A via ferrata (Italian for "iron road". Plural vie ferrate. In German, Klettersteig) is a mountain route which is equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders, and bridges. The use of these allows otherwise isolated routes to be joined to create longer routes which are accessible to people with a wide range of climbing abilities. Walkers and climbers can follow via ferratas without needing to use their own ropes and belays, and without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing. They are found in a number of European countries, including Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Spain and Sweden; and a few places in the United States, Canada and England. The first via ferratas were built in the Dolomite mountain region of Italy during the First World War, to aid the movement of mountain infantry.
In 1914 the Dolomites were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria was part of the Central Powers during the First World War. In 1915, Italy joined the alliance of Britain, France and Russia and declared war on the Central Empires. Austria’s troops were heavily committed in Russia and it immediately withdrew to a defensive line which ran through the Dolomites. Until the end of 1917 the Austrians and the Italians fought a ferocious war in the mountains of the Dolomites; not only against each other but also against the hostile conditions. In the particularly cold winter of 1916 thousands of troops died of cold, falls or avalanches. Both sides tried to gain control of the peaks to site observation posts and field guns. To help troops to move about at high altitude in very difficult conditions permanent lines were fixed to rock faces and ladders were installed so that troops could ascend steep faces. These were the first via ferrata.
Trenches, dugouts and other relics of the First World War can be found alongside many via ferrata. There is an extensive open air museum on 5 Torri, and around Lagazuoi, where very heavy fighting took place.
This wartime network of via ferrata has been restored, with many new routes added. Steel cables have replaced ropes. Iron ladders and metal rungs (stemples) anchored into the rock have taken the place of the flimsy wooden structures used by the troops. These aids are now maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) or Italian Alpine Club. An extensive network of mountain refugios exists in the Dolomites, many of which provide accommodation. By using ordinary hiking paths and via ferrata coupled with overnight stays in the refugios, large sections of the Dolomites can be traversed at high altitudes. There are also many hotels in the valleys supporting winter and summer tourism. The larger ski lifts are open during summer to provide fast access to these high level routes.
Via ferrata are graded according to their difficulty. Grade one usually involves nothing more than an assisted walk. Grade five demands serious climbing skills. Volume I of “Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites” by J Smith and G Fletcher covers the North, Central and Eastern regions and lists the following number of routes in each grade -
For any route, other than the easiest, climbers are advised to wear special via ferrata self-belay kit which is designed to cope with the particular requirements of the iron ways.
The Dolomites are divided into two main regions. To the west are the smaller Brenta Dolomites. This has many excellent via ferrata, particularly around the town of Madonna di Campiglio. The famous Sentiero Bocchette Alte and the Via delle Bocchette Centrali can both be reached by lifts from Madonna di Campiglio. The greater part of the Dolomites, and most of the via ferrata, lie to the east, between the A22/E45 and A23/E55 roads. The dominant geographical feature of this area is the Sella Massif and the main town is Cortina D'Ampezzo.
Probably the most unusual via ferrata in the eastern part of the Dolomites is VF Lagazuoi Tunnels. Fighting for control of Mount Lagazuoi in WW I, Austrian and Italian troops built a series of tunnels through the mountains. The aim of each side was to tunnel close to the enemy and detonate explosives to destroy their fortifications. Some of the tunnels have been restored, with a via ferrata following the route of one of these. It is now possible to descend into the mountain by following the VF Lagazuoi Tunnels route.
The most popular via ferrata in the Dolomites is believed to be VF Ivano Dibona, involving a traverse of the main Monte Cristallo ridge. The complete route takes about eight hours. The day starts at the base of the Rio Gere lift system with a ride on two lifts to reach the Lorenzi Refugio at 2950 metres. The traverse starts at this point, trends mostly downhill, and passes several WW I fortifications.
The VF Bolver-Lugli (constructed in 1970 by mountain guides from San Martino di Castrozza) takes climbers of the Cimon della Pala as far as a bivouac at 3,005 metres. Once there, only the "Variation for the Summit" remains, to attain the summit itself at a height of 3,184 metres.
Routes in France are graded for difficulty using a six level system whose names are derived from that used for alpine climbing:
This grading system, while very well established, is considered by some to not provide sufficiently detailed information to precisely know how hard a route is. A different system, which remains under discussion, grades via ferrata difficulty according to four categories: how athletic they are, degree of exposure, how well equipped the route is, and where the route falls on a scale ranging from a walk all the way to climbing with steep ascents and overhangs. However, one may wish to consider that either system does not take into account the effect of weather conditions on these routes. A route with wet or even icy sections becomes very different than the grade assigned to it when dry, for example.
The French vias, of which there were some 120 in existence at the end of 2005, are well distributed across the six grades, with around five each of F and ED, the bulk falling within the four middle classifications.
