Part 1: Equipment, difficulty scale and safety
For many people, via ferratas are the link between sporty mountain hiking and alpine mountaineering and enable unique summit experiences that are inaccessible to hikers. In part one of our mini-series, we explain what via ferratas are exactly, what equipment via ferrata climbers need, and how to get started on the climb.
What is a via ferrata?
Via ferratas are a mixture of demanding alpine hiking and technical climbing. Their special feature is that a steel wire rope, to which a via ferrata set is attached, ensures safety and also serves as an ascent aid. The steel cable is anchored in the mountain every few meters with hooks or eyelets. Such eyelets not only guide the steel rope close to the rock, but also hold the carabiners of the via ferrata set in an extreme case (fall) (see Equipment).
Additional grip or step aids, such as steel pins, clamps or ladders facilitate progress. That is why the via ferrata has its internationally known Italian name: Via Ferrata. The iron route.
Depending on the difficulty, at least challenging steep sections are secured. Especially in steeper terrain and in so-called sport via ferratas, however, the securing steel rope runs along throughout.
A to E, K1 to K6, blue or black? So difficult is the via ferrata
There are different scales to describe the difficulty of a via ferrata. Our partners at the German Alpine Association (DAV) have summarized the most common scales and their meanings in a handy overview page . In most scales, intermediate levels allow a particularly precise assessment.
In German-speaking countries, two rating systems in particular are widely used:
1. a to E: The Schall scale
Named after its inventor, the Austrian mountain publisher Kurt Schall, the Schall scale distinguishes difficulties between A (easy) and E (extremely difficult), in rare cases even E/F for exceptional difficulties.
2. the Hüsler scale
Also named after its inventor, Eugen Hüsler from Switzerland, is the Hüsler scale: Between K1 (easy) and K6 (extremely difficult) the difficulties vary here.
Like the other commonly used scales, both are often supplemented on site in the via ferrata with a quickly and intuitively understandable color code analogous to the difficulty of ski slopes or mountain bike trails. Here, blue stands for "easy", red for "moderately difficult" and black for "extremely difficult".
The right equipment for via ferrata
In a via ferrata, three things in particular are mandatory equipment to avoid falling in extreme cases. But the other equipment is also important!
- Via Ferrataset: the core of the safety equipment in the iron route. A via ferrata set consists of two usually elastic arms, which are hooked into the safety rope with a carabiner that can be operated with one hand, and a band fall arrester sewn into the set. This tears open in the event of a fall and provides the "braking distance" so that the energy of the fall does not strike directly into the body. The via ferrata set has a tie-in loop that is connected to the climbing harness with an anchor stitch.
- Climbing harness: The climbing harness connects the via ferrata set and the body. An adjustable seat harness is common, such as those used in sport and alpine climbing. For children, complete harnesses can be useful. Here, the tie-in point is higher. This prevents children, whose center of gravity is higher than that of adults, from swinging backwards.
- Helmet: A helmet is mandatory for via ferrata. It protects against falling rocks or debris kicked loose by other via ferrata climbers.
- Gloves: Iron and steel are omnipresent in via ferrata. Special short-finger gloves preserve the grip feeling of bare hands, but protect the palms from injury, e.g. when you grab the steel rope or a steel pin.
- Latching sling (optional): Not absolutely necessary, but very practical is a so-called Rastschlinge. This is a sling, usually around 60 centimeters long, which is connected to a locking carabiner on one side by an anchor stitch and to the climbing harness on the other side, also by an anchor stitch. The latching sling allows you to rest even on vertical or overhanging terrain without stressing the webbing fall arrester by hooking the carabiner into an iron clip or safety point, for example. Some via ferrata sets have a resting sling ex works. But beware The latching sling is not a belay device. It is static and not capable of absorbing fall energy. For this reason, its carabiner should always be securely attached to the gear loops of the climbing harness without any risk of confusion during via ferrata climbing.
- Other equipment: A lightweight backpack that fits close to the body, such as one from our Rupal Light series for food, drinks, clothing, maps, smartphone, etc., should always be with you on the via ferrata. Approach shoes or sturdy mountain boots are best suited for iron routes. Special climbing shoes are not needed, normal sneakers are not firm enough. Always important in the mountains: weather-appropriate, versatile clothing, preferably in the onion principle. This includes in any case a light and small packable rain jacket and if necessary a thermal layer for the break, because the weather in the mountains can change quickly. Also, always have a first aid kit with you.
Climbing and securing
The carabiners of the via ferrata set are attached to the (steel) belay rope of a via ferrata. You should always attach both carabiners. At the eyelets that anchor the wire rope in the rock, one carabiner is always loosened first, then the second, and hooked on the other side, never both at the same time. This way, at least one carabiner is always connected to the steel rope.
In steep passages, you automatically pull the carabiners upwards with the ascent movement on the rope. If it is flat, you can push the carabiners along the steel rope with one hand while holding on to them at the same time.
Digression: Do not fall!
Despite the extensive safety equipment, the following applies on the via ferrata: Falling is forbidden! The webbing fall arrester is like the airbag in a car: the life-saving safety net in an absolute extreme case.
Why? There are several reasons:
- The fall load in via ferrata, compared to, say, indoor climbing with a dynamic rope, is significantly higher even with a modern via ferrata set. Impact force and fall factor, the measures that denote the load on the body and the severity of a fall in climbing, respectively, are easily several times higher than the values for rope climbing. This is due to the fact that even according to the latest standards, for reasons of space, the tear tape of the webbing fall arrester is only 2.2 meters long, so the via ferrata set has to brake the energy of a fall along a shorter path, i.e. harder, than a climbing rope.
- After a fall, the webbing fall arrester is irreparably damaged, just like the airbag in a car or a bicycle helmet after impact. The further path is therefore unsecured.
- Climbing aids such as steel pins, iron clamps or ladders are a risk of injury in the event of a fall.
If, despite all caution, a fall still occurs, the via ferrata set should be replaced in any case. After all, no one would stuff a deployed airbag back into the steering wheel, would they?
More about via ferrata:
- Helpful video series of the German Alpine Club on via ferrata