Italy’s Via Ferrata

Translating as ‘iron way’, a via ferrata is a protected climbing route. The ‘iron’ of the description relates to the system of cables and ladders, securely fixed to the mountainside, onto which you are clipped, so you can scale steep crags and exposed routes safely. You’ll be wearing a body harness with safety ropes securely attached, and a helmet, too. So, although via ferrata vacations often fall within the bracket of ‘walking’, in fact, they are much more akin to rock climbing. This is no walk in the park, though; it’s not even trekking. This is protected scrambling on high mountain routes that, were it not for this system of cables, would only be accessible to mountaineers.

Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

The craggy peaks of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy attract thousands of walkers and hikers each year, but adventurous souls who are up for a new challenge and enjoy a bit of scrambling can opt to tackle the via ferrata system that runs through these dramatic mountains. This is a chance to follow routes that are rugged, high and exposed, along ridges and up rock faces, far away from the day trip walkers. The via ferrata in the Dolomites involves climbing to a maximum of 2,910m, but an average height of 2,300m so, it goes without saying, this via ferrata is not suitable for vertigo sufferers.

What does the via ferrata in the Dolomites entail?

Obviously, you can’t head out on the via ferrata in the Dolomites alone – it’s way too dangerous and requires specialist guides and equipment – so joining a small group, center based vacation is the best bet. This will take a group of no more than 16 people out on a series of high level mountain walks, including via ferrata for the ascents, with the guidance of a local, English speaking UIAGM guide (one guide for every eight people on the trip). The UIAGM is the Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagnes (aka the International Federation of Mountain Guides). Its guides are trained to a very high standard in rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering and ski mountaineering, and they also bring lots of local knowledge – you’ll be in safe hands.

At the start of the trip you’ll have an introduction on how to use the via ferrata equipment safely, and your first day’s excursion is typically some high level walking involving only a few sections of via ferrata, to ease you in gently. After that, your guides will simply pick the best route each day, depending on the group’s ability and the weather. There are a number of via ferrata routes threading through the Dolomites, so there’s always choice and flexibility. You’ll have a free day, too, for walking, biking or just relaxing.
It’s probably no surprise that tackling the via ferrata on high mountain routes demands a good level of physical fitness. Some sections take you up or down vertical rock faces, so you’ll not only need to be fit, but will need good upper body and arm strength, too. Don’t sign up for a via ferrata vacation unless you’re totally confident of your physical fitness, and your ability to deal with heights and difficult underfoot terrains such as scree, snow or steep paths. You don’t need previous climbing or via ferrata experience, but some experience of high level mountain walking and a good head for heights are necessary, as you’ll often be walking or scrambling on high and exposed sections – not the place to discover you have vertigo.
The via ferrata in the Dolomites includes steep ups and downs on gravel or rocky terrain, and you’ll be notching up an average ascent/descent of about 800m each day. Walking days are long – think between six to nine hours, sometimes even longer during busy periods and on days when you’re crossing high passes. Add stamina to your ‘must pack’ list.
You will also need to be ready for any curve balls the weather decides to lob at you, too, so pack some mental resilience and all-weather kit. In the Dolomites – as with any mountains – the weather can change rapidly. In the summer you can expect rain on one day in two, which typically falls in heavy, short-lived downpours, rather than prolonged showers. It’s always cooler at altitude, but you can still work up a sweat climbing here in high summer, only to be drenched by a thunderstorm. So be prepared for anything and everything. Pack shorts as well as warmer clothes, full waterproofs and sun cream.
The weather can be very variable: take walking gear to cover both warm and cool days, e.g. a thick and thin pair of trousers & shirt.
– Tim Stapenhurst in a review of his via ferrata walking vacation in the Dolomites

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Best time to do the via ferrata

Organised small group tours that scale the via ferrata in the Dolomites only run in the summer months of July, August and September, when the weather is warm and reasonably settled, and there’s not too much snow at high altitude. Down in the valleys during this time, daytime temperatures range from 12°C to 22°C although they can push up to 25°C in July and August. Up in the mountains, it will be a few degrees colder.
Written by Joanna Simmons
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