The birth of the ‘iron roads’ Italy’s Via Ferrata

The summer is the best time to explore the Dolomites’ famous via ferrata (Italian for “iron path”): a network of cables and metal ladders that allow access to and travel through otherwise impenetrable mountains. Although these now serve as a tourist attraction, most of the via ferrata in the Dolomites were created during World War I to get troops and supplies high into the mountains so that soldiers could establish bases from which to fight. One of the oldest military principles out there is that whichever side holds the high ground has the advantage—and there is no ground higher than a mountaintop.

The essence of a via ferrata is a steel cable which runs along the route and is periodically fixed to the rock. Using a via ferrata kit, climbers can secure themselves to the cable, limiting any fall. The cable can also be used as aid to climbing, and additional climbing aids, such as iron rungs (stemples), pegs, carved steps and even ladders and bridges are often provided. Thus via ferratas allow otherwise dangerous routes to be undertaken without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing or the need for climbing equipment such as ropes.

For those with a sense of adventure and a head for heights, via ferrata are a fabulous way to explore the Dolomites and gain access to the remote limestone peaks for which the area is famous. Via ferrata have more recently sprung up across the European Alps, and there are even a handful in the United States now, but none ooze history and poignancy like those in the Dolomites.

Some of our favourite routes:

Via Della Trincee
This wonderful traverse begins with a ride up the Portavescovo cable car from the village of Arabba. From the cable car station, there is a 20-minute approach walk and then around three hours of via ferrata along an exposed ridge. The views of the Marmolada south face are incredible and the route is littered with wartime ruins. If you take a headlamp, you can explore a long system of tunnels at the end of the route.

Lagazuoi tunnels
Start from the Falzarego Pass, close to Cortina, and ride the Lagazuoi cable car to the Rifugio Lagazuoi. From this point there are seemingly endless tunnels to explore, and best of all, the route is downhill all the way. The tunnels do not involve any via ferrata, just walking. We visit these tunnels on our hiking tour of the Dolomites.

Find out more information about our Dolomites hiking trip.

Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona
Although most of this route is walking, there are also some exposed sections of via ferrata, and the longest suspension bridge in the Dolomites. The route used to be very easy access using the Son Forca chairlift and Staunies gondola, but since the gondola closed, the route is much more hard-earned. The effort is worth it, though.

Via Delle Scalette
This excellent, if short, via ferrata is accessed from the Rifugio Auronzo, northeast of Cortina. The walk in is quite long—around two hours—but the scenery is stunning, with the legendary Tre Cime peaks towering above you. The best way to give a via feratta a go is to hire a local mountain guide to guide you on a basic route, then if you enjoy it – you know how to explore more routes on your own.

Sophie Nolan

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