A Mountain Playground of Ropes & Ladders
Imagine scaling up rock faces and crossing narrow passages high up in the mountains like an expert, but without any actual climbing skills or practice. That’s the kind of experience that via ferrata (Italian for “iron roads”) make possible. Think of it as vertical trekking. Wearing a helmet and a harness, you’re clipped onto cables and metal apparatuses that could supposedly carry the weight of a car, which should be comforting. But it doesn’t make the feeling of scrambling up cliffs at insane heights any less harrowing.
This alpine playground—an extensive network of cables, rungs, ladders, and bridges built directly into the mountainside—delights outdoor enthusiasts who want to combine the scenic beauty and fresh air of typical treks with a big adrenaline rush. Italians built the first via ferrata during World War I in the Dolomites to help soldiers navigate the steep, uneven terrain as they fought against the Austrians. Since then, many of the original ladders and rungs (often constructed from wood) have been restored with stronger metal, and old cables have been replaced with ropes. But the basic system remains the same, and it has grown so popular among adventurers that mountain regions around the world have replicated the idea. There are now versions of the Via Ferrata in Canada, the U.S., and other parts of Europe. Inching your way along these steep mountain obstacle courses far above the ground is a thrill anywhere, but there’s something special about exploring these routes in the place where they were invented.
Tinted in shades of rose, yellow, and gray, the chiseled pillars and dramatic rock walls of the Dolomites are majestic. As you explore their peaks and valleys, you’ll come upon pastoral meadows speckled with wildflowers, fairytale villages, and glistening lakes.
To get started, you’ll need your own harness, a helmet, some rope, and a few carabineers. Although it’s perfectly permissible to set out on your own, a guide is recommended. He or she can map out the best routes; show you basic climbing techniques; captivate you with great tales about the region’s history, wildlife, and flora and fauna; and coordinate overnight stays in unique rifugios, or mountain huts, along the way. If you’re heading out on your own, you can try to make arrangements for similar accommodations through the Italian Alpine Club (www.cai.it). If, on the other hand, you’d rather stay in one place and make day trips, Corvara (a charming and less expensive choice than the swankier Cortina d’Amprezzo) makes a good base.
No matter how you choose to travel through the region, a few via ferrata really shouldn’t be missed. One of the most historic and best sightseeing routes is Via Delle Trincee, which follows the dramatic Porta Vescova ridge on the southern edge of Arabba. Much of your climb will be on volcanic rock, but you’ll also come upon bridges, tunnels, trenches, and other remnants of World War I. You’ll have spectacular views of the Sella massif to the north and the Marmolada glacier to the south, looming over Lake Fedaia. A shorter but just as sweet option is Piz da Lec, a more moderate route above Corvara. It’s accessible by cable car, but has a nerve-wracking finale with two steep ladders that offer staggering views if you can overcome the vertigo. Reward yourself for conquering the majestic mountain with a cold beer at Rifugio Kostner (www.rifugiokostner.it) on your way back down. —JS
Trentino Tourism, Via Romagnosi ( 39/0461-219-300; www.trentino.to).
When to Go: May–Oct.
$ Garni Delta, Via Ronn 11 ( 39/0471-836-350; www.garnidelta.com).