Klettersteigs

Klettersteigs (Via Ferratas)

Warnings and caveats

The author cannot accept responsibility for any accidents occurring to any person as a result of the guidance provided in this article, which is merely intended to serve as a brief introductory overview intended specifically for experienced scramblers with a climbing background. This article is not intended for mountaineering novices.

Definitions

Klettersteig. (a German word; there is no commonly used English equivalent so we also use klettersteig. The German plural form is Klettersteige, but klettersteigs is the standard plural within the English-speaking community). A klettersteig is a mountaineering route protected by fixed cables, to which you attach yourself by means of running lanyards attached to your harness. Because of the potentially high fall factor (qv) if you slip, it is essential that the lanyards incorporate some form of kinetic energy absorber. The steel klettersteig cables are securely attached to the rock face by stanchions placed at appropriate intervals.

Via Ferrata. (Italian plural: vie ferrate, conventional British plural: via ferratas). This is the Italian word for klettersteig, literally translated as Iron Way.

Fall Factor. In an ordinary climbing situation, if a fall is held by a rope or sling, the fall factor is the vertical distance you fall before the slack in the system is taken up, divided by the combined lengths of climbing ropes and slings absorbing the kinetic energy. A fall factor of more than 1 is potentially dangerous; more than 2 is often seriously dangerous, possibly even fatal. A slip on a vertical section of klettersteig just before you reach the next stanchion can easily result in a potential fall factor of 10 or more. This would be enough to snap any lanyard made from just an ordinary sling that lacks a kinetic energy absorber. But fall factors, per se, do not in themselves kill; it is the shock loading of the kinetic energy that is being absorbed that kills, best illustrated by an example. If you fall 100m onto 50m of rope the fall factor is 2 and you will probably be lucky to escape alive due to the very high shock loading; but if you fall just one foot onto 6 inches of rope, you are unlikely to be too concerned, even though the fall factor is still 2; this is because the kinetic energy being dissipated is low.

The Choice of Personal Protective Equipment

Helmets. A climbing helmet should always be worn on or near to klettersteigs. It should be CE marked or UIAA approved for mountaineering purposes, it should be in good condition, well-fitting and secured in place with the chinstrap fastened. It should be fitted before you reach the foot of the cliff, since others already on the route above, possibly out of sight, might dislodge rocks without warning.

Lanyards. (aka Cows Tails). The pair of lanyards you use should have been designed specifically for use on klettersteigs, they should be in sound condition and used strictly in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Nothing contained herein should be read as countermanding or supplanting the advice provided by the manufacturer of the equipment you use.

Karabiners. Special-purpose karabiners designed for use with lanyards on klettersteigs should always be used. The manufacturer’s instructions must be followed.

Gloves. Special-purpose klettersteig gloves are available with free fingers and reinforced palms, the more expensive ones having Kevlar palms, but they are rarely to be found in the UK. They can invariably be found in specialist sports shops in klettersteig areas in the Alps, although some people use weight-lifters gloves.

Harness. The safest type of harness to use on klettersteigs is undoubtedly a full body harness and this is therefore the only type that can possibly be ‘officially recommended’. However, many British parties on klettersteigs use their ordinary climbing (sit) harnesses, rather than go to the expense of buying anything else that they will very rarely use for probably only a marginal improvement in safety. Like everything else that is safety-related, it is up to the individual to make his or her own decision.

Anything else? Yes, the usual high mountain equipment appropriate to the terrain, conditions and weather. Although most users of klettersteigs do not carry one, a rock-climbers’s ‘quick-draw’ (aka short extender) can be very useful for those occasions where one might wish to ‘clip short’, i.e., clip a cable and hang very close to it, perhaps while taking a photograph.

To clip or not to clip?

Always? Some argue that you should clip any klettersteig cable that you come across on your route, on the grounds that it would not have been placed there unless it was intended to be used.

Not Always? Many experienced rock climbers and advanced scramblers argue that the cables are occasionally to be found in situations that are no more dangerous than Grib Goch in Snowdonia or the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, on neither of which they would feel the need for such protection. As a result they do not habitually clip on such easy sections of klettersteigs.

Who is right? Neither of these two disparate points of view is unequivocally either right or wrong. There is always a strong subjective element in what can only be a personal decision, since it depends very much on the strength, fitness and experience of the individual. It should always be made in the light of the prevailing weather and conditions as well as the potential risk of being knocked unconscious by falling objects.

