Ramsau am Dachstein – The cradle of secured climbing paths

170 years ago, the Alps’ first via ferrata was set up on the Dachstein

First climbing paths
Climbing paths were set up at an early stage to reach remote villages and farms. Usually, rocky passages were secured by adding ladders and ropes, making the transport of daily provisions easier. The first ascent of the Mont Aiguille (France) in 1492 – which is known as the birth of alpinism – took place with the help of wooden ladders.

First real climbing path on the Dachstein
In 1840, Friedrich Simony, also known as Professor Dachstein, hiked from Vienna across the Salzkammergut up to the Hoher Gjaidstein, admiring the Hallstatt Glacier and the Dachstein beneath. Overwhelmed by the “variety of the natural scientific objects set in a uniform geographical landscape”, the geographer-to-be could not let go of the Dachstein. On 8 September, 1842, he reached the top of the Dachstein for the very first time. Simony considered climbing its rock walls to be “quite hideous”. Without further ado, Simony wrote: “If only a friend of the alpine nature, someone of considerable wealth, may be found, who is willing to sacrifice a small sum to make it accessible.” With this letter, he began to collect money from his sponsors and from the wealthy Bad Ischl spa guests. With 260 gulden, his personal guide Wallner worked in iron pegs, stemples and handrails as climbing aids, he carved footholds and added an 80-fathom long piece of thick rope. On 27 August, 1843, the first via ferrata of the Alps was accomplished. On 16 September, 1843, Friedrich Simony scaled the Dachstein across this via ferrata for the first time, and he stayed overnight on the mountain top.

About 25 years later, things started happening. In 1869, a route up to Großglockner was made secure by putting in ropes, and in 1873, the first secured climbing path on the Zugspitze was set up. In 1878, another climbing path was installed on the Dachstein. The very popular Teufelsbadstubensteig via ferrata on the Rax was first set up in 1894, and in 1899, the Jubiläumsgrat in the Zugspitz massif was made secure. In 1906, the Königschusswandsteig –rated today with the highest difficulty level E – was set up, and in 1913, so was the Haidsteig on the Rax.

Great War
Austria-Hungary fought against Italy during the Great War. Very often, the battlefields were in hard-to-access high-alpine regions. Setting up paths to transport provisions required blasting, and to make them more secure, iron pins were put in. This is why secured climbing paths are named via ferrata (iron path). Many of these war-time paths are preserved and some were upgraded to real via ferratas. 

Via ferrata boom
During the 1970s, there was a via-ferrata boom. Old paths were improved, and new ones were implemented. The via ferratas were set up to offer the casual hiker new challenges, and to make mountain walls and tops accessible for them. Many of these secured-but-demanding climbing paths lead through impressive scenery.

Fun, gorge and sport via ferratas
Since the turn of the millennium, normal via ferratas have proved not enough of a challenge to many hikers or to those who set them up. Scaling the mountain is not the top priority anymore. What counts is the fun – and the safety. This is why many via ferratas now feature spectacular suspension bridges (as in narrow gorges), challenging overhanging rocks and extremely exposed passages as well as underground paths. A high level of safety is reached by short drops and partly also by innovative two-rope systems.

Source: Dieter Wissekal (www.bergsteigen.at), Peter Grimm