The 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 is home to some of the grandest yet accessible climbing and via ferrata in the world. The area is steeped in history and peppered with the names of some of mountaineering’s greatest historical figures - Comici, Lacedelli, Mariacher, Messner, Piaz, Preuss, Vinatzer and Huber to name but a few.
The Dolomites are one of Europe’s most complete and varied climbing destinations, where both the enthusiastic novice and seasoned veteran are catered for in abundance; single pitch sport crags sit next to kilometre-long traditional routes; historical 'rites of passage' run parallel to modern bolted desperates. The via ferrata give relatively straightforward access to some of the world's most striking summits, their metal wires interspersed with breathtaking ladders and unlikely suspension bridges. These provide aerial assault courses which combine the thrill of an ascent on rock with the security of a protected mountain scramble. All of this takes place in a scenically stunning and unique environment, the bright alpine meadows and blue sky lending colour to these so-called ‘Pale Alps’.
“single pitch sport crags sit next to kilometre-long traditional routes” - James Rushforth
Read James Rushforth's other Dolomites articles:
Alex Huber talking about his upbringing in the Dolomites.
The Dolomites are particularly famous for providing some of the longest multi-pitch trad and sport climbing in the world. The scale of the walls combined with the stunning scenary make for some very memorable outings. Despite the Dolomites enjoying a somewhat fearsome reputation there are many excellent easy climbs to be found, just bear in mind that 9 pitches equates to a relatively short route and thus parties need to be relatively experienced despite the modest grades. For those looking for something a bit more relaxing the area also has the highest concentration of via ferrata in the world (see below).
Route finding - Route finding in the Dolomites is notoriously difficult, primarily because routes often don't follow the main line of weakness as they do on other rock types such as granite. To further confuse things, there are sometimes many possible variants, even on the classic climbs. Be wary of blindly following a line of pegs as this may well be a harder variant, project route, or indeed a failed attempt at a new route. Furthermore the scale of the climbs gives you more opportunities to go wrong, especially on the easier sections where the line is less crucial.
It is worth spending some time on the valley floor, committing the route line to memory and mentally marking key features; an obvious-looking line seen from the ground is nearly always less apparent once on the route.Italian multi-pitch climbs are graded using the UIAA Roman numeral scale. The following table provides a loose indicator as to the respective grade comparisons. A word of warning however, the UIAA grades don't take into account the danger element as British trad grades do. Thus it is worth doing a bit of research beforehand to see how much protection the route has.
Protection - On the majority of trad routes in the area there is usually a variety of fixed gear of varying quality, most notably on the crux pitches which often contain a lot of pegs dating back to old aid ascents. However these are rarely found in sufficient number to protect the entire climb and some of the climbs can be run out. Thus in addition to your rock shoes, helmet, harness and chalk bag you will need a decent range of other gear.
Time - The Brits in general are not renowned for their multi-pitch speed at the best of times, probably due to a lack of long routes where moving fast is essential to success. So make sure you leave yourself plenty of time! The guidebook times are often 'best' times assuming you don't have any rests or route finding problems. Make sure you practice moving quickly with your partner on easier climbs and see how you are faring against the guidebook times. For advice on moving quickly it's worth consulting Rich's UKC article: Secrets of the Alpine Ninja.
Weather - As always in the mountains the weather can change very quickly. Make sure you prepare accordingly, don't get caught out! I find the Arabba-based forecasting station to be the most accurate forecast (updated at 4pm each day).
Some photographic inspiration...
Via ferrata roughly translate into English as 'iron way', 'iron road' or 'iron path'. They are scrambles or easy climbs that are equipped with cables that are attached to the rock at intervals for safety. Some people like to climb the rock wherever possible; others will use the cables as a handrail. Either way it's an exciting and popular activity that offers a quick and safe way of moving through the sort of terrain that would normally require extensive rope work. The Dolomites has the highest concentration of via ferrata in the world, boasting some 170 routes, the majority of which were put up during the first world war.
