Are you tough enough to climb Scotland’s only Via Ferrata? Located in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, the Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven (near Glencoe) leads adventurers up to dizzy heights. Climbing up a narrow gorge alongside one of the tallest waterfalls in Scotland, this is an outdoor activity for real thrillseekers. In this guide, you will find out everything you need to know about this experience and my personal experience of what it is like to climb the Via Ferrata in Scotland.
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The scenery of the Scottish Highlands is dominated by towering mountains and beautiful glens. But water is the key. Over millions of years, the Scottish landscapes have been shaped by water and ice. Today is no difference!
Or could you imagine Scotland without its lochs, rivers and waterfalls?
The waters of Scotland are a great playground for all kinds of adventures. Kayaking, rafting, wild swimming – you name it. But this post is about a much more unusual outdoor activity in the Scottish waters: climbing the Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven. And while climbing is definitely not a water sport, getting wet is guaranteed on this route!
Read on to find out:
- What is a Via Ferrata?
- Where can you find the Via Ferrata in Scotland?
- How to climb the Via Ferrata in the Highlands?
- What to wear and what to bring?
- What it’s like to climb the Via Ferrata – a personal account.
And anything else you need to know to plan a trip to the Via Ferrata Scotland: how to get there, where to stay nearby and what else to do in Kinlochleven.
Via Ferrata in Scotland
What is a Via Ferrata?
Italian for “iron path”, a Via Ferrata is a protected climbing route. The most important characteristic of any Via Ferrata is a steel cable that runs along a route. Climbers can secure themselves to this cable which minimises the risk of falling and makes the Via Ferrata safer than traditional climbing or scrambling.
There are usually additional climbing aids installed, such as iron staples, ladders and bridges, which makes the activity accessible to people who are not experienced climbers.
Where is the Via Ferrata in Scotland?
The only Via Ferrata in Scotland is located in Kinlochleven, a former mining community near the famous village of Glencoe. It climbs up alongside the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall which is the third-tallest waterfall in Scotland.
Don’t confuse it with a waterfall by the same name in Dumfries & Galloway, which you can read more about in this hiking guide.
There is another climbing route in Scotland that is similar to a Via Ferrata, but only the route in Kinlochleven requires traditional climbing gear (harness, helmet and lanyards). The Elie Chainwalk on the Fife Coastal Path features a series of chains that walkers can hold on to with their hands in order to cross a steep cliff section at low tide.
About the Via Ferrata at Grey Mare’s Tail
The Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven was installed by a tour operator called Vertical Descents. They have multiple adventure centres around the UK and offer several activities from their bases in Kinlochleven and nearby Fort William. Apart from the Via Ferrata, they can also take you coasteering, gorge walking, white water rafting, river tubing and more.
Vertical Descents offers this guided activity in small groups. Their experienced staff is always at hand and provides instructions to safely climb the route. You are secured to the steel cable at all times, making this a perfectly save activity in one of the most beautiful places in the Scottish Highlands.
Grey Mare’s Tail is the third-tallest waterfall in Scotland and has carved a narrow, tree-lined gorge into this rock face in Kinlochleven. As you get higher though, the trees open up and reveal stunning views of Kinlochleven, Loch Leven and the surrounding mountains.
Length + Height
The climb is approximately 500 metres long and leads to a height of 90 metres.
The activity lasts around 3 hours including a safety briefing, being kitted out with equipment and the walk to and from the waterfall. The climb itself takes around 2 hours, depending on the group’s progress.
It is very likely that you will get wet. To reach the beginning of the climbing route, you have to cross a small river. There are stepping stones, but when the river carries a lot of water, the stones are submerged. The route keeps a safe distance from the waterfall, but the spray can be strong.
All participants have the choice to wear wetsuits (which are provided by Vertical Descents) for the activity. All other equipment is provided by Vertical Descents (harnesses, lanyards, helmets, gloves).
Previous climbing experience is not required. However, you must be physically and mentally fit as climbing the Via Ferrata is a strenuous activity. You must be comfortable with heights and exposure, or at least prepared to get over your fear of heights.
Age + Height Restriction
Participants must be over 10 years of age and over the height of 130 cm (4′ 3”).
What to wear?
Wear comfortable sports clothes. Choose breathable, quick-dry materials over heavy fabrics like jeans or cotton as these can become really uncomfortable when wet. You will have the choice to wear a wetsuit instead.
