Iron ways through the Italian Dolomites

by Jon.Sparks

On a via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites, one of the most spectacular ranges on Earth, you have the safety of steel cables for protection and no need for masses of specialist climbing gear


Remember the Stallone movie Cliffhanger? Great romp, but there are three things you have to know. Rock-climbing isn’t like that; a hug (even from Janine Turner) will not cure hypothermia; and those fabulous peaks are not the Rocky Mountains. In fact all the main climbing sequences for the movie were shot half a world away, in the Italian Dolomites. Quite simply, the Rockies weren’t spiky enough.

If it’s spiky you want, the Dolomites are just about unbeatable. Any rivals they might have are in far less accessible places like Alaska and Patagonia. If you want spiky and accessible the Dolomites have no rivals. And I don’t just mean that there are good road and rail links into the valleys, though there are. I’m talking about the peaks themselves, their jagged ridges, vertiginous walls and airy summits. Any reasonably fit person with a moderate head for heights can step into the vertical world, because the Dolomites are the birthplace, and still the world centre, of via ferrata.

Via ferrata (plural vie ferrate) is Italian for iron road. They’re also known as klettersteig in German (this is a bilingual region). This is a system where steep rocks are supplied with steel safety cables, plus metal spikes, rungs and even ladders where necessary. There are narrow ledges slicing across vertical or even overhanging walls, even suspension bridges across dizzying gaps. In most ranges, terrain like this would be off limits to any but experienced rock-climbers. It’s different in the Dolomites.

The Dolomites are the centre of via ferrata partly because of geology – steep rocks with relatively little permanent snow and ice are ideal terrain – and partly because of history. Between 1915 and 1917, these mountains were the scene of bitter fighting between Italian and Austrian forces and both sides tried desperately to gain the advantage of height, constructing protected routes on many peaks. Hastily built, sometimes using rickety wooden ladders and insecure ropes, these were far less safe than today's vie ferrate. The added burdens of heavy gear and the demands of climbing in all weathers meant that enemy fire was often not the main killer. Poignant remains of the campaign can be seen on many routes and add a great deal to the interest, but the experience of the modern via ferrata climber is very different.

Vie ferrate vary in difficulty and are graded from 1a to 5c. Grade 1 is little more than a walk, but in an exposed position where protection is required. Grade 5 is steep strenuous climbing, essentially ‘proper’ rock-climbing but with a fixed protection cable.

Some of the gear for via ferrata is the same as for rock-climbing: a helmet and a harness. The difference is in the clipping system used to attach to the cables. There are several varieties, but all use a Y-shaped arrangement of rope or webbing and some means of absorbing the shock of a fall; this might be a sliding knot or metal friction break, or stitching that progressively unzips. A karabiner (spring-loaded metal clip) at each end of the Y attaches to the cables. As long as one karabiner is attached at all times, the system provides a very high degree of safety.

There are vie ferrate all over the Dolomites, and the best area to head for could depend on how ambitious you are – or even whether you prefer German-style food or Italian. I’ve found Cortina d’Ampezzo to be a good centre, with access by bus to a good range of routes; you can extend the choices much more by staying at the high mountain huts or rifugi. The usual season is July–September, though some low-lying routes are open longer.

Take Rifugio Locatelli, for example. A couple of hours’ easy walking from the bus stop, its sunny terrace has a grandstand view of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (or Drei Zinnen), the most famous peaks in the Dolomites. No vie ferrate on those monolithic and underhung north walls, but let the eye track to the left and the Tre Cime have elegant competition in the soaring shape of the Monte Paterno – Paternkofel in German. It’s not the most fearsome mountain in sight, but it is the most beautiful.

The Via Ferrata De Luca-Innerkofler climbs Paterno, starting by wartime tunnels (take a torch!) then working left by easy scrambling to climb a steep gully where we had to dig the cables out from under the early season’s snow. From a notch on the ridge the final section launches daringly up very steep rock, though with huge holds, to reach the spacious summit. We turned our descent into a traverse of the mountain by following the Percorso delle Forcelle, or Wind-Gap Path, with its swaying wood-slat bridge and airy ledges. I can’t remember many better mountain days than that.

Of course vie ferrate have now spread far beyond the Dolomites. The Julian Alps of Slovenia lie just to the east; geologically they’re an extension of the Dolomites, and also saw bitter fighting in World War 1. Their crowning glory is Triglav, the only mountain to appear on a national flag. Traditionally every loyal Slovene should climb it during their lifetime; I can only hope they teach via ferrata skills in Slovenia’s schools. The world’s highest via ferrata is now at 3,800m on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. Now that’s got to be an unforgettable experience – but the Dolomites are still the original and best.