Why The Dolomites Should Top Your Climbing Bucket List

Location review

Vegas, Yosemite, Sierra Eastside, Rodellar — people might argue over their favorite venue, but in my opinion, you can’t beat rock climbing in the Dolomites.

With some of the most picturesque scenery the world has to offer — from the pinnacles, spires, looming towers and limestone walls that define the area — there is no shortage of great climbing spots in the Dolomites. Whether you’re just starting or a seasoned climber looking for your next big challenge, there’s something for everyone in this spectacular part of the Italian Alps. Although I’ve only scratched the surface here, I love everything about the area, and the climbing, the scenery, the food, and the adventure of it all has me itching to get back to these mountains.

Dolomites Italy
Midway up the “Mariakante,” on the Pordoi Pass. A 10-ish pitch classic in the heart of the Dolomites. Photo by Rob Coppolillo

Pros and Cons of Climbing the Dolomites

Epic scenery and beautiful mountains
Every kind of climbing available — multi-pitch, trad, sport
Italian food, wine, coffee, and culture
Trams and chairlifts for getting around
Potentially crowded at certain times
Some classic routes are polished
Difficult public transportation
If limestone’s not your thing, you’re outta luck!

What are the Dolomites famous for?

The Dolomites lay in Italy’s northeast corner, against Austria, and there’s a reason UNESCO made the area an official World Heritage site. The scenery is one of a kind. The variety, color and formation types found within these mountains are like none other on the planet.  Skiing in the winters, and climbing, hiking, and biking in late spring trhough early autumn are just some of the activities that these mountains afford. Many people make the trek here to climb the via ferrata — protected climbing paths that run through the minefields created during the First World War. 

“From the airport, you can be on rocks in a matter of a few hours, and that’s with a double espresso fuel up in Cortina.”

Much of the allure of the Dolomites comes from the intersection of cultures. South Tyrol, Ladin, and Italian communities all crash into each other here, and despite violent and sometimes contentious pasts, everybody gets along pretty well now. You might see a kid exiting a church service dressed in traditional Sudtirol clothing, while purely Italian gents sit across the street arguing over the latest soccer match.

Dolomites
Tiny towns full of history dot the landscape wherever you look

The Best Dolomites Climbing Routes

Forget me listing classics. The list would crash your computer and half the fun is finding your own favorites. Seriously, I’m not being lazy and shirking work here. The Dolomites offer some of the best rock climbing in the world, from cutting-edge sport climbs to old-school horror fests to cruiser classics. But, since you’re probably looking for me to list at least a few spots to get you started, here are some of my favorites worth checking out: 

Piz Pordoi

Looking for twenty-plus pitches of 5.7? Check. That’d be the Pordoi. The Fedele Route with the Dibona (easier at 5.6 with pitches of low-fifth) is one of your best bets in this area. This route is cruisy, with tons of fixed gear, on what feels like an alpine big wall  — it’s unbelievably amenable climbing. Play your descent right and you can hit the tram, sundeck, and a pizza before heading down. There’s been rockfall in recent years, so check with the guide’s office in Cortina before jumping on. 

Get spooked on Tempi Moderni

Searching for runout test-pieces? No sweat. Take a look at Heinz Mariacher’s Tempi Moderni on the south face of the Marmolada. One of the most famous climbs in the Dolomites (and maybe one of the hardest) —  with 28 pitches over the nearly 900 meter climb — this route is committing and spooky (even I’m scared of it!).

More great climbing in the Dolomites

Mariakante on the southside of Sass Pordoi is awesome and cruisy, with fixed anchors, and you end at the sundeck. Ten minutes later and you’re eating a pizza! 

Epically scenic, cragging at Cinque Torri (Five Towers) offers some hard routes as well as some easy routes, making it good for both advanced and beginner climbers. And, you’re 150 meters from the Rifugio Scoiattoli, so when you’re done for the day, you can stop in for homemade pasta and tiramisu! 

With a longer approach and fewer climbers, the Andrich route on the Torre Venezia , is a great spot to crack climbing in the Dolomites.

