These iron pathways allow even the most novice explorers to access mountaineering terrain.
When Italy fought the Austro-Hungarian Empire for their precious Dolomites during World War I, soldiers secured cables and ladders to the treacherous limestone faces of their vertical battlefields for safer traverse. A century later, in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland, a recreational via ferrata neutralises my own longstanding battle with heights.
The words via ferrata loosely translate as iron path or iron way, and originated from a longer phrase meaning fully equipped route. Even though the first of these was arguably constructed in Austria in the 1840s, the Italian legacy of the via ferrata seems to be more internationally recognised than the history of the klettersteig. But you'll hear both terms in Switzerland.
Via ferratas possibly arrived quite late to the land of milk and honey when Talli Klettersteig was built in 1993. Yet some insist the restored 1907 beginner-friendly Pinut is Switzerland's oldest. Another opinion is that protected pathways, fashioned by farmers, have snaked and laddered the Alps for centuries; people just didn't clip themselves on or give everything a fancy name back then.
Although via ferratas are worldwide now, I only first heard about the concept while in Zurich last summer with weeks of Swiss hiking ahead. Accessing mountaineering terrain without the need for much equipment or an extreme skill set but still having to work for it while being safely tethered immediately appealed.
A week later I rose with the sun in Wengen – my car-free mountainside village base in the Jungfrau region – and rode morning trains up through the junction for Europe's highest railway station then down into Grindelwald where Beat Hofer waited on the platform like an unruffled blind date.
This son-of-a-mountain-guide mountain guide was raised in the area and also works as a forest warden, outdoor events agent and stone artist. At Grindelwald-First gondola's highest station – above the tree line at 2166 metres – I filled my water bottle from one of Beat's sculpted fountains.
From there we walked uphill for more than an hour between green meadows of scattered cows and flowering alpine tundra full of marmot. Above the shrub line, we scrambled to the western ridge of Schwarzhorn. The highest summit of the group north of Grosse Scheidegg Pass, this shale-surfaced mountain also has a glacier on one side.
When the scramble became a climb, the via ferrata materialised.
The route was then indicated and dictated by a steel cable secured inches from the ground at attachment points every few metres. Ahead, I could see the cable running up a sheer face alongside three consecutive 20-rung steel ladders and disappearing over the ledge. Via ferratas are typically for ascent.
From his small backpack, Beat produced helmets, harnesses and y-shaped lanyards with energy absorption units and dual carabiners. Kitted up, I followed his clear instructions to make my way along the line with both carabiners clipped on. When I reached an attachment point, I carefully released and re-clipped one carabiner at a time, being sure I was always connected to the steel cable. If I did happen to slip, it wouldn't be pretty, but I wouldn't fall far. I was also connected by rope to Beat, who steadily walked and climbed a few metres ahead.
Schwarzhorn Klettersteig was the ideal starter ferrata for me. Despite the route being PD-rated – peu difficile or ''not very hard'' under the French grading system – all my wilderness hiking and indoor rock climbing experience really came in handy. In Zurich, the previous week, a younger Australian traveller had recounted the highlights of his own virgin via ferrata. An unexpected overhang was so challenging he very nearly gave up, but the fear of being stuck there on an exposed cliff face powered a final self-saving lunge.
Grading interpretation definitely requires a Swiss-fit filter – these people, I tell you, were raised by alps.
On the final stretch to Schwarzhorn's summit, the via ferrata was behind us. I was still roped to Beat but no longer attached to the mountain. The ridge wasn't steep anymore but, on either side, an un-survivable drop was often only a decent schist-trip away. Typically, in this situation, there would be leg-shaking and recurrent visions of my dramatic death-by-plummet.
But that war seemed to be over.
I hiked above the swirling clouds to a 2928-metre summit feeling calm, confident, almost meditative and a bit smug to take in a view to absolutely die for.
Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. See swiss.com
Swiss Travel Pass gives unlimited access to all public transport in Switzerland including buses, trains and boats. See myswitzerland.com/rail
Classic Swiss alpine style Hotel Schonegg is one of Wengen's oldest buildings and was tastefully renovated in 2012. Double rooms from CHF380 a night. See hotel-schoenegg.ch
In Grindelwald, Hotel Aspen is a fabulous alpine-chic behemoth from CHF300 a night for a double, breakfast included. See hotel-aspen.ch
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.