Via Ferrata: Climbing the Iron Paths of the Dolomites
One of the greatest thrills a hiker can have is to walk or climb a via ferrata, the “iron paths” of the Dolomites in Italy. Traveling on a via ferrata is a different way of enjoying the sheer magnificence of the Dolomites, providing access to places normally reserved for rock climbers and mountaineers. In this awesome mountain environment, you will be stopped in your tracks by amazing views, from a perspective that few have the opportunity to experience.
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What is a Via Ferrata?
A via ferrata, iron path in English, klettersteig in German, is quite literally a route with fixed “protection” that aids travelers in moving safely through the mountains. Hikers can connect otherwise isolated trail systems together to create longer hikes. You can even spend several days hiking rifugio-to-rifugio, facilitating traverses of large sections of the Dolomites at high altitudes. Via ferrata also provide greater access to the incredible scenery the Dolomites has to offer than hiking trails alone.
Check out our video on climbing via ferrata!
Protection found on a via ferrata includes a combination of hardware affixed directly to the climbing or walking surface, most often the rock wall. Elements include:
- cables made from heavy-gauge steel wire, the most common element of a via ferrata,
- metal bars or posts, drilled and cemented into the rock, with eyelets on the end for the cable to run through (like “rebar” used to reinforce concrete buildings),
- rungs of metal, creating a virtual ladder,
- stemples, or steps created from wood and secured to the mountainside,
- ladders, and
Each component provides both a way to aid travel and an element of safety, providing hand holds, assisting with balance, and actually enabling you to attach yourself to the rock.
Why are they called Via Ferrata?
The name via ferrata (plural vie ferrate) originates from an Italian word via attrezzata, meaning fully equipped road (or fully equipped route). The word attrezzata was pronounced like ferrata, and ultimately via ferrata became more commonly used name.
While common English translations vary from iron path, iron road, iron way, to metal ladder, the exact translation from the original name is fully equipped road (a literal translation of via ferrata is railroad road). We refer to them as iron paths or iron ways on our website.
Read more about via ferrata itineraries in the Dolomites
A History of Via Ferrata in Italy
World War I
Vie ferrate were initially built in Italy to aid the movement of Italian alpine military units through the Dolomites in World War I. In 1915, Italy entered the war joining the Allies of Britain, France, and Russia. At this time, the Dolomites were still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a member of the opposing Central Powers. Until the end of 1917, the Austrians and Italians fought a brutal mountain war here. Not only were they fighting each other, trying to gain control of peaks for artillery and line-of-sight advantages, but also against the fierce climate and verticality of these mountains. After losing thousands of troops to prolonged exposure to the cold, falls, and avalanches, Italian troops began to fix permanent lines to rock faces and to install ladders. This enabled them to move both themselves and their equipment through the mountains more quickly and safely. These were the first via ferrata in Italy.
After the War
Once the war ended, the army abandoned the via ferrata, and the local residents began to care for them. In the 1930s the Italian Alpine Club (Club Alpino Italiano) began to restore this wartime network, as well as to add many new routes to attract tourists. Ropes used by the troops were replaced with steel cables. Wooden stemples (steps) were replaced with iron ladders and metal rungs anchored to the rock. Longer more difficult routes were also added to access the major rock climbing and mountaineering routes.
World War II interrupted these endeavors, but not for long. Construction resumed, although initially more slowly, and then exploded in the 1950s as the economy began to flourish again. Tourism, including the increasingly popular vie ferrate, became the largest part of the economy in the Dolomites after 1945.
Vie ferrate became fashionable, not only in the Dolomites, but also took off in the Austrian and German Alps. This flurry of activity was ultimately matched by growing environmental concerns, and ultimately the policy for via ferrata construction became one of maintenance, rather than expansion.
Via Ferrata Today
Still maintained by the Italian Alpine Club, today via ferrata represent one of the major attractions in the Dolomites, drawing a multitude of international visitors each year.
Many of the routes originally installed by the military are long-gone, but some still play an important role in ascending these mountains, as well as remembering their role in history. The scars of the cruel battles held here between 1915 and 1917 are still recognizable:
- trenches, dugouts, and other relics of WWI can be found alongside many of the original via ferrata, and
- there is an extraordinary open air museum on Cinque Torri, and around Lagazuoi, where very heavy fighting took place.
Who can climb a Via Ferrata?
Anyone who can hike can walk or climb a via ferrata – no previous experience is necessary! If you are not afraid of heights, and want to experience the majestic Dolomites in a different way, then via ferrata climbing is for you. The cables and ladders provide protection, so the non-experienced climber can ascend or traverse through these beautiful mountains safely.
