Via Ferrata for Dummies
Words and pics James Rushworth
Italy’s Dolomites boast the highest concentration of via ferrata in the world and act as beacon to mountain enthusiasts. James Ruthworth, author of the definitive guidebook to the via ferrata of the region, gives some tips on using these “iron ways”.
The limestone Dolomites of north east Italy have highest concentration of via ferrata in the world, boasting some 170 historic routes. The metal wires intespersed with ladders and unlikely suspension bridges give straightforward access to some of the world's most striking summits, allowing you to move quickly over technical ground that would normally require a rope. The routes are for the most part maintained by CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) and the local guides working within the area. They are free to use and are generally accessible to anyone with reasonable mountain experience and a good head for heights. They provide a relaxing or good wet weather itinerary for experienced climbers and a fantastic means by which to ascend an otherwise inaccessible peak for those without the same technical climbing knowledge.
What is a via ferrata?
In its most basic form a via ferrata consists of a metal (originally iron - now more commonly steel) wire that is connected to the surrounding rock at numerous intervals. The purpose of this wire is twofold:
1) It provides a fixed form of climbing protection which climbers can physically attach themselves to.
2) It provides an artificial aid for climbers who can use the wire for assistance throughout the route.
Though the metal wire is the fundamental feature of all via ferrata, there are also numerous secondary elements employed as additional artificial aid. These can include (although are not limited to) stemples (large staples in the rock), steps, ladders, bridges and walkways.
Origins of the name
The term 'via ferrata' is used in most languages with the exception of German, which uses 'Klettersteig' (climbing path). 'Via ferrata' originates from 'via attrezzata', which means 'fully equipped road/route'. Common English translations cite 'iron way', 'iron road' or 'iron path', derived from 'ferro', meaning iron. In Italian the plural is 'via ferrate', whilst in English both 'via ferrata' and 'via ferratas' are used interchangeably.
Via ferrata history
Whilst the construction of via ferrata is often attributed to the First World War there are several routes that predate 1914. There is some debate as to which is the oldest via ferrata in the Dolomites, though it is generally accepted to be either the Marmolada West Ridge or Delle Mèsules (Possnecker Path), with some reports of the former being constructed as early as 1903.
Nevertheless it was the arrival of the First World War to the Dolomite mountains that provided the catalyst for construction of via ferrata en masse. Both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies in the area found the wires invaluable for moving men and supplies through previously inaccessible areas. Via ferrata were constructed to defend key positions and were often the site of vicious fighting.
The legacy of this terrible conflict can still be witnessed on many of the routes, with the tunnels (Giovanni Lipella), trenches (Eterna Brigata Cadore), officer quarters (Ivano Dibona), lookout positions (Delle Scalette), field hospitals (Col dei Bos/Degli Alpini and Ettore Bovero) and even an original field gun (Via delle Trincee - La Mesola) still in evidence today.
Following the war many of the via ferrata were re-equipped by CAI and used as a means of attracting tourists to the area. This was a slow process until the 1950s which saw an explosion in tourism to the area. This sudden influx of visitors rapidly led to increased environmental concerns and led to the expansion being curtailed in favour of just maintaining the pre-existing routes.
More recently some new via ferrata have been constructed in the area, the first 'modern' route being Sandro Pertini. Built in Vallunga, an area covered under the EU's 'Natura 2000' environmental protection policy, the route was shrouded in controversy as many felt the route had been built purely to commercial ends with a disregard for the environmental impact. The route was closed temporarily before being officially sanctioned by the EU in 2008, setting a precedent for other new routes to be built in the area. Ski Club 18 above Cortina was constructed in 2009 to 'enrich the mountaineering tradition' of the area, and named after the Rome ski club of the same name, whilst Magnifici Quattro in the Van San Nicolò follows part of a First World War route and was named in honour of four mountain rescue members who were tragically killed in an avalanche whilst attempting a rescue in 2009.
For more information on the First World War in the Dolomites I highly recommend The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front by Mark Thompson which is an eye opening read. His talk at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival was both excellent and enlightening.
Via Ferrata grades
There are numerous grading systems used for via ferrata and a European standard system has yet to emerge. So far English books have adopted the Smith/Fletcher System which uses a dual numeric and alphabetic grading classification. A number (from 1-6) is used to denote the technical difficulty of a route, whilst a letter (A-D) is used to portray the 'seriousness / danger' of said route.
Via Ferrata equipment
• Harness - A sit, or full body, harness depending on personal preference.
• Helmet - It is important to wear a helmet on via ferrata, primarily because of the ris of rockfall from parties above you.
• Via Ferrata Lanyards - These can be hired or bought from most of the sport shops in the Dolomites. They come in many makes and designs, although there have been a number of recalls recently of via ferrata lanyards so it is worth doing some prior research. It is important not to create your own lanyards using slings, static or dynamic rope bacaue of the potentially huge fall factors generated.
• On the harder routes or in changeable weather it is often a good idea to bring along a short rope and belay device.
Via Ferrata Etiquette
• Try and leave one section of wire between yourself and other climbers to minimise the risk of a chain reaction in the case of a fall.
• Always remain clipped into the wire with at least one lanyard.
• If you are overtaking wait until a safe section to do so.
• Warn climbers below you in the event of rockfall
An alternative Lake Garda perspective... © James Rushforth, Sep 2014.
There are a number of guidebooks covering via ferrata in the Dolomites. Here are some of the ones I find most helpful:
Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 & 2 - Two separate volumes from Cicerone providing a dedicated via ferrata guide, written in English covering the North, Central and Eastern Dolomites.
Ferrate a Cortina - A via ferrata guide, translated into English covering Cortina d'Ampezzo and immediate surrounding area.
Rockfax Cover © Rockfax, May 2014.