier alternatives.  In 2011 we noticed that the ‘boot cult’ in the mountains is lessening and there is a good chance now that your guide will no longer require high top boots and accept durable, low cut hiking shoes, though I wouldn’t show up in running shoes or ‘trainers’.

    Ironically, we find some of the scariest parts on Via Ferrata routes off the wire, on the steep descents.  Anytime we do a new Via Ferrata, we always take our single pair of trekking poles so we each have a third leg to help us down more quickly. Whether going out with a guide or on your own, only take your poles if they telescope down in length and if you can secure them very snugly to your pack. They must be stowed--you cannot do a Via Ferrata with poles in your hands. And there is nothing worse than literally getting immobilized when clipped to a wire and precariously balanced on a rock face because one end of a stowed pole is hung-up on a rock.

    We highly recommend stowing your water in a bladder with a drink tube, especially for your first Via Ferrata. Your water consumption could easily be double your usual if you are on the wire on a sun-exposed face for hours sandwiched in the middle of a string of people, whether you are alone or in a group. It’s too dangerous to risk getting dehydrated and you cannot count on being able to nab a sip from a bottle when you need it because you sometimes go long spells without having a free hand and there often isn’t a place to “pull off” for a break.   

Guide Books & Maps

    The Vie Ferrate are concentrated in the Dolomites and not surprisingly, most of the Vie Ferrate guide books are for the Dolomites.  The challenge is that there is only one guide book series available in English but it is generally available in the mountain villages of the Dolomites. Both Italian and German books are easy to come by in the region. If you have no experience with either foreign language and can’t find the English book, grab an Italian guide as Italian is easier for English speakers to decipher on the fly than German. (For example in Italian: “difficolta” is “difficulty,” “tempo” is “time.”)

    Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites Vol 2 published by Cicerone is very thorough, especially with the criteria with which it evaluates routes.  Bill uses Volume 2 because it covers the region of the Dolomites that we prefer to spend the most time in.

    Bill supplements his route planning with the Austrian books Kletterstiegführer Österreich and Klettersteigführer  Dolomiten-Südtirol-Gardasee by the publisher Alpinverlag because they are so good; the first book covers Austria and the second the Dolomites. He thinks that the brief sidebars in English are adequate summaries and that you could benefit from the guide without German language skills that he enjoys.  They are the only books he has seen in which each segment of the route is individually categorized by difficulty. That can be helpful, as in the case of taking on a route that is a little too difficult. Better to encounter questionable stretches when you have the chance to turn around or are at least fresh rather than being stressed at the end of the day.  This Austrian guide book includes a CD with PDF format so you can choose between hauling your computer or the book around on your travels.

    The challenge in route selection is that even with a standardized difficulty rating system with Alpinverlag’s books, we find the routes with the same ratings much more difficult in Austria than Italy. The few Austrian routes that we have done with sections of intermediate difficulty were at the limit of our arm strength. Bill shakes his head while on them saying “I don’t know how you managed” because he knows that his upper body is significantly more powerful than mine. Indeed, I just barely make it.

    Our experience with Italian vie ferrete is that they are like rock climbing: the boosting power comes from your legs and the arms are mainly used for stability. In Austria we occasionally find ourselves with our legs practically dangling so virtually all of the power must come from the upper body. For Italy one should train by doing squats; for Austria one should train by doing pull-ups--and lots of them.

    Bill owns copies of the handy little Kompass brand spiral-bound books but does not recommend them because compared to the others they are harder to use, aren’t as complete, and have poor maps.  If you are reduced to buying the Kompass guidebook for your trip to the Dolomites, note that there are 2 regional editions “Vie Ferrate Dolomiti Nord #968” and “Vie Ferrate Dolomiti Sud.” Their website is www.kompass.at (Austrian) and the books are available in both Italian and German.

Doing It

    Like so many new activities, getting launched on your first Via Ferrata requires planning and carving out some time for it. But getting started is the hard part, and after that it’s just a matter of doing it. Stalling-out our bike travels in 2006 to make room for our first Via Ferrata experience has paid bigger dividends than we ever imagined. The Vie Ferrate add pizzazz to every hiking season and even repeating familiar routes is still a thrill so seize the opportunity to do one if you can.

     You can read more about how we positioned ourselves for doing our first Via Ferrata in 2006 on our other website: velofun.us - 11 Via Ferrata for the full story. If you want to know more specific details on mountain guide groups and equipment rentals based on our 2006 experiences, click velofun.us - Italy/Dolomites.