Challenge yourself on this classic Dolomites route

And if you’re willing to tackle one of the legends, then head to the north face of the Cima Grande, in the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Italian for “three peaks of Lavaredo”). Put up by famous Dolomites climber, Emilio Comici, along with Giuseppe and Angelo Dimai in 1933, the Comici-Dimai Route attacks the north wall of the Cima Grande in 17 pitches at a relatively attainable grade of 5.10+ (VII+). Early start, expert route finding skills, and superior efficiency — you’re up to it, right? 

“My recommendation is to pick one or two spots and focus. If you try to hit everything, you’re going to pass the week in the car.”

The Dolomites via ferrata 

In the Dolomites dialect, “via ferrata” means “iron path,” referring to the iron cables, steps and ladders that make travel through these otherwise impenetrable mountains possible. These original iron way routes helped soldiers cross rock formations during World War I, when Italy fought against the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mountains. My grandfather fought there, during the infamous battles on the Isonzo River and the epic Battle of the Piave, when Austria lost the war.

The remnants of those routes exist today, safely managed by guides and offering awesome, vertical hiking opportunities for a rain or rest day, or for non-climbers. The ferratas range from little more than hiking to full-on adventure-fests on some wickedly exposed terrain. Plan on doing at least one, just for the experience. James Rushforth’s guidebook, Via Ferretas of the Italian Dolomites Vol I,  has a good smattering of options.

Via Ferrata Dolomites
Via ferrata routes — which date back to the First World War — are still viable today

Need-to-Know Info for Visiting the Dolomites 

If you’re planning a climbing trip to Italy, here’s a few things you need to know about the Dolomites and the surrounding area:

Arriving in the Dolomites

The easiest airports to access the towering limestone towers are Innsbruck or Venice, though Milan and Munich are workable, too. For US climbers, a six-hour drive doesn’t disqualify a crag, so keep the Dolomites in mind if you find yourself in Chamonix, almost anywhere in Switzerland, or in Austria. 

Driving from Innsbruck or Venice makes the easiest approach, if you’re flying in. Rent a car, pay attention in the Italian cities (survival driving!) and then relax once you’re in the mountains. Buses will get you into the bigger towns in the Dolomites, but once there the services are limited.

Public transport isn’t ideal in the Dolomites

Consider renting a car. As much as I love keeping the carbon footprint low, the Dolomites comprises hundreds of small valleys and villages, with limited bus service between them. You can arrive easily via train or bus (from Innsbruck, Venice, Verona, or beyond), but once in the mountains, it becomes harder to get around. Especially with alpine starts and late descents, a car makes life easier. Consider offsetting your travel with a service like Terrapass.com.

Via Ferrata Climbing
More via ferrata — and maybe some coffee or pasta at a refugio after all is said and done

When should you visit the Dolomites?

The climbing season in the Dolomites is generally June to mid-October. I say to friends all the time, if I could pass a month every summer in the Dolomites, I would. If the weather and your ropemate cooperate, then make a week or two of it and commit to the goodness around Cortina, Bolzano, and Corvara.

Dolomites weather

Being on “the sunny side” of the Alps, weather in the Dolomites is typically better than other ranges.The Dolomites sit a bit lower than the western Alps around Chamonix and you might have better, milder weather here — though it’s not guaranteed! Do your homework, and if the Dolomites threaten with snow, you can be in Arco, Croatia, or even Finale within hours.

Where to stay in the Dolomites

For lodging, try an Airbnb in Cortina if you want the full-on busy, mountain-town feel. Cortina hosted Italy’s first Winter Olympics in 1956 and they just won the 2026 Games. Italians love a festival, so heads up. A nice home-base in a town like Cortina (or Corvara or Ortisei or, if you want a quieter spot, Alleghe) gives you the option to do some laundry, walk to dinner, and take in more of the culture.

rock climbing in the dolomites
Cortina, Italy is a busy mountain town and a great option for lodging during your trip

If you’re looking for refuge though, consider hiking (or taking a chairlift) to a comfortable spot in the hills. The Dolomites offer an impressive network of mountain huts — or rifugios — throughout the region and are undoubtedly the best way to experience the area. 

