Your ultimate guide to via ferrata (klettersteig)

Photo of a person climbing a via ferrata (klettersteig) route in Switzerland

Via ferrata routes (or klettersteig) are a fun way to scramble up cliffs without necessarily having rock climbing experience or knowledge. But don’t underestimate them! You absolutely must have the right equipment — and know how to use it.

Read on for a general guide to via ferrata, including the gear you need and difficulty levels. But please note this does not substitute for real experience! If you’ve never done a via ferrata before then I recommend training or going with a guide.

Klettersteig/via ferrata routes we have done


What is via ferrata?

Via ferratas are like rock climbing routes, but a little easier and more secure. Metal cables run along the rockface, to which you attach yourself via a harness and special “via ferrata set”. This acts like a leash — tethering you to the cable and so limiting how far you can fall.

Most routes also have metal spikes, steps, bridges and/or ladders to help you get up tricky cliff sections and across gorges.

All this metal explains the name: via ferrata is Italian for “iron path”. German-speakers use the term klettersteig, which means “climbing path”.


When did via ferrata start?

The first use of metal aids on mountainsides dates back to the 1800s, in the Alps of Austria, Germany, and Italy — though wooden ladders and other protections were used much earlier.

An extensive network of ropes and wooden ladders was installed in the Dolomites during WW1, to help the Italian and Austrian troops fighting there to move around. These were replaced by metal fixtures decades later, and new routes were built for climbers and hikers.

Since then, recreational via ferrata and klettersteig routes have expanded out of the Alps across Europe and on to many other countries around the world. The largest number are still in Italy and Austria, followed by Germany, Spain and Switzerland.


How does via ferrata climbing work?

The three essential parts to via ferrata are:

  1. A harness going around your legs and waist
  2. A Y-shaped via ferrata lanyard or set. The “tail” end is attached to your harness; the two “arms” end in a special metal loop called a carabiner, which can open and close securely
  3. The cable attached to the rock face

The first thing to do is put on your harness and via ferrata set. Next you securely attach the two carabiners to the cable… and start walking or climbing beside the cable. The path will be directly on the rock, on metal steps or spikes, and sometimes ladders and bridges.

The cable is attached to the rock at regular intervals via secure metal posts. Each time you reach a post, you need to take one carabiner off the cable on one side of the post and attach it again on the other side of the post — then repeat with the second carabiner.

Keep a look out for the next post, and find a stable place to stand to switch your carabiners across. The worst is going too far then having to go back — or lean back — to move your carabiners.

The only time you can unclip yourself completely is at the end of the cable — i.e., the end of the via ferrata route. Most routes are one way, with a trail to get back down again.


Essential via ferrata safety

While being attached to cables reduces the risk of a fatal fall, you could still fall quite far on a via ferrata route — and even be quite badly injured. Here are a few essential safety pointers; however as mentioned above they do not substitute for training or experience

  • Never take both carabiners off the cable at the same time! You must always — ALWAYS — remain securely attached to the cable throughout the entire via ferrata route. When you reach a metal post, take off one carabiner, attach it on the other side of the metal post, and then repeat with the second carabiner.
  • Only have one person per cable section. This is important in case of a fall. You’ll slide all the way back to the last metal post where the cable is attached, so if someone is below you on the same section, then you’ll probably hit them. Even without a fall, it keeps everyone far enough apart to avoid the upper person accidentally stepping on the fingers of the person below them.
  • Always wear a helmet. Rocks may fall from above at any time, either naturally or dislodged by a person above you. Plus a helmet protects your head if you hit it on rock overhangs or other protrusions.
  • Take a “quickdraw” carabiner for extra security. This piece of rock climbing equipment consists of two carabiners connected by a short section of webbing. One carabiner remains attached to your harness; you can attach the other to a ladder rung or other secure metal loop as needed. I find this useful when I want to stop to rest my arms or take a photo.
  • Do not attempt a via ferrata route in the rain, if rain is forecast, or if it has recently rained.
  • Do not attempt a route beyond your capabilities. Check the difficulty level — and understand exactly the level means.

    Overview of via ferrata route levels


Who can do via ferrata routes?

Anyone of reasonable fitness — and without vertigo or balance issues — should be able to do easy and moderately difficult via ferrata routes. Kids can also join in; they need to capable of using the carabiners on the via ferrata set, and have long enough legs for the steps. Ours started when they were about 9 years old, but sometimes needed a helping push or hand.

More difficult routes require a lot of arm and leg strength, and often nerves of steel — with overhangs, not much to hold on to, and long sections on tall cliffs. I’ve needed help on very difficult routes.


Via ferrata equipment

Essential:

  • Rock climbing helmet
  • Rock climbing harness
  • Via ferrata set: a Y-shaped, energy-absorbing lanyard with auto-locking carabiners, to attach to your harness and the via ferrata cables
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Regular hiking gear

Optional:

  • Climbing gloves
  • A “quickdraw” carabiner: two carabiners connected by a short section of webbing


Overview of via ferrata route levels

Several systems have been developed to grade the difficulty of a via ferrata route, with scales between 1 and 5 or 6. The descriptions below are my summary of different systems. Before attempting any klettersteig route, you should check which grading system has been used and understand its definition.


Easy via ferrata routes

Also graded as: A | K1 | Facile (F)
  • More of a challenging walk on rocky terrain than rock climbing
  • Exposed sections
  • Good foot- and handholds
  • Lots of climbing aids
  • Requires sure-footedness and a good head for heights


Moderately difficult via ferrata routes

Also graded as: B | K2 | Peu Difficile (PD) to Assez Difficile (AD)
  • Steep rocky terrain
  • Exposed sections
  • Mostly good foot- and handholds, but some small steps
  • Climbing aids provided; vertical ladders or wire bridges possible
  • Rock climbing equivalent of level III (UIAA)
  • Requires sure-footedness, a good head for heights, reasonable fitness and some arm strength


Difficult via ferrata routes

Also graded as: C | K3 | Difficile (D)
  • Steep to very steep rock; overhangs possible
  • Mostly small steps
  • Longer and more frequent exposed sections
  • Climbing aids provided, but may be further apart; longer and possibly overhanging ladders
  • Rock climbing equivalent of level IV (UIAA)
  • Children may need an extra rope
  • Requires sure-footedness, a good head for heights, good fitness, and good arm and leg strength


Very difficult via ferrata routes

Also graded as: D | K4 | Très Difficile (TD)
  • Not suitable for beginners or children
  • Steep to vertical, often overhanging
  • Mostly very exposed
  • Some climbing aids which are often far apart; often only the wire cable even on exposed and steep sections, although short overhanging sections may have many aids
  • Rock climbing areas up to level II (UIAA) possible
  • May require use of an extra rope
  • Requires a high fitness level and strong arms, hands and legs


Extremely difficult via ferrata routes

Also graded as: E | K5 | Extrêmement Difficile (ED)
  • Not suitable for beginners or children
  • Vertical to overhanging
  • Always exposed
  • Usually no climbing aids other than the cable; easier sections may not even have a cable
  • Very small steps or slab/friction climbing; may require scrambling
  • May require use of an extra rope
  • Requires a high fitness level and sustained arm, hand, finger and leg strength


>Extremely difficult via ferrata routes

Also graded as: F | K6
  • Not suitable for people who cannot easily manage level E (extremely difficult) klettersteig routes
  • Mostly overhanging
  • Always exposed
  • Usually no climbing aids other than the cable
  • Very small steps or slab/friction climbing; requires scrambling
  • Rope climbing equipment recommended
  • Requires a high fitness level, sustained arm, hand, finger and leg strength, and good rock climbing technique

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