If you’ve always dreamed of climbing but don’t have heaps of technical mountain experience, you’re a solo climber looking for adventure, or you’re keen to get off the busy trails & escape into the clouds, this classic form of protected climbing is a way for fit hikers to reach otherwise challenging summits!
Once unique to the Italian and Austrian Alps (and still closely associated with the Dolomites, which is home to hundreds of routes!), via ferrata has gained worldwide popularity in recent years as an outdoor sport that is every bit as accessible as it is exhilarating, with new routes appearing across Colorado, Peru, Slovenia, and even Argentinian Patagonia.
Curious about this unique form of assisted rock climbing? This post is the perfect introduction to climbing via ferrata around the world, including recommendations on preparing for your first climb, an explanation of the grading system, what to expect on a via ferrata route, and all the essential gear you’ll need to set off on your own adventure!
*This guide is not intended to replace appropriate training/experience, nor is it designed to be an exhaustive via ferrata resource; please remember that you are responsible for your OWN safety in the mountains!
What's in this travel guide
What is via ferrata?
Translating to “iron route” in Italian, via ferrata is a form of protected climbing that was invented in the Alps during WWI as a means of getting soldiers up and over challenging peaks with minimal technical experience or equipment. Today, it’s an amazing form of recreation best described as a cross between scrambling and sport climbing.
“Via ferrata” is the international term used by nearly every country to describe this form of protected climbing— except for German-speakers, who use the word Klettersteig, meaning “climbing path”.
Via ferrata routes feature different types of fixed protection, and you’ll climb on a combination of ladders, stemples, rungs, pegs, bridges, and even the rock itself, all while clipped into a steel cable that is bolted directly into the mountain. It is safer than most forms of climbing, requires very little gear, and can be done completely solo (since there’s no need for a belayer)!
It’s also important to note that the goal of via ferrata is to keep one hand on the cable or a steel rung at all times and NOT fall. Unlike other forms of recreational climbing where falls are common and expected, you are only protected by a via ferrata lanyard that provides a minimal degree of shock absorption— it is designed to save your life, not to give you a soft catch. After a single fall, this lanyard needs to be replaced!
Where to find via ferrata routes?
The greatest concentration of via ferrata routes is in the Italian Dolomites, but hundreds of routes cover the Austrian and Swiss Alps, and even Slovenia’s underrated Julian Alps. Worldwide, more via ferrata are appearing every year, from Colorado, USA to Argentinian Patagonia!
Notably, many of the routes outside of Europe are privately owned and you’ll have to join a guided tour to climb, regardless of how much experience you have. These can often be pricey, but perhaps a great way to get started with via ferrata in a comfortable environment.
A few of the most notable international via ferrata routes:
- Sacred Valley via ferrata with Natura Vive in Cusco, Peru (read my trip report)
- Mt Triglav, Slovenia (read my trip report)
- Ruta Vertigo in Monterrey, Mexico
- Mount Evans via ferrata in Idaho, USA
- Vía Ferrata del Cañadón in El Chaltén, Argentina
- Via Ferrata Caminito del Rey, Spain
- Granite via ferrata in Colorado, USA
- Ouray via ferrata in Colorado, USA
Via ferrata difficulty
Understanding the grading system
Although the exact terminology varies slightly between the Austrian, French, German, and Italian scales, you can simply think of via ferrata as having 5 or 6 levels of difficulty, and these may be denoted from A to E in Austria, facile (easy) to extrêmement difficile/estremamente difficile (extremely difficult) in French & Italian, or K1-K6 in German— but the overall levels themselves are fairly consistent.
How hard is via ferrata?
The difficulty of via ferrata as a whole is very subjective (heavily influenced by your own experience, risk tolerance, and comfort with exposure), but there are plenty of beginner-appropriate routes spread across the Alps and further afield, as well as challenging routes when you’re ready.
Here’s a look at what each difficulty rating actually feels like ↯
1 or F (easy): tends to feel like an exposed hike, not higher than Class 2; this is mostly just walking on uneven terrain and you may not even need to clip on these after you get comfortable on the rock
*this is a great place to start as a beginner!
