Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Family Travel Adventure - via ferrata in Zillertal Alps, Austria, Tyrol

Clipped into a steel cable that runs the length of the cliff, I take a deep breath and step onto the iron rung that is cemented into the rock face.  I have committed to traversing the cliff side of a mountain with my family who, at the moment, are yelling words of encouragement to me.  I look out across the cliff and see my kids, Ben and Liv, climbing with ease, big smiles on their faces.  I can do this I think to myself and ignore the butterflies and thundering heartbeat.  I am fully aware and understand that klettersteige (via ferrata) is the safest way to climb straight up or across a mountain.  Donning a harness, helmet, a y-shaped lanyard and two carabineers gives me some sense of security but knowing my safety depends on two energy absorbing cords is hardly giving me piece of mind.  I calmly unclip one carabineer, move it across the fixed anchor and clip in. Repeat with the second carbineer and slowly get myself across the cliff only to find the next section is straight up. Outdoor adventure pushes my limits in more ways than any other part of my life.  Even with my slight fear of heights there is nowhere else I would rather be.

Klettersteige (word used in Austria) or as we North Americans refer to as via ferrata is a mix of rock climbing and mountaineering.  A steel cable, secured to the mountain, runs along a route and every 4 – 8 metres is fixed to the rock. Clipping into the steel cable using carabineers attached to the y –shaped lanyard, climbers are secured to the cable, limiting any fall. Climbing aids along the route include iron rungs, pegs, carved steps, ladders, bridges and the steel cable itself.  It offers adults and kids who love outdoor adventure a chance to climb those step rock faces without having the experience and training needed in rock climbing. Austria, having over 550 Klettersteige routes, is a country that has enthusiastically embraced the via ferrata. Often it is promoted as a way to experience nature that is suitable for the entire family.

Via Ferrata in Austria has a long history, with routes being established at the start of the 20th century in the Northern Limestone Alps.  What was started as a way to move troops and supplies through the Alps during the war has turned into a popular sport. The ├ľAV (Austrian Alpine Club) takes great pride in maintaining the cables, routes, and iron rungs while promoting the sport.

Our Central Europe travels lead us to a small municipality in Austria called Zell am Ziller, located in the Zillertal Valley.  The Zillertal Alps, a mountain range of the Central Eastern Alps, borders Austria and Italy where pick of via ferrata is plentiful.  It was pretty straight forward renting our via ferrata kit in fact, finding the mountain sports store proved to be more difficult but that too is part of the travel adventure.  I mentioned before that Austria has embraced the via ferrata so renting a full kit for the four of us, for two days, cost approximately 40 Euros total ($60 Canadian).  And we could access any via ferrata in the area without guides or paying any entrance fees.  It makes for an affordable outdoor family activity when travelling to Austria.

Our first crack at via ferrata was Huterlaner in Mayrhofen - a beginner/advanced route (difficulty B/C ). Routes are graded from A – being easy to E – being expert.  We had a choice of three routes (one was a C/D) that would have us end at Zimmereben Hut and if you are familiar with Austrian huts you know this means enjoying wonderful local meals, having a few drinks (namely beer), and taking in spectacular scenery.  Climbing up the via ferrata to the hut was definitely a motivator for me.

After our glorious meal that was finished off with homemade apple strudel and a shot of schnapps, we hiked back down.  At the bottom we briefly tried the advanced route and found Liv’s reach was just a tad too short for some sections so we all had to retreat back down.  Thankfully we had not gone far but it was helpful knowing what was within her range as far as the route grading was concerned.

Ben and Liv were huge fans of klettersteige and were excited to give it a try again but we had discussed with them that the next day’s route may be too difficult for them.  Our travel path to Zillertal was not entirely random.  We had come here to meet up with a German lad we had met 6 months earlier back in Canada.  For a few short days, Nick was a part of our family as he toured Vancouver Island with my father in law, whom he met randomly in Lake Louise, AB. There were a few visits with us for meals, mountain bike rides and Nick said to let him know when we would be in his neck of the woods.  So we did and he directed us to his friends family home in Zell am Ziller, Austria, where we then met Johannes.  Now we were faced with two young lads, Nick and Johannes, itching to take us on an adventure.

Part of our family adventuring is to support each other and at times that may involve stepping back and letting another set out on their own adventure.  It is important for Ben and Liv to support our adventures just as much as us supporting theirs.  They were completely on board when it came down to selecting a via ferrata route for the big boys to try.  Go big or go home.  For this adventure the kids and I were cheerleaders and watched Joel, who had a big grin on his face, head up a route, graded D/E, called Nasenwand in nearby Ginzling.

Nick and Johannes were equally as excited and from the stories and photos, it was indeed an adventure. The kids and I played for a bit at the route trailhead, letting them each climb up and down for practice.  Then it was off to see cows and roll down the Zillertal hills.  At one point, we did see the three of them high up the route and watched them traverse a steep section.  Those Austrians sure do love their heights!

Keeping with Austrian tradition, we celebrated the day’s adventure with a stop at a hut (never a shortage of huts) for ice cream and beer.  Nick, Johannes and Joel (who now had an even bigger grin which filled my adventure heart) recanted their via ferrata stories to Ben, Liv and me as we all sat together laughing like we were old friends.  It was a coming together of two travel experiences we had hoped for: local adventure and local friendship. The real benefit is the power of local knowledge because for Johannes (a local), showing off the beauty of Austria with a quick swim in the river on the way back home was not only a sign of Austrian hospitality, it was the perfect end to a perfect klettersteige experience.


  1. OMG that looks like soooo much fun!

    1. It is! There are some near Banff should you want to try!

  2. Such a great post.Experience a place outside of ordinary life which has lost nothing of its originality and power of nature.Mountain Sports is ideal for your family vacation,excursion of adventure, and motivations.Have a great day.

    Lillie Jensen.