What is a via ferrata aka Klettersteig?

Italian maps mark via ferrata with little plus signs

“What are the plus signs?” you ask.

If like me you are just a “normal” hiker, hearing the words via ferrata or Klettersteig for the first time probably gives you a little tingle of excitement coupled with a big question mark. “What are these things?” you ask yourself.

Via ferrata means iron route in Italian. Klettersteig is German for something like climbing trail. Whatever you call them, these Alpine trails are exposed trails in rock including sections that need to be climbed. To make these trails accessible without a full climbing gear, via ferrata are secured with a thick metal wire, rungs or ladders. Hikers/ climbers use the metal construction to ease the climbing and together with a special via ferrata belaying set (more on that further down) to protect themselves in case of a fall.

Difficulty rating

At the start of the easy via ferrata to Averau

At the start of the easy via ferrata to Averau

There are at lest three different grading systems used for via ferrata and Klettersteig. Before you set off to climb a via ferrata make sure you understand the grade of the route and what it means within the relevant grading systems. Via ferrata can range from trickier scrambling to full on climbing (just without the rope).

The most difficult KS6 Klettersteig (Paul Werner scale) is described in my Rother guide with the following words: “grips for your feet are available only rarely or not at all … in some places you have to rely on strong arms and prop your feet against a smooth rock face while pulling yourself up along the metal wire …”. And all of that probably in a really exposed terrain.

On the other hand, the easiest KS1 Klettersteig “is secured with metal wire, chains or banisters, which reduce exposure, but are hardly used as climbing aids.” … so check before you go!

So far I have personally only ventured onto easier routes like the via ferrata to Averau or the Klettersteig at Pas du Chasseur (Day 4 of my last year’s trek in the Valais).

Via ferrata gear

Unless you are really very experienced with via ferratas (in which case you would probably not be reading this) you should always use a Klettersteig set even for the easiest via ferrata. That is certainly a lesson I learnt during my attempt at the Ettaler Manndl.

Ettaler Manndl Klettersteig

The start of the Ettaler Manndl Klettersteig and the end of our trip – it was too much to risk for us without the right kit.

A via ferrata kit consists of a helmet, a harness and a via ferrata lanyard. Gloves are recommended, but not necessary. You don’t need any special shoes. Sturdy hiking boots are enough.

We were surprised that there was a Kletersteig at the Pas du Chasseur, but this time we had out kit.

We were surprised there was a Kletersteig at the Pas du Chasseur, but this time we had our kit.

The via ferrata lanyard is unsurprisingly the key component. It attaches to your harness and has two parts. An energy absorber and two short elastic ropes that come out of it with a special Klettersteig carabiner each. You attach the carabiners to the metal wire of a Klettersteig (there are two so that you are always “clicked in” while moving from one section of the wire to the next).

See also: Via ferrata gear: What is it?

Since the two ropes with the carabiners are relatively short compared to a climbing rope, the forces applied to the harness in a via ferrara fall are a lot higher than if you fall into a long dynamic climbing rope. The energy absorber is there to dampen the impact should you fall. Hopefully, you will never really make use of it. The kit is there to stop you from falling into a precipice, but a fall can still be very nasty.

Where to go

The first via ferrata were set up by early mountaineers in the Italian Dolomites around Cortina d’Ampezzo. During World War One many additional via ferrata sprung up in the Italian Alps. They were built to ease the movement of soldiers through the mountains as the Italians and Austrians fought a bitter battle over the region. Thanks to this dark history the Italian Dolomites are now the best region to experience via ferrata.

See also: 5 short via ferrata trips around Cortina

Klettersteigs are also very popular in Germany and Austria. There isn’t one region with the kind of density of Klettersteig routes as the Dolomites, but a good few are in Allgäu, Karwendel, around Berchtesgaden or in the Stubaier Alpen.

Resources

Cicerone has published two by now probably classic guides to via ferrata in the Dolomites

Planet mountain is an amazing online resource for planning via ferrata trips in the Dolomites. It has a great stock of via ferrata route descriptions, including a nifty search function.

Similarly, there is a wealth of information on many aspects of via ferrata climbing from routes, through safety to what to pack on www.via-ferrata-dolomites.com.

For more personal accounts of via ferrata trips head to Andrew Lavigne’s blog. Andrew has by now walked and documented 41 via ferrata!

The BMC have done a very good round-up of all the basic know how and skills for via ferrata.

And finally, the sever climber has some good tips for via ferrata beginners:

Any questions, or tips of your own? The comments section is yours …

PS: I hope I haven’t confused anyone by using both words via ferrata and Klettersteig – they mean exactly the same thing.

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