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Iron Ways - Hikes and Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites

Iron Ways - Hikes and Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites

May 2015

Words & pics James Rushforth

The peaks of the Dolomites are characteristically steep, with huge faces and towering summits often breaching 3000m in altitude. These stunning spires of alpine limestone are located south of the Austrian / Italian border and the mountainous area extends for 80km east of the town of Bolzano.

Whilst on first appearances the landscape may appear a little intimidating, the area is actually surprisingly accessible. Well-marked and clearly defined paths weave between the Dolomite monoliths, whilst iron cables or ‘via ferrata’ provide access to some of the world’s most striking summits, allowing you to move quickly over technical ground that would normally require a rope. 

Venice airport provides the most common means of access to the Dolomites from outside Europe; this beautiful and unique city is a worthy destination in itself and definitely worth combining with a trip to the Dolomites. Once there, there are many possible accommodation options in the various towns and hamlets offering a unique mix of Italian and Austrian culture. Corvara in the Val Badia and Cortina d’Ampezzo are two of many possible bases, offering a range of amenities, amazing scenery and superb access to some of the best walking and via ferrata in the area.

Here are a few route recommendations that can easily be accessed from either of the two towns:

Hiking recommendations 

The hiking in the Dolomites is exceptionally accessible with well-marked and clearly defined paths, offering a nearly unlimited supply of possible routes. Here are a few of my favourites: 

Cinque Torri 

Nestled between the Falzarego and Giau Passes the famous five towers of Cinque Torri are a worthy holiday destination in their own right, offering some of the best walking and scenery in the area. Walks usually start from Rifugio Bai de Dones and the Cinque Torri chairlift car park situated on the Falzarego pass. From here a beautiful walk up through woodland (or chairlift ride) leads to the towers themselves. You can then follow a series of First World War Trenches with much historic interest between the towers themselves before returning back down to the pass by one of a number of possible descents.  

Lago di Sorapiss

The Sorapiss Group forms a horseshoe of steep rock walls that are only open to the north. At their base lies the beautiful Lago di Sorapiss, one of the most striking lakes in the Dolomites with its amazing turquoise colour. The walk up from the Giau pass to much-needed refreshments at Rifugio Vandelli is long and demanding but scenically stunning. For those keen to explore this area further it is possible to complete three consecutive via ferrata around the lake using Bivacco Slataper or Bivacco Comici for an overnight stay.  

Tre Cime

The famous trinity of the Tre Cime is the iconic symbol of the Dolomites and much coveted by people from all over the world. By taking the toll road up from Misurina to Rifugio Auronzo you can remove much of the height gain. An anti-clockwise circuit of the towers via Rifugio Lavaredo provides stunning views of the north faces, the central of which, Cima Grande, forms one of the six classic north faces of the Alps. The circuit can then be completed by walking under Cima Ovest back to Rifugio Auronzo.  

Padon Ridge and the ‘Viel dal Pan’ 

The Padon Ridge separates the Fedaia and Pordoi passes and is rich in history. The path running parallel to the ridge was once an ancient traders’ route known as the 'Viel dal Pan', used to transport flour between the local valleys. Towards the end of the 19th century the route was rediscovered by the German Karl Bindel, thus giving rise to its second name, ‘Bindelweg'. Today it is possible to follow the old trade route along the ridge starting from the top of the Pordoi Pass and traversing to Rifugio Luigi Gorza and the Arabba Portavescovo cablecar station, from where you can descend easily to the village. Throughout the walk you get spectacular views of the north face of the Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites at 3343m. 

Lago di Lagacio / Fanis

The Fanis Massif is a spectacular and rarely frequented group to the east of the Val Badia and west of Cortina. Departing from Rifugio Capanna Alpina just outside of Armentarola it is possible to ascend the dramatic Fanis Valley before descending a steep pass between Cima del Lago and Cima Scotoni down to the superbly situated Lago di Lagacio. The descent then continues down to Rifugio Scotoni (offering some of the best food in the area), before returning back to Capanna Alpina.    

