Via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites: the ultimate beginner’s guide
You’ve seen the photos: slender iron rungs leading up the side of a limestone cliff while a climber dangles dramatically over the void below, clipped only to a cable bolted into the mountainside. Invented right here in the Italian and Austrian Alps, the Dolomites are home to hundreds of via ferrata routes— more than anywhere else in the world!
Via ferrata is a spectacular form of protected climbing that brings the thrill of vertical ascents and lofty mountain summits to those without extensive climbing experience. Building on all of the knowledge shared in my introductory via ferrata guide, this post focuses specifically on via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites, including recommendations on preparing for your first climb, an explanation of the grading system, what to expect on a via ferrata route, and all the essential gear you’ll need to set off on your own adventure!
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Via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites
What is via ferrata?
Literally “iron route” in Italian, this form of protected climbing was invented during WWI as a means of getting soldiers up and over challenging peaks with minimal technical experience or equipment. Today, it’s an amazing form of recreation that abounds in the Alps— you really haven’t experienced the Dolomites until you’ve climbed via ferrata!
Clipped into a fixed cable for continuous protection, via ferrata routes ascend steep rock faces and traverse exposed ledges through the use of ladders, pegs, stemples, and even the occasional bridge, bringing those with limited climbing experience to incredible heights. For a closer look at all of these different fixtures and climbing aids, check out the section What to expect on a via ferrata route below!
Due to the Austrian heritage of South Tyrol, which encompasses much of the northern Dolomites, you’ll occasionally see via ferrata routes signed in German as Klettersteig, meaning “climbing path”.
The other terminology you may see is EEA (Escursionisti Esperti con Attrezzatura Alpinistica, or Expert Hikers with Climbing Equipment), a classification for trails used by the Club Alpino Italiano; this is meant to represent a distinction from EE, which are expert-only trails that don’t necessarily require specialised equipment.
Via ferrata resources in the Dolomites
Although information in English is becoming more plentiful on the internet, these print resources are an excellent starting point:
- Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1: 75 routes-North, Central and East Ranges by Graham Fletcher & John Smith
- Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 2: Southern Dolomites, Brenta and Lake Garda by Graham Fletcher & John Smith
- Klettersteigatlas Südtirol – Dolomiten – Gardasee: 111 Klettersteige für Einsteiger und Könner by Thomas Zelger (in German, but the maps are super handy!)
- And, of course, my guide to the 10 best via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites!
Where to find via ferrata routes
There are hundreds of via ferrata routes throughout the Italian Dolomites, so you’ll struggle far more with narrowing down a few favourites than finding great options for your next climb. I compiled a list of my 10 favourite via ferrata in the Dolomites, but this is just a small taste of what’s available!
If you are eager to climb multiple via ferrata in the Dolomites without the logistics or expense of driving around the Alps (mountain tolls are insane!), then I’d absolutely recommend hiking one of the Alta Via (high routes). These are incredible trails that often include via ferrata or bring you right to the start of epic climbs, allowing you to tackle some of the region’s BEST routes that aren’t necessarily accessible as a day trip.
Read more about via ferrata along the Alta Via in my detailed guides for: Alta Via 2 (10-14 days) & Alta Via 4 (5-6 days).
Do I need a permit or a guide for via ferrata?
One of the best things about via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites is that it’s entirely free— if you have your own gear and are comfortable climbing without a guide, there are no required permits or fees!
As more privately-owned via ferrata pop up around the world, often charging hundreds of dollars for a guided tour regardless of your experience level, it’s refreshing to enjoy via ferrata entirely on your own terms in the Dolomites.
*For absolute beginners without any climbing experience, you may WANT to hire a guide or join a tour for your first via ferrata and I’d encourage you to do so!
Mountain insurance for the Dolomites
In addition to excellent hut discounts, Alpine Clubs throughout Europe offer insanely affordable emergency medical insurance that will cover you on via ferrata climbs. In the case of the Austrian Alpine Club, this includes 25,000€ in emergency rescue costs, 10,000€ in medical coverage, and unlimited repatriation, among other benefits. And the best part is that this insurance works across the entire WORLD (yes, you read that right)!!
I personally joined the Academic Section of the Austrian Alpine Club (Alpenverein Österreich, Akademische Sektion Innsbruck) because they were offering subsidised membership in 2022 for just 18€— annual dues have since increased to 69€ (+ add a partner for 53€), which is comparable to other clubs, but I find the Austrian website particularly easy to use and you can sign up entirely online, no need to visit an office!
If you’re staying at more than 5 mountain huts owned by the Club Alpino Italiano (which you do on both Alta Via 2 and Alta Via 4!), alpine club membership pays for itself in all the discounts you receive on accommodation, so you’re effectively getting mountain rescue insurance FOR FREE!