A waterproof jacket is the perfect outer layer for this activity.
I recommend wearing sturdy shoes like hiking boots which give you a good grip on the rock and the climbing features.
What to bring?
Make sure you have a big breakfast before the climb as it is a physically strenuous activity.
On the climb
You don’t need anything on the climb. While you could bring a backpack with personal items on the climb, I recommend taking as little as possible to allow you to climb freely.
Your guide can take small items for you in their waterproof backpack (i.e. a snack bar or gloves).
You might want to bring an adventure camera in a waterproof case, but note that you need both hands to climb safely.
Your guide will take photos throughout the hike which you can purchase at the end. I preferred this over risking to drop my own camera or get it wet.
After the climb
I recommend bringing a change of clothes, dry shoes and a high energy snack for after the activity. There is a place to change at the Vertical Descents office, but no showers.
My Experience of Climbing the Via Ferrata
What the climb was like
I received a gift voucher to climb the Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven from my brother – the perfect birthday or Christmas present for adventurers!
After spending the night in Glencoe (see accommodation options below), we drove to Kinlochleven to meet our guide and the other participants at the Vertical Descents office in the village.
It had been raining the day before and was still drizzling a little bit. I usually don’t mind the typically Scottish weather, but since the Via Ferrata passes so close to the waterfall, the activity can only go ahead if the water tumbles down the gorge in a reasonably controlled manner. If the waterfall carries too much water, the Via Ferrata is not safe to do.
Luckily, our guide had checked the waterfall in the morning and even though the spray would be strong, decided it was safe to go. Adventure time!
We were six people in the group: my and my friend Yvette, a young couple from America and a Scottish woman with her adventurous teenage son.
After a short walk to the foot of Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, our guide gave us a safety briefing at a practice steel cable suspended among the trees. We practised how to use the lanyards and how to safely attach to the cable.
Then it was time to meet our neighbour for the next few hours.
Grey Mare’s Tail did not disappoint. The river was flowing fast and the spray was incredible. Standing at the foot of the waterfall, it was impossible to see the top. All I could see was a white cloud of angry water falling my way.
The beginning of the Via Ferrata lies at the other side of the river and since the water was pretty high (around mid-calf), it was time to get our feet wet. Our guide unlocked the hatch to the first section of the climb as it is not permitted to enter the Via Ferrata without a guide.
Initially, our guide went ahead and I was lucky enough to follow after him in the second position.
Slowly we made our way up, climbing steel ladders, walking over narrow wooden planks and using iron staples as footholds to reach higher ground. We stopped often for breaks, making sure that everyone in the group was feeling comfortable and could catch their breath.
Our guide encouraged us to test our trust in the harness, remove our hands from the steel cable and the rock wall, and lean backwards or forewards – if we dared – facing the waterfall. It was great fun testing my fear of heights and feeling the power of nature.
Further up, the views of Kinlochleven, the loch and the mountains were breathtaking. The sun even came out and rainbows formed in the sparkling spray of the waterfall.
Eventually, our guide decided it was time for me to take the lead and follow the group from behind to take photos.
One highlight of the Via Ferrata is a section of steel cables that cross from one side of the gorge to the other. Away from the safety of the rock, I balanced across the cables and over the waterfall. The water tumbled down only to be stopped by more rock 90 metres beneath my feet.
Towards the end of the route, there is even a short zip line over the gorge.
When our group reached the top of the climb, we returned to the safety of the forest and unclipped our lanyards from the cable. In less than 10 minutes, we descended a woodland trail until we reached once again the bottom of the waterfall.
Back at the Vertical Descents office, our guide uploaded all the photos he took to USB sticks for everyone. We dried off, changed into our clothes and started our journey back to Glasgow.
Climbing the Via Ferrata in Scotland was an amazing experience. As an avid adventurer, I loved this thrilling activity, but really appreciated how safe it was at the same time.
Our group was a perfect size and our guide super reassuring. He provided precise instructions and gave great advice throughout the hike. And the photos turned out amazing (as you can see) – no need to risk my own camera on the climb!
While I’m very comfortable with adventure activities, I’m actually a little scared of heights. My knees started shaking whenever I looked down behind me!
Yet, I had an amazing time. I have climbed indoors many times before and was immediately comfortable in my harness. Trusting the equipment was easy as it was state of the art and by a well-known climbing gear brand. I had no problem removing my hands from the climbing aids to lean into the abyss and really enjoyed the cable crossings and the zipline at the end.
