he peaks of the Dolomites are characteristically steep, with huge faces and towering summits often breaching 3000m in altitude. These stunning spires of alpine limestone are located south of the Austrian / Italian border and the mountainous area extends for 80km east of the town of Bolzano.
Located in northern Italy and with a unique mix of Italian and Austrian culture the Dolomites has the highest concentration of via ferrata in the world, boasting some 170 historic routes. The metal wires intespersed with ladders and unlikely suspension bridges give straightforward access to some of the world's most striking summits, allowing you to move quickly over technical ground that would normally require a rope. The routes are for the most part maintained by CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) and the local guides working within the area. They are free to use and are generally accessible to anyone with resonable mountain experience and a good head for heights. They provide a relaxing or good wet weather itinerary for experienced climbers and a fantastic means by which to ascend an otherwise inaccessible peak for those without the same technical climbing knowledge.
"The Dolomites has the highest concentration of via ferrata in the world" - James Rushforth
For more information on climbing in the Dolomites see James Rushforth's other articles:
Via Ferrata in the Dolomites
What is a via ferrata?
In its most basic form a via ferrata consists of a metal (originally iron - now more commonly steel) wire that is connected to the surrounding rock at numerous intervals. The purpose of this wire is twofold:
1) It provides a fixed form of climbing protection which climbers can physically attach themselves to.
2) It provides an artificial aid for climbers who can use the wire for assistance throughout the route.
Though the metal wire is the fundamental feature of all via ferrata, there are also numerous secondary elements employed as additional artificial aid. These can include (although are not limited to) stemples (large staples in the rock), steps, ladders, bridges and walkways.
Origins of the name
The term 'via ferrata' is used in most languages with the exception of German, which uses 'Klettersteig' (climbing path). 'Via ferrata' originates from 'via attrezzata', which means 'fully equipped road/route'. Common English translations cite 'iron way', 'iron road' or 'iron path', derived from 'ferro', meaning iron. In Italian the plural is 'via ferrate', whilst in English both 'via ferrata' and 'via ferratas' are used interchangeably.
Via Ferrata History
Whilst the construction of via ferrata is often attributed to the First World War there are several routes that predate 1914. There is some debate as to which is the oldest via ferrata in the Dolomites, though it is generally accepted to be either the Marmolada West Ridge or Delle Mèsules (Possnecker Path), with some reports of the former being constructed as early as 1903.
Nevertheless it was the arrival of the First World War to the Dolomite mountains that provided the catalyst for construction of via ferrata en masse. Both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies in the area found the wires invaluable for moving men and supplies through previously inaccessible areas. Via ferrata were constructed to defend key positions and were often the site of vicious fighting. The legacy of this terrible conflict can still be witnessed on many of the routes, with the tunnels (Giovanni Lipella), trenches (Eterna Brigata Cadore), officer quarters (Ivano Dibona), lookout positions (Delle Scalette), field hospitals (Col dei Bos/Degli Alpini and Ettore Bovero) and even an original field gun (Via delle Trincee - La Mesola) still in evidence today.
Following the war many of the via ferrata were re-equipped by CAI and used as a means of attracting tourists to the area. This was a slow process until the 1950s which saw an explosion in tourism to the area. This sudden influx of visitors rapidly led to increased environmental concerns and led to the expansion being curtailed in favour of just maintaining the pre-existing routes.
More recently some new via ferrata have been constructed in the area, the first 'modern' route being Sandro Pertini. Built in Vallunga, an area covered under the EU's 'Natura 2000' environmental protection policy, the route was shrouded in controversy as many felt the route had been built purely to commercial ends with a disregard for the environmental impact. The route was closed temporarily before being officially sanctioned by the EU in 2008, setting a precedent for other new routes to be built in the area. Ski Club 18 above Cortina was constructed in 2009 to 'enrich the mountaineering tradition' of the area, and named after the Rome ski club of the same name, whilst Magnifici Quattro in the Van San Nicolò follows part of a First World War route and was named in honour of four mountain rescue members who were tragically killed in an avalanche whilst attempting a rescue in 2009.
For more information on the First World War in the Dolomites I highly recommend The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front by Mark Thompson which is an eye opening read. His talk at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival was both excellent and enlightening.
Via Ferrata grades
There are numerous grading systems used for via ferrata and a European standard system has yet to emerge. So far English books have adopted the Smith/Fletcher System which uses a dual numeric and alphabetic grading classification. A number (from 1-6) is used to denote the technical difficulty of a route, whilst a letter (A-D) is used to portray the 'seriousness / danger' of said route.
