Ladders in the Sky - Via Ferratas in the Dolomites

One of the Alps' peaks above the clouds in front of a crystal clear, blue sky

As I set my foot on the first rung of the ladder, which was precariously suspended from a sheer rock wall, I looked up and counted at least 25 rungs on the ladder above my head. At the level of the top rung, another long ladder was attached to the first, climbing even higher, out of my view. This ladder dangled even further out over the airy abyss below me, just to the right of the one I was on. The transition between the ladders would be straightforward enough, as long my nerves could handle the thrill. I studied the imposing rock spires and cliffs around me, and grinned at the shimmering sea of clouds, hundreds of meters below my toes. This was the moment when I recognized how spectacular this day, this place, and this via ferrata would be. I let out an elated squeal, and scurried up the ladder in a state of euphoric joy.

Via Ferratas, or as I prefer to call them, vertical playgrounds, are an exceptional way to experience the Alps. While there are via ferratas around the world, it is the concentration of them, as well as the variety, that distinguishes them in the Alps. The most famous via ferratas are those in the Dolomites in Italy, but there are magnificent vertical playgrounds throughout Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Slovenia. From almost anywhere you stand in the Alps, I estimate you are within 16 kilometers of a via ferrata. There are nearly two thousand of them throughout the Alps. And, unless you come from the Alps region, you probably haven’t even heard of the best ones.

Male hiker close to an abyss on a Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

A via ferrata is a protected climbing route, which has steel cables installed that climbers can clip into using a special via ferrata set, attached to a regular rock climbing harness. The via ferrata set consists of two slings, each with an auto-lock carabiner at the end, an energy-absorption system, as well as a point to attach it on the harness. In addition to the steel cable, there are often steps, pegs, and even ladders installed on the rock to assist. Via ferratas come in all shapes and sizes, including a vast variety of difficulty levels.

Only via ferratas with a very difficult rating present any real technical challenges for those with a good fitness level. Few require advanced climbing skills and technique to move through the route, although knowing how to preserve arm strength is beneficial. What via ferratas demand more than anything, is a tolerance for heights. For many, the easy or moderate via ferrata is more of a mental challenge than it is a physical one.

One important distinction in via ferratas, in my opinion, is whether it is a sport or an alpine via ferrata. Of course, it doesn’t seem to be that important to anybody else. I have never seen other references to them by these terms. But, hear me out. Alpine via ferratas are what you find in the Dolomites. These via ferratas are built to provide a route through the mountains, from point A to point B. Many of the via ferratas in the Dolomites were built by soldiers during World War I. These via ferratas are often at higher elevations, and involve longer approach hikes. To the contrary, the sport via ferratas are made for the simple joy of climbing a via ferrata. They often have fun features on them, such as exposed cable bridges and sometimes even a zip line. Villages all over the Alps readily fund the installation of new via ferratas, as well as improvements, as they recognize the influence these vertical jungle-gyms can have on their tourism revenue.

Woman walking over a narrow swing in the Dolomites

On this multi-day via ferrata tour through the Dolomites, we were on alpine via ferratas. Although not built for World War I, most of them were historic, having been built in the 1930s, before via ferratas were “a thing.” These via ferratas are spectacular cabled passages, often characterized by how they connect exposed ledge walking with impressive ladders. In the evenings, we settled in at the cozy mountain huts, hosted by the Italian Alpine Club, and enjoyed classic Italian dishes for dinner.

Doing a via ferrata does require a certain amount of knowledge and experience. Those who have rock climbing experience, particularly those with the understanding of falls and force, can usually do some research on the internet and find the information they need to do a via ferrata safely. Everybody else should consider hiring a guide for their first via ferrata experience, in order to learn how to do it properly and safely.

Speaking of resources on the internet, here is our Introduction to Via Ferratas video to get you started.

At Alpenventures UNGUIDED, we recommend a few different approaches to the vertical playgrounds during your vacation in the Alps:

  1. If you aren’t experienced, then book a self-guided hiking tour or bike tour with us, and just hire a guide for one or two via ferratas on your tour. We can find a hiking or biking tour with impressive via ferratas along the way, and help coordinate a guide as well. Contact us for more information.

  2. Check out the classic via ferratas in the Dolomites on a multi-day hut to hut via ferrata tour

  3. Rent a modern version of the VW Camper Bus, and travel around to the best via ferratas the Alps have to offer. This is our recommended approach, as it is extremely economical, and this tour is focused around the fun, sport via ferratas. About the camper bus…it sleeps up to four people (there is a weight limit upstairs), so it is your hotel and rental car combined; and it has a kitchen, which keeps your expensive restaurant bills at a minimum.

Of course, if you have something else in mind, let us know, and we will find the right via ferrata experience for you.

But whatever you do, if you have a head for heights and love rock; make sure to view the Alps through a carabiner clipped on a steel cable the next time you are here. You won’t regret it, and you certainly won’t forget it.

If you want to experience more of our tour in the Dolomites, check out the video.

We also have more pictures available on Facebook.

Steel cable and carabiners of a climber resting above the mountain peaks on a Via Ferrata through the Dolomites