I highly recommend the Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven with Vertical Descents for anyone who is looking for a slightly different outdoor activity in Scotland!
Kinlochleven Travel Guide
How to get to Kinlochleven
By car from Edinburgh/Glasgow: From Edinburgh, take the M8 to Glasgow. Stay in this until you reach the exit for Erskine Bridge. Cross the River Clyde on the Erskine Bridge and stay to the left to take the A82 North towards Crianlarich. Stay on this road until you get to Glencoe.
On this route, you will drive along the banks of Loch Lomond and there are many other scenic stops along the way. In Glencoe, turn right after the traffic light and follow signs for Kinlochleven.
From Glasgow, this drive should take approximately 2.5 hours, from Edinburgh, add about 1 hour.
By car from Inverness: From Inverness, take the A82 south until you get to Glencoe. You will pass Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle and Fort William along the way. When you get to Glencoe village, turn left and follow signs for Kinlochleven. This drive should take approximately 2.5 hours.
By public transport: It is very easy to get to Kinlochleven by public transport and since the Vertical Descents office and Grey Mare’s Tail are in the village, there is no need to drive.
- From Glasgow, you can either get the train to Fort William (4h) and then a direct bus to Kinlochleven (50 min). Or you can take the bus to Glencoe (2.5 hours) and there change to a bus to Kinlochleven (20 minutes).
- From Edinburgh make your way to Glasgow first and then choose one of the options above.
- From the north, you can take the bus to Fort William (2h from Inverness, 3h from Portree on Skye) and change to a bus to Kinlochleven (50 min).
I highly recommend booking the longer leg of either journey in advance (train via Trainline, bus via Citylink). It is not necessary to book the bus to Kinlochleven in advance.
Where to Stay in Kinlochleven and Glencoe
When I visit Kinlochleven, I often stay at Blackwater Hostel, a walker-friendly hostel with a relaxed atmosphere. They have rooms for 2 to 8 people. All rooms are en-suite and there is a great open kitchen and common area. They also have a campsite and glamping pods next to the hostel and offer luxury B&B accommodation nearby. The Vertical Descents office is a 2-minute walk from the hostel and Grey Mare’s Tail can be reached within a 15-minute walk.
Another great option in the area is House in the Wood, a self-catering cottage in Ballachulish, approx. 30 minutes by car from Kinlochleven.
For more accommodation options in the area, check out my Glencoe travel guide.
Other things to do in Kinlochleven
Kinlochleven is a small village. It lies generally off the beaten track – about 20 minutes away from the busy A82 road through the Highlands – but is a stop on the popular West Highland Way. It is the last village along the route and from there it is just a day’s walk to Fort William.
Here are some other things to do in Kinlochleven during your stay:
Ice Factor Climbing Centre
The climbing centre Ice Factor has the world’s largest indoor ice climbing facility as well as regular climbing walls with top ropes, auto-belay and bouldering walls. Beginners can book lessons while experienced climbers can also enjoy the walls without guidance.
There is an aerial adventure course outside the climbing centre and a range of other activities, including outdoor climbing and bike hire.
Approximately 10 minutes from Blackwater Hostel there is a great spot for wild swimming in the River Leven. Near a bridge, the river forms deep pools and it is safe to jump in from the rocks.
There are numerous hiking trails in Kinlochleven.
You could follow the West Highland Way north to Fort William and catch a bus back to Kinlochleven, or south to the Devil’s Staircase and the Kingshouse Hotel and walk back.
For shorter walks, follow the trail next to Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall towards Mamore Lodge, or take the trail to Blackwater Reservoir above the village.
More challenging include the trail to the top of Corbett Glas Bheinn, the Munros Binnein Mor and Na Gruagaichean or the Mam na Gualainn circuit.
My post about things to do in Glencoe has many more suggestions for attractions and activities in the wider area.
Considering that this is the ONLY Via Ferrata in Scotland, it really is a must-try activity for adventurers and thrill-seekers. Climbing in Kinlochleven offers (literally) a new perspective on the Scottish Highlands and promises a unique addition to your Scotland itinerary.
Climbing the Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven is an amazing experience that must not be missed. One for your Scotland bucket list!
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All photos of the Via Ferrata by Vertical Descents; other photos by Kathi Kamleitner.