Hersbrucker Schweiz: Höhenglücksteig

Disclaimer

No guarantee is given about the correctness or accuracy of the information contained in this post. Anything that happens to you while trusting a part or all of the information contained in this post is your sole responsibility.

The Höhenglücksteig is a famous via ferrata in the Hersbrucker Schweiz, the northeastern part of the Frankenjura around Hersbruck, Germany. It has a grade rating of D/E, which means — according to Wikipedia:

Vertical to overhanging; consistently exposed; very small footholds or friction climbing, usually no climbing aids other than the wire. Sustained arm strength required. Easier sections may be unprotected.

This was my first exposure to via ferratas. Having a background in climbing, I was really sceptical about the very idea of something that is neither climbing, nor scrambling.

Via Ferratas vs. Climbing

Risk plays a major part in climbing where the calculation of it is approached almost mathematically (e.g. striving to avoid a fall factor of 2). Via ferratas, in contrast, do not seem to have such clearly defined practices and the basic idea is “don’t fall”, as fall factors can exceed 2 due to the lack of dynamic ropes and belaying to absorb the energy of the fall.

Instead, you just have a via ferrata set with three ends: one that you tie-in to your harness and two more (with automatically locking carabiners) that you clip to the wires than run along the rock. You need two clipping ends so that you’re always clipped to a wire as you switch from one to the next. Between the harness tie-in and the two clipping ends is an energy-absorbing sling that is designed to tear in case you fall. So, yeah, you shouldn’t fall.

Another unsettling thing for a climber is the lack of certification in the materials used to secure via ferratas (the thick iron wire and the pegs that connect it with the rock). You don’t know how well these are made or installed. Even though that’s also true for climbing bolts and anchors, in climbing you have the option of placing natural or passive protection (nuts, cams, etc) as a backup or even relying entirely on it.

I think this fuzzy climbing/scrambling nature of via ferratas is probably the main cause of some serious accidents. Since the risk is not as evident as in climbing and the barrier to entry is low, people tend to approach it with a more carefree attitude and that’s when things go bad. Knowing all of this before trying it out is what made me sceptical.

But via ferratas have some positive things too. Since you only depend on yourself (no belayer mistakes) and you don’t need a lot of equipment (less weight), you can move faster, which means you are exposed for a shorter time — an important thing in the Alps where the weather is known to change rapidly. Plus, compared to climbing, the greater moving freedom of the activity can make the experience feel somewhat liberating.

Coming from Greece, via ferratas are a rare thing, but in the Alps they are very famous and a great fit for traversing long, razor-sharp mountain ridges in a few days (or even in a single day).

Höhenglücksteig

The beautiful forests of the Frankenjura in the middle of  spring (still snowy)
The beautiful forests of the Frankenjura in the middle of spring (still snowy)

This via ferrata, however, has nothing to do with mountain ridges. Located in the lush forests of the Frankenjura, it consists of 3 parts (“Teil” in German) and is a 2-3 hour long undertaking, traversing cliffs that most of the time are no more than 20 meters high.

Climbers on the via ferrata
Climbers on the via ferrata

But what this via ferrata lacks in height, it offers in difficulty. Certain spots are quite demanding and require you to hang entirely on your hands with virtually no footholds. It is not a coincidence that it’s a frequent training ground for bigger via ferratas in the Alps.

To reach the beginning of the via ferrata, park your car at the start of the GPS track and follow the dirt road until you reach the forest where you will see red signs like the bottom one in the photo below. Following the signs will lead you to the beginning of the via ferrata after 15 minutes of brisk walking.

The bottom sign leads to the first part of the via ferrata
The bottom sign leads to the first part of the via ferrata
Approaching the beginning of the via ferrata
Approaching the beginning of the via ferrata
The beginning of the via ferrata
The beginning of the via ferrata
View from Luginsland (572 m) where we took a small break
View from Luginsland (572 m) where we took a small break

Kurt Albert

Another reason why this via ferrata is well-known is because this is where the legendary Kurt Albert tragically fell and lost his life (apparently while taking photographs). Kurt Albert was a local, world-renowned climber and the “inventor” of the philosophy of redpoint (“Rotpunkt” in German) which eventually led to the movement of free climbing (i.e. climbing without aid). If you follow the GPS track when returning, you will get a chance to pass by his memorial.

Kurt Albert's memorial
Kurt Albert’s memorial

Further information

I found this great topo while researching for this post.

For more information, photos and videos, the dedicated page on via-ferrata.de (German) is a great resource.

Warning

This via ferrata is a very serious undertaking. Before attempting it, you should have the necessary equipment and be comfortable with climbing such grades, as well as have significant climbing experience. You should not attempt it if the rock is wet or if there is snow, as the rock will be very slippery.

Disclaimer

No guarantee is given about the correctness or accuracy of the information contained in this post. Anything that happens to you while trusting a part or all of the information contained in this post is your sole responsibility.

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