It’s no great secret around these parts that we are immense orophiles.
Many ways exist to love mountains. We can revel in the glory of their jags and fractals or eye-inhale distant snowy caps. We can travel to their bases to crane our necks at their rises or gaze at the trees and rocks that populate their slopes. We can venture into the crags with gentler inclines, bathing ourselves in canopies of leaves or needles. We can trek to outcroppings that afford breathtaking views of the world below, perhaps illuminating contours carved by glaciers or ancient rivers. If our bodies and skills allow, we can scramble to mightier peaks. If we are truly blessed, we can scale mountains of extraordinary technical difficulty, perhaps staring down from the ceiling of the planet.
All the ways you might love a mountain are equal. The mountains call us in different forms, but they are trails we can follow to connect with our world.
One mountain-loving pathway is known as Via Ferrata, Italian for Iron Path or Iron Way.
A via ferrata is a method for climbing exposed mountain routes with protection. The system garners its name from the infrastructure used to create it: steel cables, rungs, ladders, and other safety equipment. A climber wears a harness, which contains two leashes and carabiners. These instruments clip onto steel cables, which are bolted to the mountain surface. Sometimes the courses feature artificial footholds or handholds.
Today, a via ferrata provides access to gnarly mountains for climbers who don’t necessarily have the physical ability or acquired skills to become elite rock climbers or alpinists. But the origins of the method are far less recreational.
As you might be able to intuit from the language of origin, vie ferrate (digression: the proper Italian plural form, unlike the accepted English pluralization – via ferratas – which places the plural aspect on the adjective, coming out to “irons way”; yuck.) are a characteristic of the Alps. Humans in portions of the chain in Italy, Austria, and Germany began to produce protected trails in the first half of the 19th century, as ways to move quickly and safely from villages to pastures in the mountains. By the end of the century, bona fide vie ferrate had sprung up into some serious mountains, largely the Dolomites.
As with most things in the first two decades of the 20th century, these iron ways took on new meanings, as the Great War erupted across the continent.
Today, the Dolomites lie in Italy. In 1914, however, they comprised part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary made up part of the Central Powers during World War I. Initially, Italy remained neutral during the fracas, but they decided to join the Allied Powers in 1915. To attack their enemy to the north meant Italians needed to brave the Dolomites. Austro-Hungarian troops had been busy fighting Russia in the east, but, once Italy entered the war, they repositioned to the mountains.
Both sides attempted to control the peaks, which meant they not only battled each other but also the elements. To make movement, surprise, and survival more palatable, the soldiers quickly developed a series of vie ferrate. Unlike today’s equipment, much of the infrastructure in World War I consisted of wood and rope. Imagine the stress and horror of war on top of the puckering nature of ascending and descending steep cliffs on wooden ladders and fraying ropes, perhaps during the winter. Since World War II, many of the vie ferrate of the era have been restored by mountaineering clubs, albeit with steel!
During the second half of the 20th century, the ways of iron expanded substantially in Europe. Today, the Alps contain over 1,000 vie ferrate of varying difficulties.
Some elite mountaineers turn their noses up at the via ferrata. Purists believe humans should employ less intrusive and beneficial means to scale mountains. Coupled with terrain less conducive to the system, this viewpoint has kept the via ferrata from being as popular in other areas of the world.
In the United States, the adoption of the system has been extremely slow. Until the past decade, only a few routes existed, mostly in Colorado. However, outdoor enthusiasts seem to be reversing the trend. In addition to the Centennial State, popular iterations of the via ferrata have risen in Utah, Wyoming, California, Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia, and New York.
A company in Colorado produced one of the most famous courses in the United States. Called the Cloud Ladder, the iron way ascends Fairchild Mountain in the Mummy Range. The images look exhilarating:
An offshoot of the Colorado company, called Via Ferrata Works, will soon add another state to the list. And it’s probably not a state you would expect.
We here at The Mountains Are Calling Headquarters were thrilled when an announcement hit the virtual airwaves about the country’s first urban via ferrata. Residents of Columbus know the wonderful Metro Parks system recently added a new unit, called Quarry Trails, which is a park formed from a former limestone quarry west of the downtown area. Opening this fall will be a via ferrata up one of the 150-foot cliffs!
It’s not the Alps and it’s not the Rockies, but this development will be welcome to all those in the Midwest who love the mountains. We cannot wait to take our orophilic journey down the Iron Way!
Further Reading and Exploration
Climbing the Via Ferrata: In Italy’s Dolomites, a Hike Through World War I History – Smithsonian Magazine
What Is a Via Ferrata & the 6 Best Spots to Try it in the US – Field Mag
You Don’t Have to Be Alex Honnold to Brave This Adventure Trend – The Daily Beast
Coming Soon to an American Cliff Near You: ‘Via Ferrata’ Routes – New York Times (printer friendly, no paywall)
The Cloud Ladder – The Alpine Jewel
VIA FERRATA WORKS – Official Website