Vie ferrate have much of their origins in war. As the Italians and Austrians fought a war of attrition in the passes, summits and ridges of the Dolomites, they built vie ferrate to help the movement of troops and supplies. Now these routes are a major leisure activity, with climbers clipping to metal cables fixed to mountainsides to protect them as they climb ladders and scramble over rock. Via ferrata are an incredibly fun way to explore the mountains and in the Dolomites they also provide one of the best ways of learning about an aspect of World War 1 of which many people are unaware. Seeing the tunnels, trenches, emplacements and debris of this mountain war can begin to bring to life the hardships and sacrifices of the men who fought on what the Italians called the “il fronte vertical.”
The Mountain War
From June 1915 to October 1917, Italy and Austria (or the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it was then) fought among the mountains of the Dolomites. Both sides tried to gain the high ground and set up positions and fortifications on mountain summits and ridges. Cold and exposures were just as much of a danger as bullets and shells and avalanches were a particular danger. It’s been estimated that at least 60,000 soldiers were killed in avalanches.
This was a war of attrition in which both sides tried to break the stalemate by tunnelling and mining to undermine enemy positions. In the end, events further south largely brought the mountain war to an end. In late 1917 an Austrian and German offensive broke through the Italian lines at Caporetto and the Italians retreated from the mountains in order to better defend Venice.
In the 1930s the Italian Alpine Club began to restore the old via ferrata routes and to build new ones as a way to attract tourists. This process continued after a break caused by World War 2 and the development of vie ferrate since has seen them become a major attraction.
Climbing to learn
Many vie ferrate pass through, or by, the remains of the mountain war. Some of these remnants have been restored to provide a better understanding of what happened in these mountains. Some remnants are little more than broken wood, old barbed wire and falling down defences. Seeing ruined buildings perched on steep ridges, walking down long tunnels dug into mountains and looking at trenches hacked into rock is a practical lesson in the hardships and toil soldiers faced in the Dolomites. Vie ferrate provide a means of having a fun climb while getting closer to this history and learning more about a conflict that is too often forgotten.
Below are what I think are the top five vie ferrate for both learning about the mountain war and having a good climb.
1) Via delle Trincee
This stunning via ferrata above the town of Arabba follows a high mountain ridge. As you ascend and descend along the ridgeline the climbing is varied, engaging, exposed and often fairly hard (it’s graded 4B on a scale in which 5 represents the hardest technical difficulty). Added interest comes from a suspension bridge and a few sections of stemples.
The views are also stunning, with the mighty Marmolada and its glacier filling your view to the south. This via ferrata is also named the Way of the Trenches for good reason. Ruined WW1 buildings balance precariously on the ridge and the final third of the route is past gun emplacements and along tunnels. If you choose to walk back on the slopes to the south of the ridge you also pass the remains of extensive trench systems.
2) Via Ferrata degli Alpini (AKA Via Ferrata al Col dei Bos)
This via ferrata was not put on up in World War 1, but in 2007 by the Alpini Brigade (Italian mountain troops) for training purposes. As such, the construction and protection is fantastic. It also seems to be have been built to give you the most interesting and varied line up the peak of Col dei Bos. The climbing is that right balance between being a little bit challenging in places and having sections where you can just enjoy scrambling up the rock (it’s graded 3B).
This via ferrata is situated above Passo Falzarego and the views of the surrounding mountains are excellent. As Passo Falzarego and the area near it saw a lot of fierce fighting in WW1, it has a lot of history. The walk-in goes along part of the old military road linking the pass to Cortina and the remains of the old hospital of the 5th Alpini Brigade sit near the start of the via ferrata.
3) Via Ferrata Delle Scalette and Sentiero del Curato Militare Hosp
The Via Ferrata Delle Scalette (graded 3B) climbs to the summit of Torre Toblino, which was an important Austrian observation post during WW1. The route follows the line that the troops stationed on the (really quite small) summit had to take up a rock chimney. This really enjoyable climb involves a mixture of ladders, which either zigzag up the chimney or follow the exposed ridge on its outside, and rock climbing. This includes the fantastic crux that requires you to bridge your way into the chimney.
Descent is via the Sentiero del Curato Militare Hosp (graded 2A) on the other side of the tower. This is a straightforward scramble that’s mostly on easy angled rock.
