Via Ferrata - The Iron Way.
That sounds pretty boss to me - where do I sign up? How many protein shakes should I be drinking? Can I skip leg day? When I first came across Via Ferrata on the Internet I thought it sounded like a bad Ronnie Coleman inspired fitness programme. After a little bit of digging I worked out that Via Ferrata are actually a series of protected hiking routes common in the Italian Dolomites (not to mention Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Germany...). These pathways were originally used during the war to facilitate troop movement through the alps but have since become an adventure activity in their own right. They feature a steel cable that is bolted to the rock at varying intervals onto which you clip in and move along with relative safety. Ranging in difficulty from short tame jaunts that you could take your toddler on to face climbs that last all day and require a rope to access - there's something for everyone.
So if that sounds more to your liking than standing in a smelly room with a bunch of men perving at themselves in the mirror while pretending to lift weights then here's what you need to know to get involved.
What equipment do you need?
You will need a climbing harness, a helmet, sturdy footwear (usually tramping boots or rock shoes if you're doing a more technical climb), and last but not least a via ferrata lanyard.
Via ferrata lanyards are specially designed for the activity and feature two 'arms' with carabiners on each end which clip onto the wire. The arms are made of either dynamic climbing rope or sling attached to a dynamic shock absorbing section (just like a screamer used in ice climbing).
The crucial thing here is that the system must be dynamic! - the number of blogs I read prior to coming to Italy stating that you could simply 'attach two dyneema slings to your harness with locking carabiners attached to them and go nuts' because 'the slings are rated to 22kn therefore it's fine' was ridiculous.
For the record you cannot. The forces involved in a via ferrata fall are incredibly high and shock loading a dyneema sling can easily create enough force to break it - DMM have some cool (scary) videos on their website showing the huge forces involved in fall factor 1 and 2 falls on nylon and dyneema slings resulting in sling failure - don’t do it!
Commercial via ferrata lanyards are available at most if not all climbing stores in Italy and are very reasonably priced. Gear hire is also possible in towns with numerous via ferrata nearby such as Arco, Italy. Don't be a drongo - get the right equipment.
Where are the via ferrata located?
They are spread out all throughout the Italian Dolomites with large concentrations around the Brenda Dolomites, Madonna del campiglio, Cortina, and Arco. The elevation of these ferrata vary significantly with some just a few hundred metres above sea level and others starting from 3000m+ that are accessed by chairlift. Many also link various mountain refuges and can be completed one after the other over multiple days. Because of the difference in start altitude some ferrata can only be completed in the summer months.
We spent a week in the rock climbing mecca of Arco, on the shores of lake Garda. There are numerous via ferrata located near by to Arco:
Via ferrata Attrezato del Colodri - This Ferrata is accessed from across the road from the Arco municipal swimming pool at the northern end of town. It is great for beginners due to its relative ease and short duration. The ferrata runs parallel to the wall of the Monte Colodri and climbs a total of 270 vertical metres featuring smooth hand holds, and steel pegs in steeper sections.
Via ferrata Rio Sallagoni - This ferrata follows a small creek through the Rio Sallagoni gorge and was definitely one of our favourites! The crux of the route is near the start and features a slightly overhanging section on steel pegs providing a good upper body workout (there is a point immediately prior to the crux where you can bail if it doesn’t look like fun to you!). After this the route continues through the gorge and eventually widens to section where a tibetan wire bridge crosses the creek. The best thing about this ferrata is that when you hike out the top you end up at a castle (Castello di drena) and (more importantly) a bar serving refreshing cold beverages. The ferrata starts down a random driveway part way between arco and drena - we managed to just get the bus driver to pull over and let us jump out when we were close to the start point and only took 15 minutes or so from the main road to reach the start. On the way back to Arco we were lucky enough to get a ride with a couple of German tourists but we had planned to walk it. If you have a rental car this trip would be super accessible from Arco.
Via ferrata Dell’amicizia (Cima SAT) - This long route climbs from Riva del Garda to the summit of Cima SAT and gains 1200 vertical metres (650m of which is the ferrata itself). This one is definitely a bit of a step up from the other two on the fitness front - we were 7 hours from leaving Riva del garda to our return. During the climb you encounter numerous long, exposed (read really exposed) ladders to aid you in your ascent.The longest of these ladders is a staggering 120m in length. As long as you have a head for heights this ferrata isn’t particularly technical and is a great day out. Once the summit is reached you follow paths 418 and then 402 back to the bastione and Riva del Garda. Its worthwhile noting that the far side of the mountain doesn’t see a lot of sunlight which resulted in us descending, somewhat unexpectedly, on a snow covered path from the summit. We climbed this in March on a 20-something degree day, bring plenty of water with you as I’m sure the summer months would be scorching.
The next ferrata we got a chance to climb was located in the town of Lecco on the shore of Lake Como and goes by the name of Via ferrata Alpini Gruppo Medale. We had seen this ferrata the first time we were in Lecco and I had deemed it a bit too difficult at that stage but after travelling for a couple of months I was itching to get back there to climb it. On returning we were blessed with epic weather and I had a crack at it. The climb was more technical than those we had done already but was incredibly enjoyable and is well and truly achievable by any one with modest rock climbing ability and a head for heights. I chose to climb in my rock shoes and passed many other groups climbing in boots (either would work fine, but I found I didn’t need to rely on the cable at all with my rock shoes on). One and a half hours saw me at the top for a well needed break - take plenty of water with you as the sun is relentless.