2 or PD (moderate): transitions to Class 3 scrambling, involving more use of hands & feet and increased exposure
3 or D (difficult): consistent use of hands that is more comparable to Class 4 scrambling, typically a good deal of exposure and often with long, sustained vertical sections
4 or TD (very difficult): tends to involve very sustained vertical ascents with massive amounts of exposure; this feels more similar to low Class 5 multi-pitch climbing (with the benefit of a cable and fixed pegs).
*beginners should not attempt 4+ unsupervised!
5/6 or ED (extremely difficult): even after tackling via ferrata all over Europe, including to alpine summits, I’ve never seen any route rated this high, but 5/6 is likely to involve overhanging sections, lots of upper-body engagement & more frequent use of the rock
*technical climbing experience is required
Do I need past via ferrata experience?
I’d only ever done a single via ferrata in Peru before I went to Europe and climbed several dozen routes from 1-4 in difficulty, many of them completely solo. You don’t necessarily need specific via ferrata experience to have a great (and safe) time, but general climbing or scrambling experience is a huge asset!
If you’ve only ever hiked on a trail, even for long distances, you will need to approach via ferrata as a complete beginner. Although backpacking experience will aid you on rougher terrain and in carrying a pack up the ladders, there’s a lot more to via ferrata than just physical condition, stamina, and outdoor competence.
Do I need climbing experience?
Climbing experience is a major asset for via ferrata, but you don’t need to be a high-level climber to enjoy challenging via ferrata routes— I’m only an intermediate sport climber (5.8-5.9) and I found 4s to be super fun. The whole beauty of via ferrata is that you are able to ascend otherwise challenging vertical walls without the need for rope handling, a belay partner, or 5.11 proficiency!
That being said, climbers (and those with outdoor scrambling experience) will find challenging via ferrata much more accessible than those starting from scratch! I’d say a good head for heights, careful footwork & general fitness are a MUST; a realistic appraisal of your ability is perhaps even more important.
Can I climb via ferrata solo?
Yet another one of the fantastic things about via ferrata is that, unlike sport climbing, it can be done entirely solo and is not necessarily any more dangerous without a partner, as long as you know what you’re doing.
I wouldn’t recommend beginners set out alone, but those with prior climbing or via ferrata experience will definitely be able to tackle routes solo, which is great for those among us who often hike alone and still want to see some summits!
How to approach your first via ferrata
I always give the same advice to those starting out with via ferrata for the first time and trying to decide whether they need a guide or can just start out on their own ↯
- If you have climbing experience: you are probably ok to start on an easy route without a guide— some of the easy routes (1/F) are like a steep hike & it’s a great way to practice using your gear in the real-world. Once you’re comfortable, try a 2, then work yourself up to the 3s & 4s, etc
- If you don’t have climbing experience: it may be prudent to hire a guide for your first day or go with a more experienced friend. Be mindful of super busy routes (you’re more likely to have an accident if you feel rushed on the cable), but likewise avoid super remote routes in case you do need help.
Many of via ferrata outside of Europe are privately owned, meaning you’ll have no option BUT to go with a guide, regardless of whether it’s your first or 50th via ferrata. If you’re interested in travelling to the Dolomites and tackling heaps of challenging via ferrata solo, joining a tour on one of these private routes can be excellent prep! Alternatively, you can find a local guide very easily in Europe for any of the “unguided” routes if you decide you need one.
Via ferrata gear list
In addition to limited technical requirements, the gear needed for via ferrata is fairly minimal, very compact, and not terribly expensive, which again makes this a fantastically accessible outdoor pursuit!
