Via Ferrata - a general guide
Walk 6116

Country - Italy

Region - Dolomites - Val Gardena

Author - Paul Gasson

Introduction: So, you've been walking in the UK, and perhaps abroad too, for a number of years. Your mountain skills and navigation are OK, you've maybe done a little climbing in the lower grades and you're looking around for something new to try? How about a trip to Italy to sample their Via Ferrata? Via Ferrata? What's THAT when they're at home, you may ask. Let me explain, and see if I can whet your appetite for this half way house between walking and climbing.

What are they?The clue is in the translation, which is 'Iron Way', and refers to a large number of routes, mostly in the Dolomites, but also in the Pyrenees and elsewhere, which have been protected by means of wire ropes, rungs, pegs and ladders to make them accessible to the average fit and experienced walker. That having been said, a complete lack of vertigo coupled with a reasonable degree of mountain experience is necessary to complete the more technical routes safely, and the most difficult routes DO require rock climbing experience. Some of the routes originated during the First World War when competing armies fought over the Dolomite area, and needed to get men and equipment to points of vantage easily, but the real development in the routes began in the thirties when the Club Alpino Italiano, and others, shortened the approaches to popular climbing routes by installing artificial aids.

What equipment do I need?

A climbing harness (either sit or full type). A lightweight, alpine style harness, such as the DMM Alpine would be suitable, and this could be supplemented by a chest harness such as the Troll Klimelite if required.
A helmet to protect from rock fall. A lightweight, well ventilated helmet would be best, such as the Camp Silver Star or HB Olympus. It can be VERY hot out there!
A helmet to protect from rock fall. A lightweight, well ventilated helmet would be best, such as the Camp Silver Star or HB Olympus. It can be VERY hot out there!
A Via Ferrata set such as the Petzl Zyper. Although designs vary, all comprise a short length of rope in a 'Y' formation, run through an impact absorbing device, and with each of the two arms of the Y terminating in a large Via Ferrata self locking karabiner. Available from good climbing shops here, and locally.This is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL! (a fall of 5 metres with 1 metre of rope out = Factor 5 fall. This would be fatal, likely to cause the rope, karabiner, the protecting cable and possibly even the anchorage to fail!)
Well fitting leather gloves to protect against broken strands in the wire ropes. Special Via Ferrata gloves are available in the area, though I have not seen any in UK as yet.
A good guide book, and map The Cicerone guide 'Via Ferrata, Scrambles in the Dolomites' is good, and to which I am indebted for some of the background information, as is 'Via Ferrata a complete guide to France' containing a lot of safety and general information, as well as good route descriptions, all of which are graded in increasing difficulty, from a) Easy, and without problems for beginners and children, through to g) requiring perfect climbing technique on vertical rock. In fact anyone who can climb to Very Difficult or Severe grade will have no special difficulty on the majority of Via Ferrata, whilst reasonably fit and sure footed walkers should be able to tackle routes up to d) satisfactorily.
Normal walking gear, together with a medium sized lightweight rucsac (35-50 litres should be adequate). Well fitting, supportive boots are essential, and these should be well ventilated for all day comfort, probably ruling out those with a Gore Tex or similar liner, which can become very warm in summer conditions. A good map (1:2500) of the area, and a compass, together with the ability to use them! The map we used was the Val Gardena 1:25000 by Carta Escursionistica-Wanderkarte which covers the Vie Ferrate, footpaths, cablecars and chair lifts well. Full waterproofs should be carried.

How difficult are they?

The Cicerone guide book classifies the routes as:-
a) Suitable for foot sure mountain walkers and children ( on a short rope).Easy and without problems
b) Easy for experienced mountain walkers free of vertigo.
c) Some experience, sure footedness and freedom from vertigo necessary.
d) Absolute sure footedness and freedom from vertigo necessary
e) Additional mountain experience and climbing ability necessary
f) Good climbing technique on very steep rock required
g) Perfect climbing technique on vertical rock required

What else should I know?

The Italian Dolomites are very walker friendly, with an extensive network of footpaths, almost all of which are numbered and marked on the maps, and which are well waymarked (sometimes rather TOO well waymarked for British tastes!). These footpaths, including the Via Ferrata, are also well served by mountain refuges or huts where good meals and refreshments can be obtained, and often a bed for the night too, though booking for this is advisable. A walking tour can be arranged using mountain huts for overnight stops, but careful planning and pre booking would be prudent!

A particular danger is thunderstorms, which are very prevalent in the area, and which present extreme and obvious hazard to anyone climbing a long wire rope fixed in an exposed position! The routes MUST NOT be attempted if thunder is forecast, and, if caught out by one, every attempt should be made to distance oneself from the metalwork as quickly as possible. This is where climbing experience, a rope and some protection can prove invaluable.

Supporting the mountain huts and footpath network in most areas are a large number of ski lifts and cablecars, and a weekly pass to use these can be purchased fairly cheaply in summer. In most areas the pass also includes local buses and can be very useful if you do not have your own transport available.

Suggested Maps

- Carta Escursionistica-Wanderkarte - Val Gardena 1:25000

Digital Mapping

French IGN mapping is available in digital format by area and 'cut your own' maps. For more information and availabilty go to the Anquet website.

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