Via ferrata grading system
There are quite a few scales used to rate the difficulty of via ferrata routes across the Alps (either with 5 or 6 levels, as per the table above), but all the ratings I’ve listed on my blog are from the Cicerone guidebook series, which use a number & a letter.
- The number (1-6) denotes difficulty of the route & considers exposure (1-4 directly correspond to F/PD/D/TD ratings on the Italian system; 5 & 6 correspond to ED)
- The letter (A-C) represents “commitment”—basically, how remote the route is & how easy it would be to bail out. This isn’t used by many sources other than Cicerone, but I did find it useful in planning.
Notably, these ratings are rarely referenced on signs at the start of a route or indicated on a map, so it’s worth doing adequate research prior to setting off to ensure that you don’t find yourself in over your head on a challenging climb!
Via ferrata difficulty
The difficulty of via ferrata as a whole is very subjective (heavily influenced by your own experience, risk tolerance, and comfort with exposure), but there are plenty of beginner-appropriate routes spread across the Dolomites, as well as challenging routes when you’re ready.
Yet another one of the fantastic things about via ferrata is that, unlike sport climbing, it can be done entirely solo and is not necessarily any more dangerous without a partner, as long as you know what you’re doing.
I wouldn’t recommend beginners set out alone, but those with prior climbing or via ferrata experience will definitely be able to tackle routes solo, which is great for those among us who often hike alone and still want to see some summits!
Climbing experience is a major asset for via ferrata, but it’s not a requirement. I’m only an intermediate sport climber (5.8-5.9) and I found 4s to be super fun. This is the whole beauty of via ferrata— it allows you to ascend otherwise challenging vertical walls without the need for rope handling, a belay partner, or 5.11 proficiency!
I’d say a good head for heights, careful footwork, and general fitness are the most crucial determinants of via ferrata success. Here’s a quick look at the relative difficult of different via ferrata routes ↯
1 or F (easy): tends to feel like an exposed hike, not higher than Class 2; this is mostly just walking on uneven terrain and you may not even need to clip on these after you get comfortable on the rock
2 or PD (moderate): transitions to Class 3 scrambling, involving more use of hands & feet and increased exposure
3 or D (difficult): consistent use of hands that is more comparable to Class 4 scrambling, typically a good deal of exposure and often with long, sustained vertical sections
4 or TD (very difficult): tends to involve very sustained vertical ascents with massive amounts of exposure; this feels more similar to low Class 5 multi-pitch climbing (with the benefit of a cable and fixed pegs). Beginners should not attempt 4+ unsupervised!
5/6 or ED (extremely difficult): I never saw anything higher than a 4 in an entire month of climbing around the Dolomites, but 5/6 is likely to involve overhanging sections, lots of upper-body engagement & more frequent use of the rock; technical climbing experience is required
Via ferrata gear list
Before setting out on a via ferrata, at the very minimum, you need a climbing/alpine harness, a via ferrata lanyard with a shock absorber, and a helmet. I’d also highly recommend fingerless leather climbing gloves for added comfort on the cable.
Here’s a list of the gear I used to climb via ferrata in the Dolomites (or check out my full Alta Via packing list here) ↯
Choosing a backpack is about as personal as it gets, but I’d recommend something in the 25-35L range with sturdy hip belts, a good suspension system, and some back venting. I love my 33L Osprey Talon for via ferrata (and for mixed hiking/climbing on the Alta Via), as it’s lightweight and easy to climb with, yet still very comfortable for the trail!
via ferrata lanyard: Black Diamond Iron Cruiser
A via ferrata lanyard connects to your climbing harness and is then used to clip into the cable for continuous protection along exposed or challenging routes; the shock absorber helps distribute force in the event of a fall. After trying several different styles, I personally prefer these flick-lock carabiners for ease of use and this bungee-style lanyard for improved mobility on the rock.
For via ferrata routes, a light climbing helmet is essential to protect against rockfall, which might come from other climbers above or even unstable areas of the mountain. And for routes that wind through dark tunnels, it can also be handy for protecting your head against bumps.
climbing gloves: Metolius Half Finger Climbing Gloves
Although not technically required, you’ll enjoy via ferrata a lot more with climbing gloves to protect your hands from cable-burn, particularly when down-climbing. I like these half-finger gloves, which maximise dexterity for climbing— plus, I can still operate my camera/phone with them on!
PLB: Garmin In-Reach Mini
Never, EVER head out on an adventure without a satellite communicator— whether you’re sending messages back home, checking the weather, or communicating with emergency services, this small device can literally save your life.