Depending on the length of the via ferrata route you’re tackling, I’d recommend something in the 25-35L range with sturdy hip belts, a good suspension system, and some back venting. I love my 33L Osprey Talon for via ferrata, as it’s lightweight and easy to climb with, yet still very comfortable for long approaches!
via ferrata lanyard: Black Diamond Iron Cruiser
The one piece of gear that is entirely unique to via ferrata is a lanyard, which consists of 2 auto-locking carabiners and an energy absorber connected in a Y-configuration. One end of the webbing is girth-hitched to your harness, while the other two ends are clipped into the cable during your climb. Although you’ll see plenty of older European climbers using DIY systems that are nearly identical to tethers used in crag or alpine climbing, it’s still recommended to use a dedicated lanyard with in-built force absorption mechanisms— falls are rare on via ferrata, but could be massively damaging to your spine on a short static line.
For via ferrata routes, a light climbing helmet is essential to protect against rockfall, which might come from other climbers above or even unstable areas of the mountain. And for routes that wind through dark tunnels, it can also be handy for protecting your head against bumps.
climbing gloves: Metolius Half Finger Climbing Gloves
Although not a safety requirement for via ferrata, you’ll be infinitely more comfortable with a pair of leather climbing gloves, particularly when quickly descending down the cable. Personally, I prefer the dexterity of fingerless gloves, which allow for easy clipping while still protecting your hands from nasty blisters.
PLB: Garmin In-Reach Mini
Never, EVER head out on an adventure without a satellite communicator— whether you’re sending messages back home, checking the weather, or communicating with emergency services, this small device can literally save your life.
Connecting your via ferrata lanyard to your harness
The proper use of a helmet or gloves requires no explanation, but for those with absolutely no prior climbing experience, you may be wondering how to attach your via ferrata lanyard to your climbing harness: the loop of your lanyard should be attached using a simple girth hitch through the tie-in points on your harness, as per the handy diagram below, OR the belay loop, as in the photo above.
How to climb via ferrata
1. the approach
Most via ferrata routes begin with an approach on trail, and this initial hike might be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours depending on the route and whether you’re starting from a carpark, trailhead, or a high mountain hut.
2. the cable
Once you reach the start of the via ferrata, typically marked by a sign or at the very least a painted symbol, clip into the steel cable and begin the route! You should have a hand on the cable (pushing your carabiners along) or on a steel rung at all times.
Remember, the goal is to NOT fall! You are only protected by a via ferrata lanyard that provides a minimal degree of shock absorption— it is designed to save your life, not to give you a soft catch.
3. clipping between cable segments
Although it is largely self-explanatory, there is still a best-practice method for clipping into the cable that should be used by beginners:
- Attach both carabiners to the first stretch of cable (best practice is to clip in opposing directions, but the chance of 2 auto-lockers failing simultaneously is basically nil, so you’ll rarely see people actually climbing like this)
- When you reach a bolt, you’ll need to move your carabiners to the next stretch of cable one at a time, ensuring that you always have ONE carabiner clipped to the cable
4. types of climbing fixtures
Once clipped into the cable, ascend the route using a variety of fixed protection or climbing fixtures bolted directly into the rock. These may include:
5. navigating the via ferrata
Thanks to the continuous cable bolted into the rock, navigating through a via ferrata is typically very easy— simply slide your carabiners along the cable!
When connecting two routes or tackling long circuits, however, you will usually need to do some navigation between sections of cable, which is aided by frequent flags and markers on the rock.
6. climb on!
Much to the delight of climbers and scramblers everywhere, via ferrata still presents plenty of opportunity to get your hands and feet on the actual rock— it’s not all about the fixtures! When rock quality is good and handholds are plentiful, you’ll find yourself leaning a lot more towards actual climbing (but with the added protection of a cable).
Still, you should have a hand on the cable or a steel rung at all times while ascending or descending via ferrata. Unlike other forms of recreational climbing where falls are common and expected, you are only protected by a via ferrata lanyard that provides a minimal degree of shock absorption— it is designed to save your life, but a fall is NOT comfortable and might still result in serious injury.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this crash-course on via ferrata! If you’re specifically interested in the Italian Dolomites, be sure to check out this dedicated post with more specific information, including mountain insurance, permits, and recommended routes in Italy.
Read more about via ferrata