While most of the vias in France exist for tourism purposes some facilitate visits to historic sites. Les Mines du Grand Clôt near the village of La Grave in the Hautes Alpes department takes the climber up a sheer cliff where a lead mine operated with little success between 1807 and 1925. This route is illustrated with sign boards in English and French telling the story of the struggle to extract small amounts of ore in very difficult conditions. Another via near Lumbin in the department of Isère, the Vire des Lavandières, passes an old section of route called the Échelle des Maquisards built in 1943 and used by resistance fighters during the Second World War.
Responsibility for maintaining via ferratas in France lies with the commune in which the via is situated. Maintenance can be costly depending on location, with vias at higher altitudes being subject to damage by snow and ice through the winter months. Some communes have decided to fund this maintenance by charging an admission fee, but this applies to very few vias and most remain free of charge.
Via ferrata routes in the United States include Waterfall Canyon east of Ogden, Utah, Yosemite's Half Dome in California, Nelson Rocks in West Virginia and Torrent Falls in Kentucky; with examples in Canada include Mount Syphax.
While via ferrata is similar to rock climbing the major difference is that the fall factor, which in climbing can never by definition exceed 2, can in via ferrata be much higher. These high factors are possible because the length of rope between harness and carabiner is short and fixed, while the distance the climber can fall depends on the gaps between anchor points for the safety cable. The human body, as well as most items of climbing equipment, cannot withstand the forces associated with some of these higher fall factors and so a number of devices have been developed to act as shock absorbers or progressive brakes. Their function is to dissipate the energy of the fall while at the same time keeping the climber and equipment intact.
However, in spite of the perception of via ferrata as being more secure and safe than rock climbing, people are more likely to injure themselves if they do fall, partly because of these elevated fall factors and partly because there are often rungs, steps, pigtails, etc on which to land.
Those who embark on a via ferrata are advised to use normal climbing equipment (climbing harness, helmet, appropriate shoes etc), in addition to the necessary via ferrata kit which consists of two short lengths of rope or webbing linked in Y formation to the harness by means of a braking device, with a carabiner at the end of each line. This arrangement allows the user to always have one of their safety lines attached to the safety cable. It should be noted that commercially available braking devices are normally intended for adults, and that if children are taken on a via ferrata, they must have braking devices appropriate to their weight in addition to full body harnesses.
There are two types of brake: the first uses a metal plate or moulding through which a rope is passed providing a high degree of resistance; the second employs stitching which progressively tears in case of a fall, providing a gradual slow down. Each of these has their own advantages. A metal plate brake allows the climber to re-thread the rope in case of a fall allowing them to have some degree of protection while completing the climb. With a stitch brake, on the other hand, the system may be so lengthened after a fall as to be unusable, but it is easy to verify that the device has been deployed. This is important because all these devices are certified for only one fall, after which they must be replaced. Organisations lending or hiring such devices must therefore be able to guarantee that they are not re-used after such an incident.
Another advantage of the stitch brake is that the braking system cannot easily be disabled by an inexperienced climber, as can inadvertently occur with friction plate systems. In the latter, a length of the rope which passes through the plate hangs loosely from the plate while in use, so as to be available to be drawn through the plate if high fall forces occur. This "tail" serves no other purpose and tends to get in the climbers way; commercially-made lanyards employ various methods to attach the tail to the harness and/or hold it in a compact bundle, which can easily be pulled apart during deployment. If, however, the climber ties a knot in the tail, wraps it tightly around the torso and clips it in place with a carabiner, or makes any other adjustment which will impede its ability to pull through the plate under load, excessive forces will not be dissipated and an unsafe situation is created.
Carabiners are also made specially for via ferrata, their design typically allowing a larger-than-normal opening and having a spring locking mechanism that can be opened with one hand. They are also strong enough to withstand high fall factors. Such carabiners are marked with a K in a circle, the K standing for Klettersteige, the German term for via ferrata. These are the only types of carabiner that should be used on the end of the safety lines. Certain limitations of via ferrata carabiners should be kept in mind. Many such carabiners are not true "locking carabiners", as employed in roped climbing and caving systems, and should not be used as such. A typical design uses a spring-loaded sleeve on the carabiner gate. While the gate is closed, the sleeve is held in place over the gate opening by its spring; to unlock and open the gate, the sleeve slides directly down the gate shaft away from the opening. The ease of opening these devices makes them suitable for via climbing, with its constant clipping and unclipping, but not for applications where more secure locking mechanisms (automatic or manual) are called for. In addition, locking sleeves on via ferrata carabiners have been known to hang up in the gate opening and prevent the gate from closing properly. Care must be taken to maintain (clean and lubricate) and/or replace via carabiners as needed to avoid this potentially unsafe situation.