Scaling a sheer cliff hundreds of feet in the air sounds like something only experienced climbers with expensive kit would be able do.
But the Via Ferrata – a series of steel rails, cables, iron rungs, pegs, bridges and steps implanted into rock to make a climbing route – makes an aerial adventure accessible to adventurers of all levels.
There are miles and miles of these routes carefully embedded in mountain ranges across the Alps, like an intricate assault course. From families looking for a unique outdoor activity to adrenalin addicts trying to push their limits, Via Ferrata offers an unforgettable experience. You’ll traverse a creaking wooden bridge swinging over a massive drop, climb a long rope ladder up a rock face, jump from one steel rung to another without looking down – just make sure you’ve got your head for heights on!
As much fun as they are, these routes were not installed for our pleasure, and their history makes a day out climbing all the more interesting.
Literally, Via Ferrata means ‘iron route’ – a reference to the rungs and rails fixed into the rock to aid safe passage. The first Via Ferrata were created by early Alps explorers, dating back to 1843, as they tried to map and traverse the difficult terrain. Before that, villagers had installed simple paths, ladders and aids to connect their settlements to higher pastures.
Austria is where the first routes were created – initially in Dachstein, by Friedrich Simony, then at the summit of the Grossglockner. But it was during the First World War that the Via Ferrata were first used and developed extensively – in the Italian Dolomites. The Italians and Austrians, both looking for higher points of attack, began installing permanent aids to facilitate attacks and retreats on steep rock faces. Both sides wanted to gain control of the peaks to site observation posts and field guns. As part of a combined attack they would also create tunnels below the peaks, which is why it is very common to come across trenches and dugouts near the Via Ferratas of the region.
Vital for summer tourism
In the 1930s, the Italian Alpine Club and the Trentina Alpine Society began the maintenance work on these sites, replacing older equipment with sturdier material like iron cables, steel rods, and metal ladders. They extended many of the shorter routes by linking them together, creating an impressive system of passageways in the rock formations. This new route system steadily gained popularity with tourists drawn to it not just for accessing the summits of the Dolomites, but for the adrenaline-fuelled adventure that using the route became in its own right.
In France, the Via Ferrata became popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the country developed its own style of Via Ferrata ‘à La Francaise’, with a much bigger focus on shorter but more thrilling and athletic routes. The first to be developed was the Grande Falaise in Freissinières in the Haute-Alpes region, by local guide Lionel Condemine. This was followed by La Voie du Colombier and the Aiguillette du Lauzet, both located in the same region. Now there are over 200 different Via Ferrata in France, most often owned and operated by mountain towns as part of their summer tourism activities.
In the Tarentaise region we are incredibly lucky to have several Via Ferrata routes of various levels of difficulty within an hour’s drive.
Each country has its own grading system, though they are mostly based on the range from easy to extremely difficult. In France, the system is as follows:
F- FACILE – For total beginners
PD- PEU DIFFICILE – For children and beginners
AD- ASSEZ DIFFICILE – For well-accompanied beginners
D- DIFFICILE – For experienced individuals
TD- TRES DIFFICILE – For experienced individuals looking for a physically challenging route
ED- EXTREMEMENT DIFFICILE – For experienced individuals looking for an extremely physically challenging route
– standard alpine walking gear
– comfortable harness, sit harness or chest harness
– a Via Ferrata lanyard (energy absorbent) with two arms and carabiners
As Via Ferrata can become a dangerous activity with the wrong equipment, we highly recommend renting equipment and seeking advice from local shops.
Le Roc de Tovière: Val d’Isère
Start altitude: 1795
End altitude: 2200
Difficulty: PD/D for the 1st section, TD for the 2nd section
Located in La Daille, on the left of the entrance to Val d’Isère, the Roc de Tovière is a fairly challenging Via Ferrata. The first is for children or true beginners, with introductions to the standard obstacles in via ferrata: steeper slabs, bridges, and small hanging sections. The second section is trickier for beginners and involves 750 metres of cable, two bridges and a long footbridge. After the second, you can either choose to exit, or follow the 20-metre bridge and very steep section. A third portion of the route had to be closed in 2013 due to regular rock slides.
Plates de la Daille: Val d’Isère
Start altitude: 1795
End altitude: 2216
Across from the Roc de Tovière, the Plates de la Daille begins behind the Pierre Vacances building after a 10-minute hike towards the rock face. Though it is considered less technical than its neighbour, the Plates de la Daille is a much longer Via Ferrata and less accessible for those with a fear of heights. As the majority of the route involves ascending the face as though on a ladder, it can get quite strenuous on the muscles – and the mind when looking down. That said, once you reach the top, the views are definitely worth the work.
Le Roc du Vent: Beaufort
Start altitude: 2050
End altitude: 2360
An hour’s drive from Val d’Isère, the Roc du Vent is definitely worth the trip. Not only is the drive up to Beaufort beautiful, with its tight valleys and overlooks, but this Via Ferrata has some of the best views in the area. It has four different sections, allowing beginners the opportunity to exit earlier on and the experts to finish a relatively difficult route in 5 hours. The most intense sections involve a monkey bridge crossing and an tough ascent. If you make it to the top of the route, you can find a gorgeous view of the La Gittaz dam and the pristinely blue Roseland Lake, with the infamous Mont Blanc as a backdrop.
Via Cordata of Sainte Foy
A close relative of the Via Ferrata, the Via Cordata of Sainte Foy uses ropes rather than metal rungs to climb. Roped together with your partners, the ascent is done by hooking onto each fixture on the rock face, allowing for a safe climb. It’s is a great introduction to climbing and alpinism, and reassuring for beginners as everyone is roped and moving together. Making it to the top of the Via Cordata here not only means accomplishing a new activity, but being rewarded with an incredible view of the Crot valley below.