There are stunning views from the top of Torre Toblino. The walk to Torre Toblino from Rifugio Auronzo (which you can reach by taking the toll road up from Misurina) passes the beautiful and iconic Tre Cime di Laveredo.
4) Sentiero de Luca / Innerkofler
Monte Paterno is a mountain that essentially consists of three sharp ridges that join and rise together into a single summit. It’s a lovely looking mountain. During WW1 it was extensively tunnelled and the route from Rifugio Tre-Cime-Locatelli climbs a lot of this mountain from the inside.
The route then exists these tunnels to climb to a col (with an optional detour to the summit) before descending to follow the line of the ridge south. Ledges carved into the rock face eventually bring you to a particularly low and narrow tunnel and an exit on the crest of the ridge at Forcella Lavaredo with some great views of the Tre Cime. All of this feels like a fairly grand mountain day, even if none of the climbing is particularly hard (its graded 2B). It’s also a fascinating route that’s full of history and with great views.
5) Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona
This via ferrata is a long traverse of the main ridge in the Cristallo group of mountains. It’s high level and in good weather the fantastic views seem to take in the whole of the Northern Dolomites and some of Austria as well. This via ferrata is also famous for having the longest suspension bridge in the Dolomites. These facts make it well worth visiting in themselves, which is good because the climbing is middling (it’s graded 2B). There are some interesting ladder sections and the optional detour to climb Cristallino d’Ampezzo is engaging and fun. However, there is quite a lot of walking rather than climbing. This walking is only made interesting by the sharpness of some of the ridges, the views and the ruined WW1 buildings and emplacements that you pass.
There are a couple of places that I’ve excluded from this list because they don’t provide good climbing. However, they are still historically very interesting.
The Lagazuoi Tunnels are a complex of tunnels in the Little Lagazuoi above Passo Falzarego. This pass was a strategically important location during WW1 and the area is full of the remnants of the war. These have been restored and the area is now a giant, open-air museum of which the Lagazuoi Tunnels are a highlight.
Italians dug the tunnels as they tried to dislodge the Austrians from the mountaintop. Some of the tunnels were to place mines under enemy positions, some were for firing or observation, others for access and some to counter Austrian tunnels. These efforts included, in June 1917, the detonation of 33,000kg of blasting gelatin under the Austrian positions. No Austrians were killed because they had heard the tunnelling and left. The Italians did gain the Austrian positions. They also blew the top off the Little Lagazuoi, leaving a gap where the summit had once been. You can now walk through this gap and explore the tunnels. The guidebooks often say this will take two hours, but it will only take this time if you just walk straight down the main tunnel and its worthwhile giving yourself more time to explore the many other tunnels.
Another fascinating place to see the impact of the war is Monte Piana outside Misurina. The two armies each held one of the two summits on this mountain and covered it in fortifications, trenches and tunnels. It’s now an open-air museum. An occasionally precarious path runs around the main summit and has sections of via ferrata cable (it’s graded 2B and via ferrata kit is a good idea). When I went here in 2012, some of these cables were in serious need of repair and so take care if you visit.
Climbing vie ferrate involves a lot of risk, particularly as the vie ferrate described here are in alpine environments. Please don’t attempt any of them unless you are suitably equipped and skilled. There are tips on doing vie ferrate elsewhere on this blog, including tips on how to get safely started at climbing vie ferrate.
Have fun and be safe.
The main, English language, guidebook for these vie ferrate is Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 and is published by Cicerone.
Via Ferrata: Climbing the Iron Paths of the Dolomites
This webpage provides a good introduction to via ferrata and an overview of their history in the Dolomites.
Trails and Trenches of the Dolomites
A brilliant Financial Times article that describes the mountain war and its legacy.
La Grande Guerra
This website provides information on the open-air museum around Passo Falzarego.
Via Ferrata – Protected Climbing Paths in the Dolomites
A great and comprehensive website that provides route descriptions and photographs of many via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites. An interactive via ferrata map is a useful tool for planning a trip and routes are also listed by mountain group and name.
Planet Mountain – Via Ferrata
A brilliant website that provides very detailed and clear route descriptions of vie ferrate in the Italian Dolomites. A search function allows you to look for via ferrata by mountain group and name.
Further useful links.