How To Climb The Sky Ladder In Austria
In partnership with Backcountry
Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock
Looking for an adrenaline-inducing, white knuckle adventure? Look no further than Austria's 40-meter long “Sky Ladder,” or “Ladder to Heaven.” The Sky Ladder is a unique and relatively new feature that bridges a giant gorge on the Donnerkogel via ferrata. The via ferrata takes thrill-seekers up a classic climbing route for over 400m to the peak of Donnerkogel. While the Sky Ladder is sure to get your heart pumping, it’s only one of many highlights on the Donnerkogel climb. Along the entire via ferrata route, you will enjoy expansive views over the alpine world of the Inner Salzkammergut, including Dachstein, and stunning Lake Gosausee down below.
What is a Via Ferrata
“A via ferrata is the connection point between hiking and climbing” - Michele Dalla Palma
Simply put, a via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) is a mountain route equipped with steel cables, ladders, and other fixed anchors. But I like to think of it as providing a bridge between scrambling and climbing. Unlike climbing or bouldering problems, the artificial equipment embedded in the mountain for a via ferrata makes even very exposed routes feasible for inexperienced climbers. Via ferratas are generally easy to follow, and provide an excellent opportunity to tackle otherwise impassable cliffs and ledges while guaranteeing a good margin of security. The best part, it allows people like me—with little to no technical climbing skills—to access some of the world's most beautiful alpine views!
Gear You’ll Need
The good news is, you won’t need a lot of equipment to tackle your first via ferrata! In addition to basic hiking gear, you will also need a helmet, harness, and a specialized Ferrata Set. I would also highly recommend gloves! I didn’t wear gloves on my firsts via ferrata, and it didn’t take long for my hands to start screaming at me.
A Ferrata Set is a purpose-made lanyard that consists of two short lengths of rope, two carabiners, and a braking device. Without a proper braking device the carabiners, or in the worst-case scenario, even the rope segments to break in the case of a fall. Obviously, that could have some pretty bleak consequences. So please don’t attempt to jerry-rig a Ferrata Set with standard rock climbing slings and carabiners. It’s not worth it!
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Practice Makes Perfect
“[The Sky Ladder] is a challenge for the mind, but from a climbing point of view, it is actually one of the easier parts of the climb.” - Heli Putz (The dude that designed the Donnerkogel via ferrata, and installed the Sky Ladder)
While you won't need a lot of gear to safely complete a via ferrata, you will require a good stomach for heights and exposure. Like traditional climbing routes, via ferratas come in all different sizes and difficulties (more about that in a second). For now, just keep in mind that while via ferratas are designed to make the alpine world more accessible - that doesn’t mean they are easy. They can still be both physically and mentally demanding.
The Donnerkogel via ferrata is on the more demanding side. The climb has several sections that are rated “D” on the Austrian via ferrata rating scale. This means that the itinerary presents several exposed and technical sequences, with only a few artificial pegs/stairs in place. Also, once you start, there’s really no good way of turning around. You can’t backtrack once you start. And there’s no alternative route up or down until you reach the top. Therefore, you want to be in good physical condition and have some technical climbing competence before attempting this one.
Luckily, the area around Gosau is a via ferrata mecca, with multiple training routes ranging from beginner to more advanced. Even if you have done a via ferrata before, I would highly suggest taking a day to complete some of these training routes. Quin and I have both done the via ferrata in Telluride, Colorado. It was an awesome experience, but I’m so glad that we took a day to climb some of the other via ferrets around Gosau. Successfully completing these other via ferrata routes, helped me get a feel for how physically demanding the similarly rated Donnerkogel via ferrata would be. But more importantly, it gave me the mental confidence I needed to get up some of the more difficult and exposed sections of Donnerkogel.
We opted to do the Laserer via ferrata, before heading up the mountain to attempt Donnerkogel. Directly above the "Gosausee," the Laserer via ferrata has two distinct halves - the lower (easier) half, traverses across a rock face only a few feet above the water. This is a great place to get your feet wet (metaphorically speaking). Once you're comfortable moving across the bottom half of the Laserer, climb up the wire ladder to the upper (more difficult and exposed) half. On the top half, you get a good feel for the type of challenge you will face on the Donnerkogel while enjoying expansive views of the lake below.
If you don’t have any experience with climbing or via ferratas you can take a course in Gosau or hire a guide to assist you. Laserer Alpin is an excellent local company that offers via ferrata courses for beginners, guided via ferrata tours, and tons of useful information about climbing in the area. You can also rent via ferrata equipment (helmet, harness, and via ferrata set) from Laserer Alpin for around $20US a day - which is what Quin and I did.
Climbing the Sky Ladder
From Gosausee lake, take the Gosaukamm cable car up into the Zwieselalm. From there, follow the wide path for about 5 minutes to Gablonzer Hütte (you can literally see it as soon as you get off the cable car). At the hut, turn left onto trail 611 and then hike for about 20 minutes until you reach the upper Törlegg saddle. Keep left and descend a short distance until you see the cable that marks the beginning of the via ferrata route.
The Gosaukamm cable car doesn't start running until 8am. To get an earlier start, Quin and I opted to stay in the Gablonzer Hütte the night before our climb. Sleeping at the hut allowed us to get a jump start on other climbers, and avoid the inevitable queues that form later in the day.
The Sky Ladder portion of the route is located approximately 2/3 of the way up the via ferrata. Although the ladder is only rated a “B,” and is not considered difficult relative to other sections of the climb, the exposure is intense and should not be underestimated. In heavy winds, or when others are on the ladder, the movement can be quite unnerving.
All told, the route climbs around 400m to the summit cross on the Grosser Donnerkogel. The climb takes around 3 hours and moves across varying terrain ranging from medium to difficult rating.
Once you reach the end of the cable, exit the via ferrata and hike to the summit - marked by a large cross. At the cross, do a little celebration dance, take in the expansive views, sign the summit log, and then follow the red markings down to trail 628. Follow the trail back to Gablonzer Hütte, where you began your day!
Access: 20 minutes from the Gosaukammbahn cable car mountain station
Via Ferrata Difficulty: C - D
Ascent: 3 hours
Descent: 1 hour
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