The via ferrata are a superb way of accessing some of the Dolomites most spectacular peaks in relative safety. Again there is something for everyone with a huge range of difficulties spread over the area, from protected paths to steep and even slightly overhanging climbing. Whilst the classics are undeniably busy there are many routes that can be enjoyed in solitude with a very small chance of meeting other parties.
Please see The Dolomites - Via Ferrata article for a more indepth look at via ferrata within the area.
Some photographic inspiration...
There are a number of guidebooks detailing the climbs in the Dolomites. Here are some of the ones I find most helpful:
The Dolomites: Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata
This guide covers everything you need for a climbing trip regardless of ability, whether it be sport, trad, via ferrata or a combination of all three. It features all the major areas and is the only guidebook available to have such comprehensive coverage. Tom Ripley's review can be found here.
A German guidebook covering 50 of the best trad routes in the Dolomites, illustrated with some superb photography.
Classic Dolomite Climbs
A guidebook covering 102 selected trad climbs in the Dolomites. Translated into English.
Dolomites West & East
General guide in English covering selected trad climbs in the West and East Dolomites.
Western Dolomites 1 and 2 (2011) by Emiliano Zorzi
A general trad guide, translated into English covering the central Dolomites and Pala, in two volumes.
Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 & 2
A dedicated via ferrata guide, written in English covering the North, Central and Eastern Dolomites.
Arrampicare in Val Gardena (2009) by Mauro Bernardi
General guide in German and Italian covering the Val Gardena and surrounding area.
There are simply too many climbs to even begin to create a 'best of' list. Instead here are 5 crags that everyone should visit once...
The iconic symbol of the Dolomites, the Tre Cime are world famous in the climbing community and as such need little introduction. For the uninitiated there are in fact eleven or so towers that make up the group, but it is the three monoliths and their north faces that have captured the imagination of tourists and climbers alike for years. Cima Grande is the largest at 2999m and its north face makes up one of the prestigious six classic north faces of the Alps. This is not only a venue for the climbing elite however, as scattered around the towers there are many excellent easier routes of varying grades. There are also several excellent via ferrata in the area with stunning views of the north faces.
Marmolada South Face
The South Face of the Marmolada is one of the most impressive rock walls in the Dolomites, Europe and indeed the world. Rising for over a vertical kilometre in the centre, there are just under 200 recorded routes weaving their way through a sea of immaculate limestone. All of the routes here are serious undertakings and should not be taken lightly (not least because 28 pitches is about the shortest). Classics include Tomasson, Don Quixote, Vinatzer / Messner, Tempi Moderni and of course Attraverso Il Pesce (the Fish).
The Cinque Torri (five towers), perched high on the Falzarego Pass above Cortina, are one of the cornerstones of climbing in this region. The infinite variety of shapes and sizes found within the many towers epitomise Dolomites climbing in all its forms and the Cinque Torri have always been regarded by locals as the ultimate training facility for alpinists and sport climbers alike.
The Vajolet towers are one of the most famous rock formations in the Dolomites and have become an iconic symbol for climbing
Tofana di Rozes South Face
This is one of my favourite faces in the Dolomites, offering a face of similar proportions to that found on the north side of Cima Grande, yet offering relative solitude.
When do I 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 rock climbing 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 climbs.
Lifts - 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.
Who flies where? - 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.
Where do I stay? - 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 knowlegable about the area and runs a nice set of appartments (Casa-Alfredino) near the Marmolada.
Where can I buy gear? - 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.
What else is there apart from the climbing? - There is superb walking and via ferrata, 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.
Related UKC Articles:
Climbing the Comici by James Rushforth
The Brandler Hasse by Jack Geldard
Dolomites FAQ by Chris the Tall
Dolomites - Ice, Mixed and Drytooling by James Rushforth
ROCKFAX - Dolomites : Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata Reviewed by Tom Ripley
JamesRushforth 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.