Sarah Gold, in her October 2009 blog for Travel+Leisure, indicated high-altitude adventures have always sent her wimpering. “No one who knows me would ever mistake me for a mountaineer … So recently, I decided to test my fear of heights in the cushiest possible way: with a customized, weeklong guided foray into the Italian Dolomites … And, caspita! (that’s “wow!” in Italian): The Dolomites delivered. Not only did I get to prove my mettle with all-day treks among jaggedly spectacular mountain passes (with wildflower-strewn meadows, grazing horses, and tunnels originally made by soldiers during World War I); with the assistance of my highly trained mountain guides, I also experienced the thrill/terror of hauling myself up an actual via ferrata.”
Some vie ferrata are merely a walk in the mountains, with little or no protection required, and are appropriate for all ages and abilities. Some are more challenging, longer, with more vertical gain, requiring protection and some climbing skill. With over 130 via ferrata spread throughout the Dolomites, of varying difficulty, length, and exposure, most every one can find a via ferrata that suits their interest and abilities, and experience this beautiful way to explore the Dolomites.
What equipment do I need to climb a Via Ferrata?
Climbing or walking a via ferrata is very similar to rock climbing, without requiring the sophisticated knowledge of ropes technique, gear placement, etc…
You will need simple mountaineering equipment including a harness, two short lengths of rope attached to the harness in a Y formation, two locking carabiners* attached to the end of each length of rope, and a helmet, (this equipment is provided on all Dolomite Mountains itineraries). There are also via ferrata “setups” available that include the rope and carabiners manufactured as one piece of equipment. These are made by several top climbing equipment companies, including Black Diamond and Petzl.
Most people climb vie ferrate in lightweight hiking shoes. In addition to ascending, travel on a via ferrata usually also includes a combination of a hiking approach to get to the via ferrata, may include easy sections where you’ll traverse rather than climb up, hikes from the end of one via ferrata to the next, or hikes to a rifugio for a meal. Many also include hiking descents down a trail rather than down a via ferrata. Light, flexible hiking shoes are recommended, and function much better than heavy hiking boots. A pair of gloves with open fingers can also be helpful, so your hands are protected from the cables as you climb, but your fingers are free to move your carabiners.
How do you climb a Via Ferrata?
Once you put on your helmet, your harness, and attach your Y-configured rope and carabiners, you’re ready to go!
When beginning your climb, you will attach and lock both carabiners onto the wire cable of the via ferrata. Each time you reach a place where the cable is attached to the rock (usually via a steel bar or post with an eye-hole for the cable to go through), you will need to individually unclip and re-clip your carabiners beyond the attachment point. This must ALWAYS be done ONE AT A TIME, ensuring that you are ALWAYS attached to the cable by AT LEAST ONE CARABINER. Therefore:
1a. Unclip your first carabiner.
1b. Re-clip your first carabiner to the cable, beyond where the cable is attached to the rock.
1c. Make sure your first carabiner is locked!
2a. Unclip your second carabiner.
2b. Re-clip your second carabiner to the cable, beyond where the cable is attached to the rock.
2c. Make sure your second carabiner is locked!
Now you are ready to continue climbing. Again, this ensures that the user ALWAYS has at least one of their safety lines attached to the safety cable.
On via ferrata where the cable runs vertically, it is also advisable to allow enough space between climbers so that no more than one person is on any segment between two rock attachment points.
On Dolomite Mountain trips, we always ensure that a UIAGM/IFMGA professional mountain guide accompanies you on via ferrata climbs. He or she guide will teach you how to use the equipment, give you hints on climbing techniques, and make sure that the experience is both fun and safe!
Is climbing a Via Ferrata safe?
Via ferrata climbing is as simple and secure as protected climbing gets! The equipment worn by the climber, combined with the use of cables and other hardware affixed to the mountainside, provide protection from falls or injury. As with all outdoor activities, climbing a via ferrata does include some inherent risks. But as long as the climber selects a route that is appropriate to their fitness and energy level and remains clipped in to the via ferrata at all times, these risks are minimized.
How do I select the best Via Ferrata for me?
Via ferrata are graded according to their difficulty. These rating systems help hikers and climbers select the appropriate via ferrata for their level of fitness, experience, and length of time they want to spend outdoors.
There are several different via ferrata rating systems in use in Italy. Because, standard climbing (rock, ice, or aid) difficulty ratings do not quite apply to via ferrata, a different system had to be created to rate these fantastic iron paths. Two of the most commonly employed systems are the Fletcher/Smith Rating System and the Hofler/Werner Rating System.
The Fletcher/Smith Rating System
The Fletcher/Smith Rating System consists of two parts:
- A number, which rates the technical difficulty from 1 (easiest) to 5 (most difficult).
