The history of the klettersteig (via ferrata)

To definitively state when the first klettersteig was built is impossible. If for no other reason than that there does not exist any clear definition of what a Via Ferrata, or klettersteig (protected route) is. We might consider routes plotted in the 2nd half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century as klettersteigs, which made popular Alpine summits accessible, whether in Dachstein, Gross Glockner, or Zugspitze. These first protected routes were common summit routes which were fitted with metal stemples, chains, and ladders only in brief, challenging passages, which were meant to ease free climbing or even walking. Only rare were longer sections of an ascent route artificially protected, for example in the Dolomites at Piz de Ciavazes in the Sella group. Certainly all of these seminal protected routes followed the natural terrain line. Another important yet tragic era in the development of protected routes was World War I, when the army kept a three-year long mountain position in the areas of southern Tyrol and the Dolomites. During that time the armies of Austria-Hungary and Italy built a series of protected routes here, part of which consisted of underground tunnels, hanging bridges, etc., which were used for troop movements.

Movements of military units in the Dolomites during World War I.

Movements of military units in the Dolomites during World War I.

With the end of the struggles, however, these facilities were not kept up and gradually deteriorated. And yet their day was to come. The period between the world wars was not conducive to the development of protected routes. In mountaineering the ideals of free climbing dominated during this period. Advocates of this approach saw the degradation of Alpinism in plotting out harder routes using artificial means. They had a point. It is certainly reasonable to first experience any area by purely mountaineering ascents, and only into such areas “mapped out by mountaineering” to place a klettersteig. It was this that occurred, for example, in the Brent group in the Dolomite range, where a well known Via Ferrata called Bocchete was actually built for the purpose of making it easier for mountaineers to approach under the sheer faces and towers in the region. After World War II the situation changed. On one hand, mountaineering performance progressed further, and certain easier terrains lost their meaning for true mountaineers; on the other, the Alps had for the most part been explored and mapped out as far as mountaineering was concerned, and it was more apparent where the ascent lines were where no conflict of interest would occur. Hand in hand with improvement in the economy (and the subsequent development of tourism), new protected routes began to emerge. It began in the Dolomites, where old military protected routes from World War I were discovered. In the 60s and 70s these were gradually repaired and supplemented with new sections, often completely secured by steel cable. The Dolomites thereby became an important centre of Via Ferrata high-altitude hiking.

Dolomites, ruins of military fortifications.

Dolomites, ruins of military fortifications.

In the last two decades of the 20th century through to the present, a general blossoming of the protected route has taken place. The proprietors of hotels and funiculars immediately recognised how the existence of a klettersteig in their vicinity could significantly increase patronage, and they began to build secured routes deliberately. Gradually the authorities began to invest effort into this as well, as part of an effort to promote travel and tourism in their regions. Protected routes thereby began to emerge even in those Alpine countries where they had not previously been the tradition, such as France and Switzerland.

And yet the current klettersteigs of the modern era underwent changes when compared to their older predecessors. In an effort to achieve the greatest level of attractiveness, the level of complexity began to increase. This was most often achieved by somewhat aggressive leading of ascent routes, which no longer followed the natural line of the terrain but rather a so-called “hard ruler edge” across smooth rocky ranges or overhangs. Not infrequently, certain of these more complex klettersteigs have been built outside of the mountain environment and can be found at low heights above sea level on rock faces lining valleys.

This content is preview from e-book.

Title Part 4Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains

ISBN 978-80-87715-10-9

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

For example U.S. store – link

Another countries – look on the page Download

See layout.

Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).

Title Part 4 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains

ISBN 978-80-87715-15-4

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play.