Sarah Gold, in her October 2009 blog for Travel+Leisure, indicated high-altitude adventures have always sent her wimpering. “No one who knows me would ever mistake me for a mountaineer … So recently, I decided to test my fear of heights in the cushiest possible way: with a customized, weeklong guided foray into the Italian Dolomites … And, caspita! (that’s “wow!” in Italian): The Dolomites delivered. Not only did I get to prove my mettle with all-day treks among jaggedly spectacular mountain passes (with wildflower-strewn meadows, grazing horses, and tunnels originally made by soldiers during World War I); with the assistance of my highly trained mountain guides, I also experienced the thrill/terror of hauling myself up an actual via ferrata.”
Some vie ferrata are merely a walk in the mountains, with little or no protection required, and are appropriate for all ages and abilities. Some are more challenging, longer, with more vertical gain, requiring protection and some climbing skill. With over 130 via ferrata spread throughout the Dolomites, of varying difficulty, length, and exposure, most every one can find a via ferrata that suits their interest and abilities, and experience this beautiful way to explore the Dolomites.
What equipment do I need to climb a Via Ferrata?
Climbing or walking a via ferrata is very similar to rock climbing, without requiring the sophisticated knowledge of ropes technique, gear placement, etc…
You will need simple mountaineering equipment including a harness, two short lengths of rope attached to the harness in a Y formation, two locking carabiners* attached to the end of each length of rope, and a helmet, (this equipment is provided on all Dolomite Mountains itineraries)
Most people climb vie ferrate in lightweight hiking shoes. In addition to ascending, travel on a via ferrata usually also includes a combination of a hiking approach to get to the via ferrata, may include easy sections where you’ll traverse rather than climb up, hikes from the end of one via ferrata to the next, or hikes to a rifugio for a meal. Many also include hiking descents down a trail rather than down a via ferrata. Light, flexible hiking shoes are recommended, and function much better than heavy hiking boots. A pair of gloves with open fingers can also be helpful, so your hands are protected from the cables as you climb, but your fingers are free to move your carabiners.
Is climbing a Via Ferrata safe?
Via ferrata climbing is as simple and secure as protected climbing gets! The equipment worn by the climber, combined with the use of cables and other hardware affixed to the mountainside, provide protection from falls or injury. As with all outdoor activities, climbing a via ferrata does include some inherent risks. But as long as the climber selects a route that is appropriate to their fitness and energy level and remains clipped in to the via ferrata at all times, these risks are minimized.
How do I select the best Via Ferrata for me?
Via ferrata are graded according to their difficulty. These rating systems help hikers and climbers select the appropriate via ferrata for their level of fitness, experience, and length of time they want to spend outdoors.
There are several different via ferrata rating systems in use in Italy. Because, standard climbing (rock, ice, or aid) difficulty ratings do not quite apply to via ferrata, a different system had to be created to rate these fantastic iron paths. Two of the most commonly employed systems are the Fletcher/Smith Rating System and the Hofler/Werner Rating System.
The Fletcher/Smith Rating System
The Fletcher/Smith Rating System consists of two parts:
1. A number, which rates the technical difficulty from 1 (easiest) to 5 (most difficult).
2. A letter, which indicates the overall alpine commitment (or “seriousness”)
Based on this, a 1A is basically a walk-up, likely in a safe area close to civilization, and not likely to be very long. A 5C likely includes some challenging rock climbing, is remote, long, and as hard as they come for via ferrata. Something like a 4A might be a challenging rock climb but likely not very long and in a friendly environment. Current via ferrata guidebooks by Fletcher and Smith employ this system.
The Hofler/Werner Rating System
The Hofler/Werner Rating System is a single-letter system, ranging from A (easiest) to G (hardest). This single letter combines both technical and situational difficulties.
A - For footsure mountain walkers; easy and without problems
B - For footsure mountain walkers free of vertigo; easy
C - Sure-footedness and freedom from vertigo necessary
D - Absolute sure-footedness and freedom from vertigo necessary
E - Additional mountain experience and climbing ability necessary
F - Good climbing technique on very steep rock required
G - Perfect climbing technique on vertical rock required
If you are uncertain about what level of via ferrata you would like to tackle, or simply want the experience and knowledge of someone who has repeatedly traveled these iron paths, companies like Dolomite Mountains offer guided trips where you can experience via ferrata in safety with aUIAGM/IFMGA professional mountain guide
Where can you find Via Ferrata?
The majority of vie ferrate are found in the Dolomites in Italy, with over 130 in place here today. However, they are also found in a number of other countries. In Europe this includes Germany, France, Austria (where the first ever via ferrata was built in 1843), Slovenia, Romania, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom. They may also be found in a few places in the United States (Yosemite’s Half Dome, for example), Canada, Mexico, Peru, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan. The world's highest via ferrata, topping out at 3,800 meters (12,467 feet), is located on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
In the Dolomites you will find more via ferrata than any other country or region, all in one range of mountains. The Dolomites are divided into two primary regions, western and eastern.
To the east is the greater part of the Dolomites, where the majority of via ferrata are found. These include the Sentiero Bocchette Alte and the Via delle Bocchette Centrali, reached from the town of Madonna di Campiglio. The Lagazuoi Tunnels are one of the most unusual via ferrata in the eastern Dolomites, featuring a rich history as well. During WWI, both Austrian and Italian troops built a series of tunnels through the mountains while fighting for control of Mount Lagazuoi. Each side was trying to tunnel near the enemy and detonate explosives to destroy their fortifications. Some of these tunnels have since been restored; one is now accessible for climbers to descend into the mountain using via ferrata protection.
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Italian based adventure company Dolomite Mountains provides via ferrata excursions in the Dolomites, for more information visit: http://dolomitemountains.com
Dolomite Mountains is the expert in adventure travel in the Dolomites. And because they explore it every day, they have the unique advantage of in-depth knowledge of the terrain, including which sites and trails are best, based on individual preference and skill level. Visitors traveling with Dolomite Mountains receive superior accommodations and exceptional customer service. Personalized itineraries are their specialty, ensuring that each visitor enjoys an adventure that’s perfect for their individual needs, particularly the independent traveler who prefers to explore without the use of an expert guide.