- A letter, which indicates the overall alpine commitment (or “seriousness”) of the undertaking. Three letters are used: A (least commitment), B, and C (greatest commitment).
Based on this, a 1A is basically a walk-up, likely in a safe area close to civilization, and not likely to be very long. A 5C likely includes some challenging rock climbing, is remote, long, and as hard as they come for via ferrata. Something like a 4A might be a challenging rock climb but likely not very long and in a friendly environment. Current via ferrata guidebooks by Fletcher and Smith employ this system.
The Hofler/Werner Rating System
The Hofler/Werner Rating System is a single-letter system, ranging from A (easiest) to G (hardest). This single letter combines both technical and situational difficulties.
A - For footsure mountain walkers; easy and without problems
B - For footsure mountain walkers free of vertigo; easy
C - Sure-footedness and freedom from vertigo necessary
D - Absolute sure-footedness and freedom from vertigo necessary
E - Additional mountain experience and climbing ability necessary
F - Good climbing technique on very steep rock required
G - Perfect climbing technique on vertical rock required
If you are uncertain about what level of via ferrata you would like to tackle, or simply want the experience and knowledge of someone who has repeatedly traveled these iron paths, companies like Dolomite Mountains offer guided trips where you can experience via ferrata in safety with a UIAGM/IFMGA professional mountain guide
Where can you find Via Ferrata?
The majority of vie ferrate are found in the Dolomites in Italy, with over 130 in place here today. However, they are also found in a number of other countries. In Europe this includes Germany, France, Austria (where the first ever via ferrata was built in 1843), Slovenia, Romania, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom. They may also be found in a few places in the United States (Yosemite’s Half Dome, for example), Canada, Mexico, Peru, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan. The world's highest via ferrata, topping out at 3,800 meters (12,467 feet), is located on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
In the Dolomites you will find more via ferrata than any other country or region, all in one range of mountains. The Dolomites are divided into two primary regions, western and eastern.
To the east is the greater part of the Dolomites, where the majority of via ferrata are found. These include the Sentiero Bocchette Alte and the Via delle Bocchette Centrali, reached from the town of Madonna di Campiglio. The Lagazuoi Tunnels are one of the most unusual via ferrata in the eastern Dolomites, featuring a rich history as well. During WWI, both Austrian and Italian troops built a series of tunnels through the mountains while fighting for control of Mount Lagazuoi. Each side was trying to tunnel near the enemy and detonate explosives to destroy their fortifications. Some of these tunnels have since been restored; one is now accessible for climbers to descend into the mountain using via ferrata protection.
To the west are the smaller, but no less impressive, Brenta Dolomites, where some of the most classic via ferrata routes in the Dolomites can be found. What is believed to be most popular via ferrata in the Dolomites resides here: Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona, which includes a traverse of the spectacular Monte Cristallo Ridge. A full day route, the ascent includes two different ski lift rides, an opportunity for a meal (or accommodation) at the Lorenzi Rifigio, and the opportunity to view several WWI fortifications. Other classics include the Via Ferrata Tridentina, Punta Ana, Lipella, Tomaselli, Piz da Lec, Col dei Bos, delle Mesules, and Monte Paterno. The dominant geographical feature of the western Dolomites is the Sella Massif, accessible from the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo.
What makes the Dolomites Via Ferrata special?
The via ferrata of the Dolomites were born of historical origin, and only more recently have a history of recreational climbing. While you can find via ferrata around the globe, most were built solely for tourism. Ascending through the Dolomites is like climbing through a living museum. You have the opportunity to witness artefacts of WWI, as well as consider the experiences of these soldiers almost a century ago. As a result of the wartime history, you will also experience a region with three unique languages and cultures: Italian, German/Austrian, and Ladin.
Climbing a via ferrata in the Dolomites is “a different way of enjoying the sheer magnificence of this awesome mountain environment” says Dolomite Mountains founder Agustina Lagos Marmol. “You will be stopped in your tracks by amazing views … and [our] guides will show not only the beauty of the mountains, but the history of the area though the via ferrata as they were built during WW1.”
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*Note: There are carabiners made specifically for via ferrata climbing, featuring a larger-than-normal opening to accommodate the size of the via ferrata cable, and with a spring locking mechanism. These carabiners are different than locking carabiners used in other types of climbing. Via ferrata carabiners feature an easy open mechanism that can be maneuvered with one hand to faciliate the constant clipping and unclipping required in via ferrata climbing. They are not appropriate for other climbing applications where more secure locking mechanisms are required. Via ferrata carabiners are marked with a K in a circle, for klettersteige, the German term for via ferrata.