Warning. Those experienced rock scramblers who are nevertheless new to klettersteigs should consider the wisdom of practicing the slick management of lanyards on easy klettersteigs, specifically re-clipping to pass stanchions, before needing to rely on them in earnest on steep really serious routes.

Klettersteig Techniques.

Crowding Together. On vertical sections it is potentially unsafe for more than one climber to be attached to the same stretch of cable between any two stanchions, since if the upper climber falls he could seriously injure the climber below by landing on top of him. This consideration is not important on horizontal sections.

Overtaking. If you catch up with a slower party, be patient and do not overcrowd them, adding to their possible anxiety; they might be much less experienced than you are and near to their personal limits. If a faster party catches up with you, seek out an early safe opportunity to allow them to climb through, and then make a clear invitation to them to do so. At all times remember that safety overrides every other consideration.

On which side of the Cable should you climb? If the cable is heading straight up and down the fall line, it does not matter on which side of the cable you climb. Once it strays from the vertical and climbs (or descends) diagonally across the rock face, it is generally safer to stay on whichever side keeps you below the cable. You should always be on the downhill side of horizontal cables.

Klettersteig Integrity. It is always up to klettersteig users to satisfy themselves that the klettersteig they are relying on is structurally sound and has not been damaged by stone-fall, lightning, or any other cause.

Climbing Techniques There is no single klettersteig technique that is appropriate to all occasions. There is a lot to be said for experimenting with any technique that is safe. Here are some pointers based on extensive personal experience.

Improvised Rescue Techniques.

In an ideal world, improvised rescue techniques should only be taught by professionals, and only practiced under supervision. However, in the real world, bearing in mind that most British parties on klettersteigs are unguided and frequently include experienced rock climbers, there is every reason to share this knowledge. If a member of the group is either slightly injured with a mild sprain, or is getting tired, or is simply out-faced by a particularly steep section, then they can be top-roped. The following procedure ensures that this procedure can be carried out slickly and safely at the drop of a hat:

Lightning Risk

Since klettersteig cables make very effective lightning conductors, it is unwise to be anywhere near to them in an electrical storm. In much of the Eastern Alps such as the Dolomites, summer heating causes local convection leading to the formation of cumulus-nimbus (cu-nim) clouds resulting in electrical storms, often occurring daily, mid to late afternoon. One obvious safeguard is to make an early start each day to ensure you are off the cables before the high-risk part of the day. There are several facts to bear in mind:

No attempt is made here to describe the actions to be taken in the event of encountering an electrical storm, since these actions are very well documented in the existing mountaineering literature.

An example of what is possible

If you are planning to spend a fortnight in the Dolomites bagging as many Via Ferratas as possible, you really need your own motor vehicle on a daily basis, so my recommendation is to fill cars and spend 2 days driving in each direction, spending a week in each of two campsites. The following is an example of what I have successfully achieved in the past, with a week each at Selva and Cortina.

Saturday: Cross Channel and stop half way there
Sunday: Complete journey to the first campsite
Monday: VF Oscar Schuster (Piatto)
Tuesday: VF Brigata Tridentina (Kl Pisciadu)
Wednesday: VF dei Finanzieri (Colac)
Thursday: VF delle Mesules (Possnecker)
Friday: VF Marmalada West Ridge, descending glacier
Saturday: VF Cesare Piazzetta (Piz Boe) and move campsite.
Sunday: Via della Trincee (La Mesola)
Monday: VF Ettore Bovero (Col Rosa)
Tuesday: VF Michielli Strobel (Punta Fiammes)
Wednesday: VF Merlone (Cima del Cadin de NE)
Thursday: VF Giovanni Lipella (Tofana de Rozes)
Friday: VF Tomaselli (Punta Sud)
Saturday: Leave the Dolomites and stop half way to the coast
Sunday: Ferry across Channel and return home

English Language Area Guidebooks in print

Non-English Area Guidebooks

As long as a klettersteig guidebook in a language unknown to the reader contains sketch maps to indicate where the klettersteigs start, and the grade can be decoded, and as long as you have and can follow a map, and as long as you have sufficient mountaineering experience, then you should manage. By their nature, route finding once on klettersteigs is usually obvious and most descent routes are well way-marked in the Alps, but no liability can be accepted for any untoward occurrence resulting from this advice. There is never any substitute for genuine mountaineering experience and common sense, and everyone must take responsibility for their own actions. A good example is the following comprehensive German-language Klettersteig Guide to Austria:

Websites

The following websites are also worth perusal:


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This webpage was first web-published in 2007 and was last updated 16th May 2018.