IRON PATHS THROUGH STEEP ROCK – VIA FERRATA, HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?

5. August 2021

Fixed rope routes have experienced a real boom in the last few years. In many places, new iron routes are being developed and numerous vacation brochures advertise this “new” type of mountain sport. But what actually makes the via ferrata a via ferrata? Where are the limits to hiking or climbing? And what on earth do I actually have to consider when I want to go on a via ferrata for the first time? This list of questions could certainly be extended without any problems, so we decided to unpack our concentrated expert knowledge about via ferrata today.

HIKING – VIA FERRATA – CLIMBING

Via ferrata walking is an independent alpine discipline, which can easily be classified between hiking and climbing. In general, however, via ferrata climbing cannot be seen as an intensified hiking or simple climbing, but is a more or less separate sport. Via ferratas are routes through more or less alpine terrain equipped with wire rope and iron steps. This way, even people with a comparatively low level of knowledge can get a start in sometimes very steep and exposed terrain. The basic element is a wire rope, which is attached to the rock face with numerous intermediate safety devices and is used by the via ferrata user as a belay point. The correct handling of the via ferrata set is important, but more about this later.

Basically there are three different variants of via ferrata walking:

  • Insured paths

Strictly speaking, insured routes are not actually typical via ferrata, but routes that have been equipped with a (wire) rope in particularly exposed or even dangerous places. However, this rope is not part of the safety chain as in the actual via ferrata, but rather serves as a replacement for a railing or handrail. Insured via ferrata routes are therefore generally also used without via ferrata equipment.

  • Classic Via Ferrata

This is the most common type of via ferrata. Classical via ferrata come in numerous degrees of difficulty and are therefore suitable for beginners and advanced climbers. They always have a continuous wire rope with intermediate safety devices and are often equipped with additional iron steps and ladders. Rope bridges and other gadgets are also not uncommon here.

  • Sport Via Ferrata

Sport via ferrata are mostly difficult routes in exposed terrain. It is not uncommon for tours of this kind to run through overhangs. Although sport via ferrata also have a continuous wire rope as a safety device, they often do not require additional steps and are therefore not suitable for inexperienced persons.

Via ferrata are thus clearly distinct from hiking, since self-securing is absolutely necessary. Via ferrata also have little to do with sport or alpine climbing, since here you are not using a rope and companion safety devices, but only securing yourself to the wire rope. In order to be able to roughly assess in advance whether one is up to the difficulty of a climb, there is a standardized scale of difficulty ranging from A (easy) to F (more than extremely difficult).

EQUIPMENT

Via ferrata should not be underestimated. Accidents on a via ferrata can often have serious consequences and can even be fatal without the right equipment. For this reason, grandpa’s old hemp rope (as in all other mountain sports disciplines) can stay at home. The minimum equipment for a via ferrata therefore consists of a suitable climbing harness, a via ferrata set and a rockfall helmet. In addition, via ferrata gloves and mountaineering or access boots are used.

The climbing harness

Several types of harnesses can be used for via ferrata climbing. Here is a brief overview of when which type should ideally be used.

  • Hip seat belt: The hip seat belt is mainly used for sport via ferrata. It can also be used for classic via ferrata, as long as no heavy backpack is carried.
  • Combination chest and hip belt: Whenever a hip belt does not fit reliably due to the body structure or the body’s center of gravity is shifted upwards, the use of a chest belt becomes necessary in addition to the hip seat belt. Typical case studies: Due to their physique, children have a higher center of gravity than adults. In addition, the hips and waist of petite children in particular are not yet so developed that a seat belt alone is sufficient. Even in the case of obese people, it can happen that the hip belt does not fit well and the body’s center of gravity has shifted. Especially in combination with a heavy backpack, however, it is necessary to wear a chest belt for people with “normal measurements”.
  • Climbing harnesses: Especially for via ferrata, however, complete harnesses, i.e. harnesses that have both leg and shoulder straps, are often used. Belts of this type are also very practical for children.

