A via ferrata is a protected climbing route found in the Alps and certain other locations. The term “via ferrata” is used in most countries and languages except notably in German-speaking countries including Switzerland and Austria, which use Klettersteig.
The essence of a modern via ferrata is a steel cable that runs along the route and is periodically—every 1 to 10 metres (3 to 30 ft)—fixed to the rock. Using a via ferrata kit, climbers can secure themselves to the cable, limiting any fall. The cable can also be used as an aid for climbing, and additional climbing aids, such as iron rungs (stemples), pegs, carved steps, and even ladders and bridges are often provided. Thus, via ferratas allow otherwise dangerous routes to be undertaken without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing or the need for climbing equipment such as ropes. They offer the relatively inexperienced a means of enjoying dramatic positions and accessing difficult peaks, normally the preserve of the serious mountaineer, although, as there is a need for some equipment, a good head for heights and basic technique, the via ferrata can be seen as a distinct step up from ordinary mountain walking. Conversely, the modest equipment requirements, ability to do them solo, and potential to cover a lot of ground mean that via ferratas can also appeal to more experienced climbers.
Via ferratas can vary in length from short routes taking less than an hour to long, demanding alpine routes covering significant distance and altitude (1,000 metres (3,300 ft) or more of ascent) and taking eight or more hours to complete. In certain areas, such as the Brenta Dolomites, it is possible to link via ferratas together, staying overnight in mountain refuges, and so undertake extensive multi-day climbing tours at high altitude. In difficulty, via ferratas can range from routes that are little more than paths, albeit in dramatic and exposed situations, to very steep and strenuous routes, overhanging in parts, demanding the strength—if not the technique—of serious rock climbing. Generally, via ferratas are done in ascent, although it is possible to descend them.
The origins of the via ferrata date back to the nineteenth century, but they are often associated with the First World War, when several were built in the Dolomite mountain region of Italy to aid the movement of troops. Many more have been developed in recent years, as their popularity has grown and the tourism benefits have been recognised. Over 1000 via ferratas currently exist in the European Alps. The majority are found in Italy and Austria. Others are found in a number of European countries and a few places elsewhere. Via ferratas have traditionally been associated with limestone mountain regions, notably the Dolomites and the Northern Limestone Alps, as the steep nature of the terrain creates the need for some form of protected paths, while the presence of ledges and natural weaknesses means relatively easy but rewarding routes can often be created. However, they are now found in a range of different terrains.