Buying vs renting via ferrata gear
Although it is technically possible to rent gear in the Dolomites (~20€ per day), it usually works out more convenient and economical to bring your own gear if you’re doing more than a few via ferrata. You can easily outfit yourself in the essential gear for $200 if buying new and about half this if buying used— my best advice would be to purchase gear before your arrive in the Dolomites, as it is hugely inflated in local mountain shops. And don’t forget that you can also sell your gear when finished if you don’t intend to keep climbing!
For climbers, the only unique piece of gear that you’re likely to require is the via ferrata lanyard, and once again, these can be purchased inexpensively used and quite reasonably new.
Connecting your via ferrata lanyard to your harness
The proper use of a helmet or gloves requires no explanation, but for those with absolutely no prior climbing experience, you may be wondering how to attach your via ferrata lanyard to your climbing harness: the loop of your lanyard should be attached using a simple girth hitch through the tie-in points on your harness, as per the handy diagram below, OR the belay loop, as in the photo above.
What to expect on a via ferrata route
Via ferrata routes in the Dolomites typically begin with an approach on trail, and this initial hike might be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours depending on the route and whether you’re starting from a carpark, trailhead, or a high mountain hut.
Once you reach the start of the via ferrata, typically marked by a sign or at the very least a painted symbol, clip into the steel cable and begin the route! You should have a hand on the cable (pushing your carabiners along) at all times.
Although it is largely self-explanatory, there is still a best-practice method for clipping into the cable that should be used by beginners:
- Attach both carabiners to the first stretch of cable (best practice is to clip in opposing directions, but the chance of 2 auto-lockers failing simultaneously is basically nil, so you’ll rarely see people actually climbing like this)
- When you reach a bolt, you’ll need to move your carabiners to the next stretch of cable one at a time, ensuring that you always have ONE carabiner clipped to the cable
Types of climbing fixtures
Once clipped into the cable, ascend the route using a variety of fixed protection or climbing fixtures bolted directly into the rock. These may include:
Navigating the via ferrata
Thanks to the continuous cable bolted into the rock, navigating through a via ferrata is typically very easy— simply slide your carabiners along the cable! When connecting two routes or tackling long circuits, however, you will usually need to do some navigation between sections of cable, which is aided by frequent flags and markers on the rock.
Much to the delight of climbers and scramblers everywhere, via ferrata still presents plenty of opportunity to get your hands and feet on the actual rock— it’s not all about the fixtures! When rock quality is good and handholds are plentiful, you’ll find yourself leaning a lot more towards actual climbing (but with the added protection of a cable).
Still, you should have a hand on the cable at all times while ascending or descending via ferrata. Your lanyard would save you from a fatal fall, but even more so than other forms of climbing (where the rope is designed to handle repeated falls), the goal with via ferrata is not to fall at all. Remember: you are on a very unforgiving steel cable, NOT a dynamic climbing rope!
Preparing for your first via ferrata
While you definitely need solid footing and a head for heights, you don’t necessarily need any technical climbing experience for via ferrata, which is a big part of its appeal!
I’d only ever done a single via ferrata in Peru before I went to the Dolomites and climbed 15 routes from 1-4 in difficulty, many of them solo. However, general climbing experience is a HUGE asset. If you’ve only ever hiked on a trail, even for long distances, you will need to approach via ferrata as a complete beginner— but you can still do it!
There are some great how-to videos online that will help you understand via ferrata, but here’s what I recommend to beginners ↯
>> IF you have climbing experience: you can start on an easy route like Via Ferrata Sass d’Putia or Via Ferrata Gran Cir— these are little more than a steep hike and therefore a great way to practice using your gear in the real-world without substantial risk. Once you’re comfortable, work yourself up to gradually harder via ferrata.
>> IF you don’t have climbing experience: it may be prudent to hire a guide for your first day or go with a more experienced friend. As you’re starting out, be mindful of super busy routes (you’re more likely to have an accident if you feel rushed on the cable), but likewise avoid remote routes with limited bailout options. Take it easy and start slow!
Explore some of my favourite via ferrata in the Dolomites this post: 10 best via ferrata routes in the Italian Dolomites
Best via ferrata in the Dolomites
With hundreds of via ferrata routes in the Dolomites, there’s no shortage of worthwhile climbing opportunities! I’ve assembled a list of my top 10 routes, likely to be expanded as I continue visiting this area of the coming years, so this is a great place to start ↯
I hope you’ve enjoyed this crash-course on via ferrata! I’ve done my best to answer all of the most common questions that I’ve been asked on Instagram, but if burning questions remain, leave a comment below! Happy climbing xx bb
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