The Via Ferrata Set

Modern via ferrata sets always come in a Y-shape. This means that in addition to a tie-in loop and a strap fall absorber, they have two arms, each with a via ferrata carabiner. The resulting shape is similar to a Y, hence the name. But what are the individual components good for?

  • The tie-in loop: It is the link between the via ferrata set and the climbing harness. It is important that the via ferrata set is correctly tied into the hip belt or combination harness. No other equipment such as carabiners etc. is necessary for this. The via ferrata set is only tied into the respective rope loop with an anchor stitch [3]. If a combination of hip belt and chest strap is used, these are connected as usual with a figure-of-eight strap, the via ferrata set is then tied in via the lower knot of the figure-of-eight strap.
  • The load arms with via ferrata carabiners: Together with the carabiners, the load arms are the link to the wire rope. The carabiners are hooked into the wire rope and carried along with one hand. Via ferrata carabiners are not simple snap carabiners, but always have a mechanism that prevents unintentional opening.
  • The strap fall absorber: Today only via ferrata sets with strap fall absorbers are used. This is a complex system of tapes with predetermined breaking seams that absorb the energy in the event of a fall and thus reduce the impact force. The strap fall absorber can therefore be seen as a kind of life insurance for via ferrata. If, for example, one would only fall into a tape sling from a corresponding height, the fall would be many times harder and would probably end fatally.

Especially light but also heavy persons must make sure that the via ferrata set is compatible with their weight. The new via ferrata set standard EN 958 has recently come into force. This standard stipulates that via ferrata sets must be designed for a weight range of 40 kg – 120 kg. This specification always refers to the system weight, i.e. man+clothing+equipment. Anyone who is at the top or bottom of this weight specification should take special care when selecting their via ferrata set and pay attention to the certification according to EN 958:2017. Children who weigh less than 40 kg should be secured on the via ferrata.

The Climbing Helmet

All helmets approved for climbing can also be used for via ferrata. Whether one decides to use a hard-shell, inmould or hybrid helmet is not important. What is important is that you wear a suitable rockfall helmet. Bicycle or ski helmets without the appropriate approval have no place here. If you want to learn more about climbing helmets, you are welcome to read Wiebke’s blog post.

In addition to this basic equipment you will usually also need climbing gloves and mountain or approach shoes. Weatherproof clothing as well as a daypack with food etc. should also be part of the equipment.

CLIMBING GLOVES

The main purpose of via ferrata gloves is to protect hands and fingers from injury. The wire ropes of via ferrata routes are seldom absolutely smooth, especially on older or busy climbs it can happen from time to time that individual wires protrude from the ropes. Via ferrata gloves also provide a better grip so that slipping on the wire rope can be avoided, especially in steep or exposed passages. Here’s another tip for beginners on a small budget: via ferrata gloves can also be temporarily replaced by construction gloves. These are always sufficient to protect your hands. However, you often sweat more in construction gloves and the performance is usually lower than with real via ferrata gloves.

Shoes

Similar to hikes or mountain tours, the choice of the right footwear for a via ferrata depends on the terrain. Of course, it is inherent in almost all via ferrata that they are led through more or less steep rock faces by means of wire rope and iron steps, so the requirements are relatively similar for the time being. However, when choosing the right footwear you should consider the whole tour, i.e. ascent, continuation and descent. Basically, hiking boots of the categories B or B/C have proven themselves, but also good access boots with a sole with a climbing area can be comfortable.

CLIMBING – HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?

Now that we have clarified the question of equipment, let’s have a look at how a via ferrata actually works. However, the explanations we have given are only intended to provide a rough overview and do not claim to be complete. Unfortunately, reading this article is not enough to be able to climb the via ferrata well and safely without any previous knowledge. Sorry…

But let’s start at the beginning. Let’s just assume that the destination has been determined, the weather situation has been checked and found to be good. The journey without traffic jams and surrendering passengers could also be completed satisfactorily and the ascent to the climb has already been made. Now we are here, our first via ferrata. A big and mighty rock face towers above us, a lonely wire rope invites us to climb up an airy height and to get to know unknown worlds. Once again we look back, but the path only leads to the front… Stop! I think I just got a little bit lost in the theatrical horse…

But to the point: Depending on the length of the climb, it is advisable to take care of everything before getting on, which would be much more complicated later in the climb. So have a snack, take off or put on your clothes and disappear again behind the bush. When all this is done, the equipment is put on and the via ferrata set is integrated. Helmet on, gloves on and off we go. When climbing via ferrata, both carabiners of the via ferrata set are always hooked into the wire rope. These are then carried along until the next intermediate safety measure so that they cannot get caught or jam between the wire rope and the rock.