Via Ferrata and route recommendations 

A via ferrata in its most basic form is a metal (originally iron - now more commonly steel) wire that runs up the mountain, allowing climbers to attach themselves to it for safety and also providing a means of artificial aid to assist with difficult sections. There are also ladders, unlikely suspension bridges, stemples (large staples in the rock), steps and walkways to further assist upwards progression. The term 'via ferrata' originates from 'via attrezzata', which means 'fully equipped road /route’ whilst common English translations cite 'iron way', 'iron road' or 'iron path’. Whilst there are some via ferrata that predate 1914 the majority of the routes were established during the First World War providing a hugely historic significance to the routes enjoyed today.

The Dolomites are particularly famous for their via ferrata, boasting the highest concentration of routes in the world. There are simply too many to create a ‘best of’ list, however here are a few recommendations if you’re in the area: 

Piz da Cir V (VF2A)

A short but interesting via ferrata that is ideal for those looking for a half day out or to try a via ferrata for the first time. Despite being relatively short in via ferrata terms, because it departs from the top of the Gardena Pass, it still reaches an impressive height of 2500m. This affords spectacular views into the Val de Chedul, across to the Sella and of the impressive nearby Sassolungo group. The rock quality is excellent and provides interesting climbing at a consistent level.

Brigata Tridentina (VF3B)

A fantastic via ferrata and the extremely popular classic of the Val Badia and Gardena area. During peak season it is worth getting on the wire very early or waiting until the afternoon if you want to avoid the crowds. The rock is good and the climbing varied. The hardest moves come towards the end, before the spectacular bridge crossing between Torre Exner and the Mur de Pisciadù.

Sentiero Massimiliano / Laurenzi-Molignon (VF2B / VF4C)

This remote pair of via ferrata will appeal to those looking for a bit of solitude and can be combined with an overnight stay in the lovely Rifugio Alpe di Tires. Sentiero Massimiliano is an easy and fairly unprotected ridge scramble above the Alpi di Siusi plateau, whilst Laurenzi-Molignon follows the seldom frequented Molignon ridge just north of the Catinaccio group, with some difficult down climbing.    

Marmolada West Ridge (VF3D)

This via ferrata is fairly unique in the area in that it crosses the Ghiacciaio della Marmolada, as such requiring a reasonable amount of alpine experience. The route is graded VF3D, indicating a moderate technical difficulty whilst being serious in nature. The cable ascends the superbly situated west ridge up to the summit of Punta Penia, the highest peak in the Dolomites at 3343m, offering tantalising glimpses down the huge south face as you progress.


Via delle Trincee/La Mesola (VF4B)

This historic route (way of the trenches) is an unusual via ferrata, taking the form of a traverse along the Padon ridge and developing on conglomerate rock as opposed to the surrounding limestone and dolomite. The views down to the village of Arabba and across to the Marmolada North Face are superb; throw in some atmospheric tunnels and even an original canon dating back to the First World War and you have a superb itinerary.

Punta Anna (VF5B)

This is one of my favourite via ferrata and follows a ridge system north from Rifugio Pomedes, over the top of Punta Anna and to the summit of Tofana di Mezzo (3244m), the third highest peak in the Dolomites. The climbing is aesthetic on solid rock, whilst the situations and exposure are fantastic. The views are such that it feels like you can see the entire Dolomites on a clear day, not to mention a good amount of Austria. However given that much of it takes place above 3000m in a remote environment, the route should not be underestimated. The climbing is also fairly strenuous with some big exposure, particularly on the several traverse sections.

Ski Club 18 (VF5B)

This via ferrata was equipped in 2009 and is one of the hardest in the area, being of comparable difficulty to Cesare Piazetta and Magnifici Quattro. The climbing is steep and sustained, requiring good fitness. Being such a new via ferrata there are still sections that need cleaning, but the flip side of this is a wonderful lack of polish. With the aid of the Faloria cable car the approach is relatively short and the descent non-existent, making it an ideal half-day out from Cortina.

Multi day trekking 

For those seeking a longer and more demanding experience there are eight ‘Alta Via’; the Haute Routes of the Dolomites weave their way through the range incorporating high walking trails, sections of protected paths and via ferrata. Combined with overnight stays in the region’s beautiful rifugios they provide a unique way in which to experience the Dolomites, taking you on a traverse through this beautiful and unique mountain group. 

James Ruthforth is the author of The Dolomites : Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata, which can be purchased online at

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