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Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites

Climbing a via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites in the Cortina d'Ampezzo region, close to the Tre Cime (Drei Zinnen). Dan Aspel, a freelance journalist and Mountain Leader, is convinced that – for sheer mountain delight – nothing beats a short break climbing the ‘iron ways’ of Italy’s coral mountains.

There are many beautiful places in the world but none more beautiful than the Dolomites. A bold claim, I know. Foolish even, particularly given the wealth of destinations you can discover and read about on this very site. And particularly because the more you travel the more you realise the world is in no short supply of beauty. But I can’t get away from it. Because, for the lover of mountains, I’m certain there is no place more acutely impressive than the coral peaks of northern Italy.

More importantly, the formation, geology and history of the Dolomites has made them the homeland of a very wonderful thing: via ferrata.

This hybrid activity of walking, sport climbing and scrambling is one of the most thrilling pastimes ever devised. That’s because it is the most straightforward way to get yourself high up on vertiginous rock faces.

You don’t need to be a climber, you don’t need to bring ropes or ‘jumars’ or ‘grigris’ or any other complex or mysterious devices beyond a simple harness and set of ‘tails’ (more of which later) and the route finding is minimal. But you will be able to access the tips of pinnacles and enjoy crowning vistas that remain forever hidden from the paths and valleys of the walker. In short: Dolomites plus via ferrata equals excellent adventure travel. Let’s talk a little bit more about both.

Covering some 315km2 the Dolomites is a geologically rich and linguistically fascinating place that laps up against the Swiss and Austrian borders. It contains native speakers of German, Italian and the valley-specific Romance dialects grouped together under the name ‘Ladin’. The mountains themselves, once dubbed the Monti Pallidi (trans: ‘Pale Mountains’), are made primarily of magnesium-tinged limestone. Formed of intensely compressed coral, molluscs and other marine detritus, they were once consumed by a vast tropical sea, with the effects of millions of years of dramatic climate change and glacial erosion sculpting the layers of this sedimentary, as well as igneous and metamorphic rock (every type of formation has flourished here) into the wild, towering shapes that remain today. Being very soluble, you won’t find many rivers or lakes in this ‘karst’ landscape, but you will find caves and towers and essentially all of the things that adventurous types look for in their mountain ranges.

Bodies of water are a rare sight in the Dolomites; huts and refuges are less so

Via ferrata (trans: ‘iron way’), by contrast to the unfathomable length of time over which the mountains were formed, is a very modern invention. Its origins are also rather dark. Although the presence of metal climbing aids in the European mountains can be traced back to the mid-19th century, it was the Great War that was the genesis of the routes you can explore today. Basic and precarious in form, they were used as a method for sure-footed soldiers to maintain supply lines and were installed by both sides in the so-called ‘mountain war’ which raged across the Italian-Austrian front and split these mountains in two. The modern versions that we see today are tested and maintained (free of charge, amazingly) by the Italian Alpine Club. To enjoy the various foot-pegs, ring-like stemples and holds that they’ve installed you simply need to wear a harness and helmet, then attach the dual ‘tails’ of a via ferrata kit (two karabiners attached to a wound-up shock absorber) to the fixed wire and work your way along the route. Which route you pick will depend upon experience levels and tolerance for exposure, and can be researched easily with the Cicerone Via Ferrata guidebooks – more or less the bible for any English-speaking visitors to the region...

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo: (from left to right) Cima Piccola, Cima Grande, Cima Ovest

… which is how my climbing partner Alex and I found ourselves in Cortina d’Ampezzo, hungry for excitement. You can access the Dolomites from any direction. From the north, both Innsbruck and Munich are popular choices, but southerly Venice is probably the most sensible. Having picked up a hire car at the airport and driven the two hours north across the Venetian plains, we’d picked a campsite, set up our tent, secured refreshment at a local bar and sat watching the red skies fade to black behind a dark phalanx of silhouetted peaks. Cortina had been the natural choice – popular, well supplied and encircled by major mountain groups. All that remained now was to choose which ones to enjoy.

