Via Ferrata tips and thoughts

I’ll do a post on the last couple days of climbing later today.  For now, I thought I’d write up some of the Via Ferrata basics that I wasn’t able to discover before heading out, in case Google helps someone else find this info in the future.

This is all based on my climbing in the Brenta range, around Madonna di Campiglio.

Gear

Since I’ve got normal touristy stuff before and after the climbing portion of this trip, I chose not to bring too much gear from home.  Instead, I rented a harness, via ferrata rig and helmet from Olympionico Sport in Madonna di Campiglio.  It was €15 per day for that rig.  While in there, ask them for a good map – one with topo data.

I brought my own belay gloves – some folks will say gloves are optional on via ferrata, but I think they’re mandatory.  Looking at the beating my gloves took, my hands agree.  I’d recommend sticking with some sort of belay glove or ferrata glove – leather, with the finger tips removed.  Just like with normal climbing, having your finger tips covered seriously reduces your ability to sense the security of a hold.

I also brought a long a couple quickdraws.  If you’ve got them, it couldn’t hurt to bring them – I’ve rarely been in a situation where I wished I hadn’t brought the quickdraws.  If nothing else, they’re useful for securing gear.

Many folks seemed to lean towards a more traditional hiking boot.  I went with more of a hiking sneaker – fairly robust sole, but no ankle protection, etc.  This worked for me, but you’ll be doing lots of scrambling over everything from scree to boulders, so if you’re prone to ankle injuries, choose appropriately.

Because you’ll be carry little-to-no food (more later), no tent, and no sleeping bag, you can get away with a day-pack sized bag, even for long outings.  Do this if at all possible.  Especially on the more intense routes, reducing the amount of weight and the bulk hanging off your back is very helpful.

Clothes

Weather changes frequently and rapidly, as in any alpine environment.  You will get drenched at least once.  Plan accordingly.  All of the clothing you bring should be made out of fabrics that didn’t exist 20 years ago.  During the time I was climbing, in early July, temperatures ranged from low-30s to high-60s.  I really appreciated having a wide-brim (Tilley) hat as well, for sun and rain protection.

Personally, I don’t like climbing in shorts, just due to the extra skin exposure, but zip-off pants which allow you to open the knees for ventilation are a nice in-between.

A small backpacking towel would be handy if you’re going to be doing more than a couple days.  Most of the rifugios have showers (for a fee), but only one had towels available.

Technology

All of the rifugios I visited had wifi via the Trentino network.  Free (or near-free) access is available via the Free Luna system – register before you leave, registering on your phone is a pain.  The wifi signal tends to be very weak and localized – at some rifugios, it’s only available outdoors, at some only in a specific room.  Keep in mind, these are stone buildings with 2 foot thick walls.  Just ask someone for the best spot to stand in.

Power is at a premium at most rifugios – they run the generators as little as possible, so otherwise it’s battery and solar power only.  For that reason, many limit charging to specific times of day, and don’t have power outlets readily accessible.  Ask politely, and they’ll likely help you get recharged at some point.

Camera choice is a bit tricky – I brought a dSLR, and got some great photos, but there were plenty of situations in which I didn’t feel safe enough to pull it out for a shot.  A small pocket camera, which could be easily secured to a piece of gear, would allow more flexibility in that regard.

Remember to think through how you’re going to protect all your tech from the inevitable drenching.

Guides and Route Finding

I brought along the Cicerone guidebook.  It turned out to not be that helpful (though reading it beforehand was helpful) – routes change a lot from season to season, as time and weather move or obscure markers, cables get rerouted, etc.  Luckily, route marking is generally very good.  When in doubt, just pause and do a slow scan of the landscape to look for red or red and white markers.

A good map is very helpful.  Some sort of compass wouldn’t hurt either, as it’s very easy to lose your sense of direction in the fog.

Rifugios

Rifugios are the mountain huts you’ll be staying in.  They range from relatively antiquated to relatively modern.  They all work essentially the same way – there’s a bar / restaurant, rooms with bunks, and a shared bathroom.  You’ll be able to choose room-only, or half board.  Half board runs around €50 per day – tack on another €10/day for extra coffees, water and lunch, and it’s still a pretty reasonable European outing.

Reservations are recommended – even though it wasn’t the peak season while I was there, space got tight a few times.  It’s easy enough to call ahead, even a day or two, to reduce that stress.

Breakfast will be pretty much the same everywhere – bread, various jams, butter, and coffee or tea.  Dinner is more varied, reflecting the different national backgrounds of rifugio owners.  Things mostly trend germanic, but there’s a range.  It’s typical primi/secondi service, with amazing efficiency.

Otherwise, rifugio living is pretty much like any other hosteling / shared housing experience.  Be polite, respectful, and don’t make a mess.

Food

I mostly covered food above.  One note – it doesn’t hurt to bring along a few snacks (there are a couple large supermarkets in Madonna di Campiglio), and a liter of water.  You’ll need to buy more water from the rifugios as you go (the water from the taps isn’t drinkable, or so they say) but starting out with a bottle can’t hurt.  If your day pack is equipped to take a camelbak-style system, that’s great, but far from necessary.

You can stop in at a rifugio any time of day for a coffee, a snack, lunch, or just a break from the rain and wind.  You can also ask them to wrap up a sandwich for you to take along.  Pricing is reasonable – not the sort of gouging you might expect, given that everything must be transported up many thousands of meters via cable line.

Other Stuff

I can’t think of other big topics at the moment, but will update this post as necessary.

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