Best known by the Italian name, “Iron Way” or “Iron Road,” via ferratas are climbing routes that use a series of stemples, or iron rungs—hence the name—as well as many other kinds of anchors to make progress. Continuous stretches of stemples create what amounts to a ladder ascending a mountain, yielding a fast and secure way to climb through exposed alpine terrain. Many via ferrata routes also have a fixed steel cable running the length of the mountain, which climbers can grab for support and anchor into. Besides the rungs, via ferrata routes often use a jungle-gym-like mixture of pegs, cables, chains and airy suspension bridges.
During WWI, via ferrata routes were the perfect way for soldiers to move quickly through the Dolomite mountains in Italy. Most of the world’s 1,000 via ferratas are in Europe, a little under half concentrated in Italy, where many of them criss-cross the Dolomites, as well as the Alps of Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France. Since their heyday as wartime transport systems, via ferratas have spread to mountain ranges all over the world. And the wooden pegs and anchors that soldiers relied on have been replaced by wild suspension bridges and stomach-churning cable traverses.
Here are five of the most insane via ferrata routes, including the Dolomites’ hardest, another in the Canadian Rockies that is accessed by helicopter only, and another deep in the heart of Appalachia.
Ferrata Gianni Constantini
Home to more than 400 via ferratas, Italy is the birthplace and center of via ferrata climbing. Over half of those routes, some reaching as high as 10,000 feet, tackle the Dolomites, the gorgeous limestone alps of northern Italy, making the range something like Yosemite Valley for via ferratas. That would make the Ferrata Constantini, known as one of the most difficult and iconic via ferratas in the range, comparable to the Nose on El Capitan. The Constantini route climbs 9,400-foot Cima Moiazza Sud. The eleven-hour outing, which at points is very technical and difficult, ascends 3,000-feet of elevation gain and rewards perseverance with unparalleled views of the surrounding peaks.
Malaysia’s Mt. Kinabalu
The via ferrata ascending Malaysia’s Mt. Kinabalu was the first in Asia and until recently world’s highest, at 12,388 feet. Though a newer route on Mt. Kenya in Africa is taller, Kinabalu still offers perhaps the wildest via ferrata experience anywhere. The route climbs to the summit of the massive tropical peak, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where orangutans make their homes on the thickly-jungled lower slopes. The five hour round trip gains about 1,200 feet of elevation and crosses a suspension bridge at an altitude around 12,000 feet. The route’s architects, wanting to create a thrilling experience, installed swinging planks and other obstacles to up the adventure quotient.
Nelson Rocks, West Virginia
Deep in the heart of Appalachia, in West Virginia’s Nelson Rocks, lies one of America’s few via ferratas. The steep fins of clay-colored Tuscarora quartzite sandstone make for steep and exposed climbing. The route there, which starts on the shoulder of West Fin and ascends the East Fin to near the summit of Judy Rocks, uses the extreme terrain to take climbers through 1,000 feet of elevation gain in less than one mile. The five-hour route navigates a 150-foot-long suspension bridges dangling 200-feet above the rocks.
Austria’s Extreme Via Ferrata
This video of a via ferrata in the Austrian foothills shows a route that is the equivalent of a hard sport climb. The climber looks like he’s ascending a rope fixed to a big wall. Most via ferratas traverse delicate and exposed mountain terrain, but don’t involve strenuous sport-climbing-like tactics. But this route is at the upper limit of difficulty for via ferratas, which often require only rudimentary climbing technique. Climbing this route means smearing your feet on smooth overhanging rock while inching up ascenders along the cable.
This via ferrata in Canada’s Purcell mountains is the nation’s largest, and the most remote in the mountainous country—or perhaps anywhere. The Mt. Nimbus route, which ascends the 8,000-foot Trundle Mountain is so deep in the northern Rocky Mountains that a helicopter is the only sane way to reach it. The two-and-a-half-hour climb takes climbers into a high-altitude dreamscape of rock, snow and smoky fog. The route traverses narrow ridges and gendarmes. The crescendo comes as climbers must negotiate a suspension bridge that spans two mighty exposed spires.