Via Ferrata equipment
- Harness - A sit, or full body, harness depending on personal preference.
- Helmet - It is important to wear a helmet on via ferrata, primarily because of the risk of rockfall from parties above you.
- Via Ferrata Lanyards - These can be hired or bought from most of the sport shops in the Dolomites. They come in many different makes and designs, although there have been a number of recalls recently of via ferrata lanyards so it is worth doing some prior research. It is important not to create your own lanyards using slings, static or dynamic rope because of the potentially huge fall factors generated.￼￼￼￼
- On the harder routes or in changeable weather it is often a good idea to bring along a short rope and belay device.
Via Ferrata Etiquette
- Try and leave one section of wire between yourself and other climbers to minimise the risk of a chain reaction in the case of a fall.
- Always remain clipped into the wire with at least one lanyard.
- If you are overtaking wait until a safe section to do so.
- Warn climbers below you in the event of rockfall
There are a number of guidebooks covering via ferrata in the Dolomites. Here are some of the ones I find most helpful:
Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 & 2
Two seperates volumes from Cicerone providing a dedicated via ferrata guide, written in English covering the North, Central and Eastern Dolomites.
Ferrate a Cortina
A via ferrata guide, translated into English covering Cortina d'Ampezzo and immediate surrounding area.
I've never seen or used this guide but I've heard good things from those that have. I believe despite been German it comes with an English CD.
Recommend me some routes...
There are so many routes to choose from it's always hard to pick a 'favourites' list. Here are a few that are certainly worth a look...
A short but interesting via ferrata that is ideal for those looking for a half day out or to try a via ferrata for the first time. Despite being relatively short in via ferrata terms, because it departs from the top of the Gardena Pass it still reaches an impressive height of 2500m. This gives you spectacular views into the Val de Chedul, across to the Sella and of the impressive nearby Sassolungo group. The rock quality is excellent and provides interesting climbing at a consistent level. The route can be combined with the nearby Gran Cir if you want a longer day (though from a climber's perspective Piz da Cir is far superior).
Brigata Tridentina (VF) (VF3B)
A fantastic via ferrata that is the classic of the area and extremely popular. During peak season it is worth getting on the wire very early or waiting until the afternoon if you want to avoid the crowds. The rock is good and the climbing varied. The hardest bit comes towards the end, before the spectacular bridge crossing between Torre Exner and the Mur de Pisciadù.
Sorapiss Group (VF3C)
This is actually a link up of three remote via ferrata that encircle the stunning Lago di Sorapiss. Whilst it is possible to do the circuit in a day (expect it to take 16 hours at a good pace) most people opt to stay in one of the two bivouacs on route. This is an ideal circuit for those wanting to get away from the crowds as it's rare to see more than two or three parties over its length.
This remote pair of via ferrata will appeal to those looking for a bit of solitude and can be combined with an overnight stay in the lovely Rifugio Alpe di Tires. Sentiero Massimiliano is an easy and fairly unprotected ridge scramble above the Alpi di Siusi plateau, whilst Laurenzi-Molignon follows the seldom frequented Molignon ridge just north of the Catinaccio group, with some difficult down climbing.
This via ferrata is fairly unique in the area in that it requires reasonable alpine experience as it crosses the Ghiacciaio della Marmolada, the largest glacier in the Dolomites. The route is graded VF3D, indicating a moderate technical difficulty whilst being serious in nature. The cable ascends the superbly situated west ridge up to the summit of Punta Penia the highest peak in the Dolomites at 3343m, offering tantalising glimpses down the huge south face as you progress.
Via Delle Trincee/La Mesola (VF4B)
This historic route (way of the trenches) is an unusual via ferrata in that it is predominantly a traverse along the Padon ridge and it takes place on a conglomerate rock as opposed to the surrounding limestone and dolomite. The views down to the village of Arabba and across to the Marmolada North Face are superb; throw in some atmospheric tunnels and even an original canon dating back to the first world war and you have a superb itinerary.
Punta Anna (VF) (VF5B)
This is one of my favourite via ferrata that follows a ridge system north from Rifugio Pomedes, over the top of Punta Anna and to the summit of Tofana di Mezzo (3244m), the third highest peak in the Dolomites. The climbing
is aesthetic on solid rock, the situations and exposure fantastic. Furthermore it feels like you can see the entire Dolomites on a clear day (and a good amount of Austria). The route should not be underestimated though given that much of it takes place above 3000m in a remote environment. The climbing is also fairly strenuous with some big exposure, particularly on the several traverse sections.
