If you are a mountaineering enthusiast, you must have come across many a lengthy metal wire which goes up rocky peaks and sketches out a trail through the forbidding terrain. This is what a via ferrata (Italian for "iron road") is, and it is most commonly found in the Alps. Its steel cable runs close to the rock surface and is firmly attached to it at regular intervals of 3 to 10 metres. Thus, it allows both amateur and experienced mountain climbers to conquer difficult terrain more safely and with minimal equipment - a short length of rope to keep fastened to the line, a climbing harness, and a helmet. In addition to the safety wire, via ferratas often run along additional mobility aids such as steel rungs, climbing pegs, man-made steps, and even bridges.
A little history
Villagers in the Alps pioneered the concept behind via ferrata in the 19th century in order to be able to reach high pastures safely. The mountain's limestone rocks lent themselves well to this kind of modification, and soon iron pegs, rungs, and rope lines spread across the German, Austrian, and Italian sides of the mountain. The practice also spread through the Pyrenees in Italy at around the same time. Via ferratas, though still in wood-and-rope form, were most famously used in the Italian Dolomites during World War I where Austria-Hungary and Italy fought a prolonged battle in the challenging location of the mountain face. The original routes have now been restored with steel structures, and you can still see the dugouts, trenches, and tunnels which the troops used.
Development until modern day
Mountain climbing enthusiasts, mountaineering clubs, and local governments all saw the great recreational and tourist potential behind via ferratas, and the climbing aids underwent a steady spread throughout the 20th century. Most routes were developed with great care for nature and with minimal mountain modification. Although there are a few long and steep via ferratas which ascend more than 1,000 metres total, most routes do not aim at attaining summits but rather at safe nature walking and light climbing. Having said that, you will still find breathtaking and demanding routes, complete with zip lines and wire bridges which will appeal to your inner Indiana Jones.
Via ferrata safety
Via ferratas' difficulty is rated on a scale from A (easy) to E (very difficult). All levels require a standard via ferrata kit which is different from your usual climbing set mainly because of the shorter length of safety rope. Thus, the much greater "fall factor" associated with via ferrata is neutralised thanks to high-end energy absorbers and stronger carabiners. The harness and helmet can be standard climbing-grade.
Get started on a classic route
Although via ferratas are spreading rapidly outside their place of origin in the Alps and the Dolomites, here are a few classics which will help you get going. The Huffington Post gives you details on 5 easy via ferrata routes through the Dolomites
. You can choose the most desirable length and duration of your route. Each option will take you through beautiful sights and places of historical value, mostly related to WWI.
Other routes in the same region, centered around Lake Garda or Trantino, can be accessed here
. The tours connect several via ferratas and include sleepovers in mountain lodges, giving you the ultimate Alpine experience.