In summer 2017, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort debuted via ferrata routes in Wyoming. To this day the resort’s via ferratas remain some of the few in the U.S. Via ferratas — which translates from Italian as “iron path” — are a European thing. While via ferratas have become a recreational activity over the past several decades, they date back to the late 19th century and are most often associated with World War I.
The Italian and Austrian armies fighting in the Dolomites — a range of mountains that are today recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site for their geological and geomorphological uniqueness (and that are even more fake-looking than the Tetons — installed protected ladders, rungs, pegs and cables in vertiginous terrain.
With those aids installed on the rock, soldiers without technical climbing ability could climb mountains they otherwise could not have. (The soldiers, along with today’s via ferrata’ers, clip into the cables to limit the length of a fall.)
Today there are more than 1,000 via ferratas throughout Europe, and because they offer the thrill of climbing without the need for a partner and don’t require the same level of skill as traditional climbing, via ferrata-ing has become its own sport. It was climbing via ferratas in the Dolomites about 15 years ago that inspired Jackson Hole Mountain Resort co-owner Connie Kemmerer to have some installed at the ski area. In June 2017, six routes of varying difficulty opened above the Bridger gondola.
While I’ve done Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s routes and enjoyed them, via ferrata-ing in the Dolomites is at an entirely different level. For starters, in the Dolomites you don’t need to go with a guide. Also, via ferratas there are free. Most were developed and are maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano, Italy’s climbing and mountaineering club. (It also runs many of the refugios that dot the mountains here and are lovely post-climb stops for a hearty traditional lunch and an espresso or glass of beer or prosecco.)
All you need to do via ferratas in the Dolomites are a helmet and a specialized via ferrata kit, which includes a climbing harness and two tethers, each with a locking carabiner on one end that you use to secure yourself to the via ferrata cables. Of course, to do a via ferrata you should be comfortable traveling in mountainous terrain. Because trails in the Dolomites are so steep they make Snow King seem flat by comparison, my knees find trekking poles an indispensable piece of gear, too.
Here are three via ferratas that are worth planning a trip to the Dolomites for. (You can find more details about these, and dozens of others in the area, in the Cicerone Guides book “Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1: North, Central and East.”)
1. Col dei Bos
A relatively newly (around 2007) constructed via ferrata, Col dei Bos offers about 1,100 feet of beautiful south-facing climbing. Some sections are more scramble-y than climbing, but more than half of the route is vertical, so you definitely feel like you’re climbing. On any via ferrata it’s personal preference whether you use the cables to pull yourself up (called “cable-ing”) or stick to the rock and merely use the cables to clip into for safety. A short walk from the top of this via ferrata brings you to the 8,395-foot summit, where you can find World War I caves and trenches.
Brigata Tridentina Route (also called Via Ferrata Pisciadu after the peak of that name that you can summit with an additional 1,500-foot scramble from the top of the via ferrata) is one of the most popular via ferratas around Corvara, Italy. It is easily accessible from Gardena Pass. It has about 900 feet of cables and, at the top, a suspension bridge spanning a gawping couloir. Also, a Club Alpino Italiano refugio a short walk from the via ferrata’s end has delicious dumplings, pasta, espresso and apple strudel, among other yumminess.
3. Lagazuoi Caves
During World War I, Italian and Austrian soldiers built tunnels inside Little Lagazuoi, a 9,301-foot peak near the top of Falzarego Pass between the towns of Corvara and Cortina. Today you can take a tram to the top of the peak and descend these caves, which have interesting interpretive signs along the way (in Italian, German and English). Via ferrata cables have been installed in some sections, but wood stairs have also been built, so you likely won’t feel the need for via ferrata gear. Instead of descending the caves like the Cicerone guidebook recommends, though, get an early start (the first tram up from the bottom is at 8:30 a.m., so you want to be well on your way before that) and instead ascend the tunnels. I did it that way to save my knees and discovered the added benefit of giving me and my boyfriend, Derek, a private tunnel experience. (Once tram passengers begin descending, you could share the tunnels with hundreds of other people.) You’ll want a headlamp for this.
If you can’t make it to the Dolomites, consider Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s via ferratas. A guided two-hour introduction starts at $135 per person. A guided half day costs $375 for the first two people. The six-hour via ferrata experience costs $510 for the first two people. Additional people for the half- and full-day via ferratas cost $120; groups can include up to five people.