Although even a short, five-day break to the region can give you enough time to explore a wide variety of options, it’s the appeal of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo that I want to focus on in this blog. Beyond the mighty Tofane, Cristallo and Sorapis peaks that ring Cortina you have the village of Misurina. Drive over the pass to this tourist-heavy spot and you can take a toll-controlled road (whether in your own vehicle or via bus) up to the base of these iconic towers. From there it’s a short 30–45 minutes’ walk on a hut-heavy route (there are three) around a curving contour of mountainside to a stunning view of their faces.

The central tower, Cima Grande (2999m), is one of the six great north faces of the Alps – the most coveted and problematic (and coldest) climbing challenges in the mountains of Western Europe. It’s very easy to believe when you stand beneath it and look up. It’s a great, sheer monolith of a thing. Smooth and clean and towering roughly 550m overhead. Climbing up it seems less the business of humans, and more of spiders. Unluckily it’s not a via ferrata route, but rather an arena for considerably more hardcore climbers who are ready to accept real dangers. Luckily, the entire bowl-like valley that sits before the Tre Cime is overflowing with via ferrata routes for the more novice/sane to enjoy.

VF Delle Scalette begins - much to the delight of regular climber Alex

At least a couple of these cut through wartime tunnels and hint at just how busy a theatre of war this area was 100 years ago. The one that immediately attracts the eye for its setting is VF Delle Scalette, up the back of the prominent Torre Toblino. Sitting isolated and reasonably high, directly opposite the Tre Cime and just a few minutes walk from the expansive decking of Rifugio Tre Cime Locatelli (you can find comprehensive instructions to all of this in the Cicerone book), it’s a spectacularly slender and well-placed summit from which to admire this most epic of landscapes.

Having walked the hour and a half from the car park, past the Tre Cime, around the small, whitewashed chapel at the base of Sasso di Sesto and onto the base of Toblino, we were ready to begin our route. Passing the rock-daubed words klettersteig and ferrata (the former being the German term for the sport), we trod our way out onto an all-too-slim and overhung pathway into the shadowy recesses of this tower’s northern side. From here the route wound its way up through various cracks and openings, rising swiftly and steeply to the summit. We clipped our karabiners into the wire and began.

The small chapel at the base of Sasso di Sesto, near the base of Torre Toblino

The joy of via ferrata, as already mentioned, is the release. You do not have to worry about placing or testing protection (that feast of nuts and hexes and cams that trad climbing demands), or wandering off route, or (relative to scrambling and climbing) the consequences of a fall. With at least one of your two tails clipped into the route at all times, and the shock-absorbing capabilities of the kit as good as any way of limiting an injury you may sustain, you can simply focus on the joy of the experience.

You can get into a pleasing rhythm on most ferrata routes, with the slick-slick of the karabiners sliding along the wires and the clack-clack of the clips as you transfer them from one pegged section to the next becoming quite hypnotic. It can even distract you from the tremendous dollop of exposure that will enter through the eyes and take a firm grip of your heart, hands and knees (if you let it).

Read about the history of this particular route and you’ll discover that it was so-placed by the Austrians to avoid Italian fire from the southern, Tre Cime-facing side of the tower. The metal ladders that criss-cross the vertical chimney you climb were once wooden ones, and were even retained by the original adaptors of the route in the 1970s. Thankfully for us we were climbing this route in the 21st century, and the iron ladders and rungs felt heavy, solid and reassuringly permanent.

Small iron ladders criss-cross the chimney on the north side of Torre Toblino

Once these and the pleasingly narrow and steep crux of the route were done, we broke out onto an airy scramble up a considerably more exposed ridgeline on the route’s upper third. Passing the remains of a hundred-year-old machine gun emplacement (you’ll be amazed at how many scraps of weaponry and worn old war materials still remain to this day) we were soon at the summit. Consumed by the view up here – which, in true Dolomites style, is a horizon-wide thing filled with more weird and wonderful mountain architecture than the brain can comfortably process in one go – it’s easy to forget that this is probably the most precarious section of the route.

Without any wire or pegs to hold onto up here it’s just you, perched in a high place like an eagle in a nest. You feel small and improbable in this most unlikely of places. But, as with all great experiences in the mountains, you’ll feel a sensation it wouldn’t be unfair to describe as blissful too. The most beautiful landscapes in the world can do that to you, you see.

The view south, back along the entry path from Rifugio Auronzo. The hut in sight is Rifugio Lavaredo