Near the top of the Tridentina Brigata Via Ferrata in the northern Dolomites, I clip my leashes into a steel cable and yard on the iron ladder rungs driven into the rock of the Exner Tower. It’s steep, and I have at least 100 feet of air underneath me. As a rock climber, the exposure and steepness don’t bother me too much, but I can’t help imagining what it would feel like for someone who hadn’t spent a lot of time on vertical rock. Sure, it’s an iron ladder, but man — I can cut my running-shoe-clad feet right now, hanging over a 100-some-foot drop by just my hands gripping the iron rungs.
There are more than 200 via ferrata routes in the Dolomites, and the Tridentina is the most popular, for good reason: It’s more than 1,000 feet of vertical gain, and the climbing would be mostly 4th- and low-5th-class on the Yosemite scale. The end is a 40-foot suspension bridge from the Exner Tower to the main plateau, hanging over a 60-foot drop. Via ferrata routes in the Dolomites range from exposed paths protected by steel cables to steep climbs like the Tridentina, and date back at least a century.
Via Ferrata, which means “iron way,” are most famous for their use in World War I, when troops from Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire fought fierce battles in the rugged northern Dolomites and needed safe methods of transporting troops and equipment around and over the steep limestone peaks. Plenty of sources say via ferrata were “invented” by the Italian army during those battles, but several routes built in Germany, Austria and Italy were installed before the war, from 1899 to 1911. The via ferrata to the summit of the Marmolada, the Dolomites’ tallest peak, was built in 1903.
More than 400 via ferratas exist throughout Italy, many of them wartime routes restored by the Italian Alpine Club, and thousands more dot the mountains throughout Europe. This makes access to vertical environments in the mountains available to anyone with a via ferrata kit: a harness and dynamic leashes with locking carabiners to clip into steel cables. A handful of ferrata routes have been built in the United States (Ex. Mount Ogden in Utah, Nelson Rocks in West Virginia, and the “Krogerata” near Telluride) but a more litigious environment, stiffer liability laws, and the fact that ferratas are not sanctioned on public land might keep them a primarily European experience for a long time.
The Italians are old pros at the via ferrata game — the Tridentina in particular ends in a convenient spot. We cross the bridge from the Exner Tower, take off our helmets and harnesses, and enjoy an easy 10-minute walk to the Rifugio Cavazza al Pisciadu to watch the sunset on the Dolomites over cold beers, hot espresso, pasta and strudel.