Usually it is sufficient to simply push them forward with one hand. An intermediate safety device on the via ferrata is always in the form of a metal pin. This is firmly anchored in the rock and fixes the wire rope. Thus the carabiners cannot be pushed further here. Once you have reached such an intermediate safety device, you first hang one carabiner, then the other one in the continuing part of the wire rope. This way you are always sufficiently secured. Under no circumstances may both carabiners of the via ferrata set be released from the wire rope at the same time. This principle is continued until you leave the via ferrata set. Climbing is done on the rock as well as with the help of the wire rope, iron steps, ladders etc. An important safety note: Only one climber should move between two belay points of a via ferrata at a time, as otherwise the person following would be dragged along in case of a fall. More questions? Sure thing!

IF I WANT TO TAKE A SHORT REST ON THE VIA FERRATA, MAY I SIT DOWN IN MY VIA FERRATA SET?

No. The via ferrata set is only used to secure and brake falls. If the via ferrata set is loaded regularly, the predetermined breaking points of the strap fall absorber could be damaged beforehand; this can lead to a reduced braking effect. For resting on the via ferrata set, it is therefore advisable to carry a commercially available strap sling with screw carabiner. This is also attached to the rope loop of the climbing harness and can be hooked into the steel rope with the carabiner for breaks. There are also via ferrata sets that have an additional rest loop. If this is available, it can of course also be used for hanging. Important: This additional loop is only for hanging on the via ferrata. Under no circumstances must it be left on the wire rope during climbing/climbing, as it would disable the effect of the via ferrata set. In the event of a fall, this could result in extremely serious injuries.

IF I FALL ON THE VIA FERRATA, WHAT HAPPENS THEN?

An old rule says: On the via ferrata you must not fall! This wisdom certainly dates back to the time when the technique of via ferrata sets was much less reliable than it is today. In the past, only simple tape loops were often used, so that falls were extremely hard. Today this has changed for the better, but falls on the via ferrata should be avoided as much as possible. If a fall does occur, the via ferrata climber falls almost unchecked until the next intermediate safety measure. Once at the intermediate safety point, the attached carabiners are stopped and the energy of the fall is transferred to the via ferrata set. This absorbs the load, the fall absorber breaks and the fall is braked. The catching impact is usually very hard nevertheless and can be accompanied by serious injuries. Therefore, you should never fall into the via ferrata set “for fun” or “just to try it out”. After such a fall, the strap fall absorber of the via ferrata set must be replaced before the next via ferrata is started!

HOW DO I GET THROUGH A CLIMB SAFELY WITH MY CHILDREN?

Especially with light children or bloody beginners, it is recommended to install additional safety devices in addition to the via ferrata set. The procedure is similar to rock climbing. A “pre-climber” secures his “post-climber” (in our example child or beginner) on a rope. This can be done either with a conventional climbing rope and the necessary equipment. In addition, there is for example the Via Ferrata Belay Kit II from Edelrid. This is a safety set with which an additional rope safety device can be quickly and easily installed on the via ferrata.

At last..

Climbing via ferrata is an exciting and varied alternative to hiking or climbing. However, one should not ignore the dangers that this sport brings with it. When choosing a climb, it is therefore important to approach your own limits carefully. The use of via ferrata sets also requires practice and should be tested extensively in easy climbs. If you want to learn more about via ferrata walking, you should consult textbooks such as “Klettersteiggehen” by Bergverlag Rother or “Sicher Klettersteiggehen” by Alpinverlag. Completing a via ferrata course also provides additional know-how and safety.

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