Cover image: Via Ferrata use a system of fixed cables and bars to make ascending sheer cliffs like the one pictured here easier. All images: Dina Mishev
Ten years ago while vacationing in the Italian Dolomites for the first time, I saw something unbelievable while hiking. In the distance (but on the same mountain as the trail where I was) several people ascended what looked to be a fairly featureless face. They were climbing and making it look easy.
I marveled at their nonchalance. And nerve. It appeared they were climbing without anyone belaying them to prevent a fall.
It took several minutes for me to realize their climbing was not exactly climbing. Metal rungs supplemented the few natural features on the face they ascended. Alongside the rungs, a metal cable served as their belay.
Via Ferrata Explained
I had never heard of—much less seen—a via ferrata. Via ferrata—Italian for “iron rung;” they’re also known as “klettersteig,” which means “protected route” in German—is what the “climbers” were doing.
Note the tunnels and ruins; many European mountain ranges have these features as legacies from World Wars I and II.
The rest of that vacation, when weather permitted—September in the Italian Dolomites can be as sublime or as snowy as September in the Tetons—I learned that Via Ferrata originated in World War I, when they were installed to aid mountaineering soldiers.
War Time History
During WWI, the Austro-Hungarian and Italian armies spent three years in mountain positions in southern Tyrol and in the Dolomites. During the war, soldiers expanded the via ferrata, building tunnels, rungs, and suspended bridges in, over, on and through the rock.
I was fascinated by the systems and climbed several, and last summer I returned to the Dolomites to ride bikes and experience anew this unique method of climbing.
Col dei Bos
Beginners might want to start on the easier via ferrata up Col dei Bos near the top of Falzarego Pass and Lagazuoi. Situated between the towns of Cortina and Corvara, the route is about 1,100 feet long. At its base and atop the 8,385-foot summit are ruins and relics from World War I.
At the start of the route are the crumbled remains of a hospital for Italian soldiers. On the summit, I pick up a small pebble, except it isn’t a pebble. It is piece of shrapnel. Also on the summit are 360-degree views of the range, which is limestone, but remind me of the Tetons in terms of size, cragginess and vertical relief.
The day prior to Col dei Bos, I stumbled on the Gran Cir via ferrata by accident. Parking at the top of Gardena Pass, en route from Bolzano to Corvara, I set to stretch my legs. There were trails everywhere but little chance of getting lost since the landscape is open and several of the dozens of switchbacks of the road below are always visible. I let elevation be my guide: whenever the trail split, I took the fork that continued climbing.
Within 30 minutes, I was hiking past signs that read, “Gran Cir Via Ferrata.”
Since my plan was only to hike, I didn’t have a via ferrata kit with me—a climbing harness with two locking carabiners at the ends of shock absorbing lanyards that together work as a self-belay system. I had no idea if I’d be comfortable doing the via ferrata without this safety equipment, but followed the signs nonetheless. I’d hike until I felt it was too difficult.
The start of the cables did not look difficult, but they did disappear around a corner. Figuring I could turn around at any time, I headed up a moderately pitched ramp. The terrain past the corner did not look any more difficult, and I saw a group of hikers on their way down that did not have via ferrata kits. Fifteen minutes later, I was on Gran Cir’s summit, enjoying having found such an adventure without planning to.
Via Ferrrata Scale
That evening after checking into my hotel in Corvara, I learned that European via ferrata are graded on a scale: I is easy and V is difficult. These grades are based on factors such as exposure, length, remote-ness of the route, and difficulty of climbing. Gran Cir is rated a I. Col dei Bos is rated a II. I had a via ferrata kit for the latter.
Sass de Putia
Sass de Putia, a one-hour drive from Corvara on a serpentine road often no wider than a bike pathway, is a 1 and, unlike Gran Cir, I had its summit to myself. The approach to Sass de Putia’s via ferrata is longer than Gran Cir’s and, once up and down the route, rather than retracing my steps back to the parking lot at Passo dello Erbe, I headed in the opposite direction. A hiking trail, the Putia Route, circumnavigates the entire massif, which is the heart of Puez-Odle Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The five-ish miles back to the car offered sweeping vistas of bucolically agrarian terrain backed by snowcapped peaks. But the most enthralling views were close-up: tiny trailside huts selling snacks including fresh bread and homemade jam.
Oboz Ambassador Dina Mishev is the editor of Jackson Hole magazine and Inspirato and her travel stories regularly appear in The Washington Post.