Rifugio Scoiattoli, on the Falzarego Pass, connecting Cortina to Alleghe, makes their own homemade pasta and tiramisu. You’re 150m from 1-3 pitch routes and you have a chairlift for the approach. This is merely one location; there are dozens of rifugi sprinkled throughout the region.

Gear and guidebooks for climbing the Dolomites

You’ll need a guidebook or two for this area, and fortunately there are several good ones. This relatively newer one, Rutherford’s, The Dolomites: Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata, is fat, heavy, fairly comprehensive, and will get you through a lifetime of climbing there — all-in-all, a great resource. My experience has been that it’s accurate and has a ton of great photos. Classic Dolomite Climbs by Anette Kohler (AKA the “Kohler Book”)  isn’t quite as broad, but has some overlooked routes of great quality. I’d get both! Great info on via ferrata, transportation, lifts, etc, too. 

Many of the classics have fixed anchors and plenty of fixed gear, but you’ll need slings (or tech cord slings) for threading pockets, Tricams (they tend to fit in weird limestone placements, so if you like ‘em, bring ‘em), nuts, and yes, even some cams.

Unless you are really trying to get out there, you won’t need bivy gear.

Lifts and trams make things easier

Chairlifts and trams take some of the sting out of approaches and descents. I had a guest one season with cranky knees, so we prioritized climbs from which we could descend via chairlift and it made all the difference. Cinque Torri, the Pordoi, and the Marmolada all have mechanized infrastructure, so scope them out ahead of time. During high season, they’re all open (winter and summer), but come September (prime climbing season!) some lifts may start closing. Plan ahead and do your research! 

Via Ferrata Dolomites
Following a via ferrata, or “iron way,” high above Cortina. Photo by Rob Coppolillo

What should you not miss in the Dolomites?

If your climbing plans get rained out, there’s still plenty to see and do. Italy hosts an endless number of art galleries and museums. If you find yourself watching the rain splatter the window anywhere near Bolzano, consider visiting the Ötzi Museum. Hikers found old Ötzi, or the “Ice Man,” melting out of a glacier on the border with Austria. Turns out he’s a well preserved Copper Age alpine hunter, and the museum details the anthropological, ethnographic, and archaeological significance of the find. I seem to have good luck in the Dolomites regarding weather, so I haven’t visited, but it’s supposed to be awesome. 

Also worth checking out is Reinhold Messner’s Messner Mountain Museum, a network of six museums around Bolzano — each in its own stunning location —  dedicated to the mountains and mountain culture of the area. Each museum in this unique project houses interesting local and international alpine information and art pieces.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, current home of Ötzi, the “Ice Man”

Do you need a mountain guide in the Dolomites?

An experienced mountain guide will help you find the best route for your goals, make the climbing more enjoyable, and keep you safer, too. Consider a few days of climbing on your own and then perhaps booking a guide to tackle a more obscure route or objective.

If you’re looking for a Dolomites climbing guide, you can find UIAGM/IFMGA mountain guides in every alpine town in the region, including one of our great friends, Alberto DeGiuli in Cortina. He’s a local, speaks perfect English, and knows which huts are serving good coffee and whether or not the rock is dry. Plenty of American guides work in the region, too, often seasonally.

About the author

Rob Coppolillo

Rob Coppolillo

Certified AMGA/IFMGA Rock, Alpine, and Ski Guide. Rob is the owner of Vetta Mountain Guides

Rob Coppolillo is an AMGA and IFMGA Mountain Guide, and the owner of Vetta Mountain Guides. In fact, Rob’s one of the first 100 Americans to have earned international certification through the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA). Having lived in Boulder, Colorado, for 30 years, he now bases in Chamonix, France, with his wife and two sons. He’s a freelance writer who speaks English, Italian and French, and his most recent book, "The Ski Guide Manual," will be published by Falcon Guides in November 2020.

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