What equipment do you need?
The basic via ferrata gear you’ll need has some crossover with other mountain sports. The three key things you’ll need are a climbing harness, a climbing helmet (although I have seen people wearing bike helmets, I can’t recommend it) and what’s known as a ‘via ferrata kit’. This is a specialist piece of gear that is essentially two stretchy lanyards, each with a quickdraw carabiner on the end. The good ones have a little package at the connection point of the lanyards that’s an added safety system, in case you fall. The old, bold and reckless will still use static ropes and a couple of spare carabiners, but frankly that’s the equivalent of wearing hobnail boots in the mountains.
Those three items are really all you need to get started. Some people take a spare sling and carabiner so they can take a rest in the middle of a prolonged climb. Fingerless gloves in the summer – or gloves in the winter will make you look like a pro and save your hands from being shredded by rock and steel.
In terms of what to wear, normal mountain clothes are a good start. It really depends on where your via ferrata is (adventure park vs 3000m peak). And as anyone who’s spent time in a harness can tell you, it’s a faff to keep changing layers. Try to guess how warm you’ll be during your route and stick to that. On your feet, wear hiking or mountain boots. If it’s just a short one-off route, you might be able to get away with approach shoes or grippy trainers in dry conditions.
Via Ferrata Safety
It’s easy to assume via ferrata is much safer than rock climbing and get lulled into a false sense of security. In some instances, it probably is safer, like when the rail has been just put in because of the feeling of exposure from big drops on either side. But while no one wants to spend too much time thinking about falling off mountains, let’s just think a moment about the risks inherent in via ferrata.
First of all, remember that you’re depending on wires and ladders that have been put in by someone else and left up in all elements. In the same spirit of the “holds may spin” signs at climbing walls, any of the metalwork could come loose. It’s unusual, sure – even less so on the managed and maintained routes that you have to pay to use. But a big metal wire up a high mountain can attract lightning bolts and things do get blown out of the rock occasionally. On that note, via ferrata is generally a fair weather sport…
The other thing worth talking about is fall factor. What that means, essentially, is: ‘if I slip and fall right now, how far will I travel before I stop falling?”
For example, a lead climber will fall twice the length of the rope above their highest piece of gear. On via ferrata, you are connected via your lanyard. But you’ll slide down the length of whatever you’re clipped into first, before the lanyards engage to slow your fall. The higher up a length of cable you are, the longer you have to fall. So it’s always well worth trying to clip in as high up as you can and onto the next section of cable as soon as you can.
Of course, you’ve got two lanyards for a reason: so you can always stay attached while you’re moving onto the next cable. Unclip both carabiners and you’re just standing on a mountainside.