The term “via ferrata” is Italian for “iron path.” Via ferratas have existed in the Alps for centuries, helping to connect villages to higher grasslands with ladders and minor protection. These historic pathways are distinguished as the forerunner of present-day via ferratas, dating back to the growth of Alpine adventure and tourism in the nineteenth century.
Continuing the tradition, in 1843, a path on the Dachstein was built under the direction of Friedrich Simony. It included a range of climbing aids with iron pins, hand hooks, carved footholds and ropes. In the 1860s, a rope was fixed between the crowns of Grossglockner, and in 1873 a fastened protection was stationed on the Zugspitze. In the Pyrenees, iron climbing fixtures were installed on the Pic du Midi d’Ossau in 1880, and in the Ordesa in 1881. The Northern Limestone Alps saw the first courses, still utilized today as via ferratas.
From 1914 to 1917, the Austrians and the Italians fought a ferocious war in the mountains of the Dolomites; the unfriendly conditions were rough for both groups. Both sides attempted to gain power over the peaks for site observation posts and field gun installation. In order to help soldiers move along at high altitude in very extreme conditions, enduring lines were attached to rock faces and ladders. These were constructed so troops could move up steep faces. Troops also tried to create and control tunnels beneath the surface for attacks. Therefore, trenches, dugouts and other relics of the First World War can be found alongside many via ferratas.
Via ferratas have steadily been growing in popularity. In the 1970’s and 80’s, development remained focused on customary areas. Recent pathways, for the most part, were developed by climbing groups, often with active involvement of one of the relevant alpine clubs. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, construction became more commercialized and involved more groups. Via ferratas were beginning to be seen as a helpful way to support tourism and increase the span of activities made available to tourists, and so new pathways were constructed by local groups. The construction of via ferratas has moved forward from the original purpose and locations, from the Alps and beyond. The first via ferratas in France were built in 1988. By 2003 there were over 100 via ferratas across the globe. While high mountain via ferratas have continued to be constructed, the modern era has seen the rise of more “sporting” pathways. Every now and then, they are erected closer to the valleys and are often more challenging in nature, with severely steep areas that require climbing expertise and plenty of strength. Pathways are often built in new dramatic locations, alongside waterfalls or in canyons, to lure in adventure seekers and beauty seekers alike.