A Via Ferrata is a protected climbing route, the name means “iron road” in Italian. Modern Via Ferratas have a steel cable running along the route which is fixed to the rock every 3 to 10 metres. Climbers can secure themselves to the cable using via ferrata kit, limiting any fall, and use the cable as an aid to climbing. Other aids to climbing such as iron rungs, pegs, carved steps, ladders and bridges may be located on the course and allow potentially dangerous routes to be undertaken with less risk than unprotected scrambling or climbing and without the need for climbing ropes. Relatively inexperienced climbers can enjoy the dramatic positions and access difficult peaks that would otherwise be only accessible to serious mountaineers. Some equipment is required (climbing harness and via ferrata kit comprising of a energy absorbing lanyard with 2 carabiners, plus a helmet) and a good head for heights is essential.
Routes are graded to provide an indication of difficulty.
Simple protected paths with ladders and basic protection aids are likely to have existed for centuries in the mountains helping to connect villages with high pastures, the origin of modern via ferrata dates back to the 19th century when Alpine exploration and tourism grew in popularity. During the First World War and lengthy and ferocious war was fought in the mountains of the Dolomites between Austria and Italy. Both sides were trying to gain control of the peaks to site observation posts and field guns. To help troops move around at altitude and in difficult conditions, permanent lines were fixed to rock faces and ladders were installed. They also dug tunnels, trenches and dug outs alongside the via ferrata and fought for control. In Lagazuoi in the Italian Dolomites, many of these tunnels have been restored with steel cables to replace the ropes and iron ladders replacing the flimsy wooden structures used by the soldiers. The area at Lagazuoi and 5 Torri provides fascinating insight into the hardship the soldiers endured and a museum is housed in a fort. The tunnels at Lagazuoi are an interesting an unusual via ferrata descending into and through the mountain, this route is graded as easy.
There are over 400 Via ferrata in Italy and over half of these are located in the Dolomites and maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano. In the last 30 years via ferrata have been developed throughout the Alps and in France are maintained by the local commune.
The majority of via ferrata remain free to access, some may require a lift or cable car to reach the start of the route.