Ski Club 18 (VF5B)
This via ferrata was equipped in 2009 and is one of the hardest in the area, being of comparable difficulty to Cesare Piazetta and Magnifici Quattro. The climbing is steep and sustained requiring good fitness. Being such a new via ferrata there are still sections that need cleaning, but the flip side of this is a wonderful lack of polish. With the aid of the Faloria cable car the approach is relatively short and the descent non-existent making it an ideal half a day out from Cortina.
When to Go
Though it is possible to complete climbs during the winter months (some of the via ferrata make for excellent ski tours) generally speaking the best season runs from June to the start of October. However at the beginning of the season there is often still a lot of snow about and it is usually necessary to seek lower altitude south facing routes.
Most of the lifts open around the third week of June and close in mid September, but it is worth contacting the local tourist offices for exact information if you are planning on using specific lifts during your trip.
How to Get There
The Dolomites are easily accessible from three airports all a similar distance away. Innsbruck is the closest airport within 2 hours driving distance of the Sella over the Brenner Pass. Cars can be hired from the airport from a number of different companies. Venice Marco Polo is the other main airport within 2 and a half hours drive from the Sella. There are again a number of car hire companies. Alternatively there are several public transport options from Venice; a direct bus runs throughout high season from Venice to the villages surrounding the Sella, or alternatively a more frequent train service runs to Belluno, from where it is then possible to catch a number of buses.
Treviso airport though only small is actually 15 minutes closer than Venice if you can get a flight there. Public transport is available to the centre of Treviso or into Venice, and then you can take a train / bus as above.
Alternatively it is possible to drive from the UK via Germany and Belgium before approaching the Dolomites from the North entering at Pedraces (recently renamed Badia). I usually stay in a hotel near Munich and do the trip in two days.
Hire cars are expensive, around £150 per week. BMC members can get a discount through Hertz.
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The towns of Arabba, Canazei, Cortina, Corvara, Colfasco, La Ville, Pedraces and Selva are all good locations from which to reach the popular climbing areas. Camping is available in both Colfosco, Cortina and Canazei, and hotels can be found in all of the towns. UKC regular Mike Kann is very knowledgeable about the area and runs a nice set of apartments near the Marmolada.
There are a lot of outdoor shops in any decent sized town. The best are:
Sportler - Treviso - A huge complex and only 2km from the airport there.
K2 - Cortina - A small but fantastic gear shop.
Sport Amplatz - Canazei - One of the best shops in the area.
Sport Kostner - Corvara - A good shop with attatched super-market.
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There is climbing and walking, the zipwire at Kronplatz (supposed to be the longest in Europe), a high ropes course at Colfosco, horse riding is becoming increasingly popular, as is mountain biking, there is also white water rafting at Brunico, canyoning at Cortina.
Road biking has long been an integral part of the Dolomite mountains and numerous prestigious races take place up the winding and tortuous passes. Apart from the Giro d'Italia, which usually passes through parts of the Dolomites and in particular often features a famous stage by the Tre Cime, the Sella Ronda and the Maratona dles Dolomites see thousands of cyclists taking to the passes.
Wet Weather Options
One of the most relaxing wet weather options is taking advantage of the many spa facilities in the boutique hotels. Many of these are open to non-residents and are an indulgent way to rest aching muscles and generally get pampered.
There are numerous cultural options with excellent museums such as the Messner Mountain Museum in Brunico, the South Tyrolean Museum of Archeology - home of Otzi the ice man - in Bolzano, and the two Ladin museums in San Martino in Badia and San Cassiano. The three Regole di Cortina museums - Paleontology, Ethnography and Modern Art - offer interesting insights into the history of the rocks themselves and the heritage of the people who lived around them.
Anyone with an interest in more recent history may be interested in the First World War Museum at the Tre Sassi Fort on the Valparola Pass or at the Marmolada mid station.
James Rushforth has just completed the new Rockfax guide - The Dolomites : Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata and is currently working on another guide to Italian sport climbing destination Finale Ligure.
- The Dolomites - 5 Easy Route Recommendations 4 May, 2015
- Dolomites - Ski Mountaineering and Snowshoeing 26 Mar, 2015
- CAPTURING THE STARS: Night Sky Photography 16 Oct, 2014
- DESTINATION GUIDE: Dolomites - Ice, Mixed and Drytooling 22 Mar, 2012
- DESTINATION GUIDE: The Dolomites 22 Apr, 2010
- Climbing the Comici - VII / E3 5c, Dolomites 21 Apr, 2010