Austria has no shortage of top-quality climbing. Tirol, in the west of the country, is already known as a world-class alpine and rock-climbing destination. But there's more to Austria than just the region around Innsbruck. Head south, and you can discover one of Europe's best kept climbing secrets.
Carinthia, the southernmost state in Austria, boasts a vast quantity of high-quality, well-equipped, and superbly maintained sport crags. Little known to English speakers, it's safe to say that UK bolt-clippers are missing out. Luckily, a short flight and a couple of hours drive puts it all within easy reach.
And indeed, one of the first things you'll likely notice in Carinthia is the centrality of climbing to Austrian outdoor culture. When pulling in to a crag car park in Britain, you're more likely to read a sign saying "no climbing", or a reminder to behave well so as to ensure access rights continue. In Austria, the signs say "this car park is reserved for climbers", or clarify that the floating decks on the edge of the lake are for belaying, not sunbathing. Crags are maintained to a high standard, which means not just safe lower-offs and well equipped abseil stations, but often a managed toilet facility and a permanent topo on a public notice board.
Combine all this with top-draw single and multipitch lines, from the F3s into the high F8s, on compact limestone, pristine granite, or beautifully fractured gneiss, and you're in for a real treat. Below, I profile four crags worth a visit, all within easy reach of each other. Whether for a long stay, or just a long weekend, Carinthia has a lot to offer.
Maltatal - Kreuzwand
The Maltatal valley is already world famous as a bouldering location, with problems up to a brutal 8c. But Maltatal also boasts superb sport climbing, in the form of Kreuzwand, an imposing face of high quality compact granite.
Some of the granite crack-lines – such as Kärntner Nudl (6a+) – climb like miniature Yosemite corners, whilst overhung pumpfests like Geierwally (6b+) and Haus Huber (6b) present a different kind of challenge. The routes along the cliff officially go up to 8a – but as with many roadside crags, and as is common in alpine areas, the grading is stiff. (As a rule of thumb, add 2 grades to the official classification, so you have an idea of what you might be getting into.)
Kreuzwand is located right next to the (quiet) road, so is convenient for a quick blast. Several sections are capped by high roofs, so some lines tend to stay dry in the rain, although seepage is a problem after prolonged poor weather. In the direct summer sun it gets too hot to climb, but can be very pleasant in the evenings.
The jewel in the crown of Carinthian sport climbing. A vast area of bolted limestone, with routes from the F4s into the high F8s. Despite being largely unknown amongst English speakers, this 'klettergarten' is a world-class destination in its own right.
A series of free-standing limestone monoliths give on to a huge area of extended cragging. Hard climbers can certainly strut their stuff here, but there's a lifetime's worth of novice and intermediate routes too. Alongside it all runs a network of via ferrata (including a slightly scary bridge traverse over a canyon!), providing an excellent location for children and non-climbers to explore this magical wooded area.
The sectors closest to the main car park offer a good mix of grades and styles (40 metre slab climbs lie around the corner from 5-bolt punishments), and shade can always be found somewhere on the freestanding escarpments. The really steep stuff stays dry in the rain, though seepage can be an issue. Again, the grading can be on the stiff side (though not as stiff as Kreuzwand). At least, that's my excuse for not managing to send a single thing whilst here. Not that it mattered: the quality of the climbing more than made up for the lack of ticks.
Kanzianiberg is so big that it has its own dedicated guidebook: Klettern am Kanzianiberg by Ingo Neumann, which provides information in German, Italian and English. The area is conveniently located about 10 minutes south of the town of Villach, where climbing supplies can be purchased if you need them. A lot of routes have names and grades written at their base, so it's possible to climb here even without a topo.
Nestled on the mountainside, overlooking the village of Döbriach and the Millstätter See lake, sit a cluster of gorgeous gneiss crags. These routes are often peacefully quiet and secluded – probably due to the 20 minute uphill hike required to reach them. But really, the walk shouldn't put anybody off. Döbriach boasts excellent single and multipitch routes on glittering crystals of banded gneiss, and again there are facilities to make life easier (a topo on the board at Sector A; a compost toilet at Sector B; multiple abseil stations for rapid descent, etc).
The multipitch lines don't seem to get climbed much anymore, which is a shame – many of them would be (trad) classics if they were in the UK. When we climbed it, for example, some serious gardening was required on the first pitch of Speedy (6B), and where the first set of anchors had been entirely lost to the brambles. Similar things were true with Michlpauli (5C, 6a+ extension). But it was all worth it for the unique overhanging gneiss features on the pitches above. Also, the well-equipped abseil stations came in handy when we had to retreat rapidly in the face of a torrential storm.
Something completely different again. In this case, more gneiss climbing – but from specially constructed floating belay platforms on the Millstätter See!
Mostly a relaxed area for novice climbers, Jungfernsprung offers a tonne of routes in the F4s and F5s, and is perfect for kids and/or beginners (so long as it's not too hot). There exist a smattering of harder routes – a handful of 7a's; the spicy overhangs of A.N.D.I. (6c) – and fun can be had by finishing on the brickwork of the road support above the crag itself, where some anchors have been placed. This isn't a crag to go to for a hard session of redpointing, but it's ideal for a fun evening, or to help enable less experienced climbers to get mileage. Best of all, you can cap off your session by jumping in the lake for a refreshing swim.
For access, park off the 98 just south of Döbriach, where the signs say that the parking is for climbers only(!), and hop over the wall to follow the via ferrata down to the belay stations. Again there is a topo affixed to the notice board, which is useful if you don't have a guidebook, and the routes have names written at the base.
When to go
Climbing is possible all year in Carinthia, although it gets cold in the winter, and in summer the south-facing crags are too hot. (Kanzianiberg is a good option if seeking shade, as there's always some to be found.) The best times are probably Spring and Autumn, although as is always the case in mountainous regions, the weather can change fast.
How to get there
Fly to either Salzburg or Ljubljana (just over the border in Slovenia), then hire a car. The crags are spread out, so private transport is necessary.
What gear to take
A 70-metre rope and 15 quickdraws will see you up most things. If multi-pitching, you'll obviously need extra bits of gear, but nothing beyond the ordinary.
Guidebooks and information
At present there is no in-print guidebook for the region, due to the latest one being sold out almost immediately upon release. At the time of writing, however, a second edition is apparently due out in Autumn 2018 – so look out for copies of Maltatal: Sportklettern, Alpinklettern, Bouldern, by Gerhard Schaar. It is still possible to get second-hand copies of the 2007 regional guide Klettern in Kärntern und Östtirol by Ingo Neumann if you look online. This guide has stayed the test of time, and is mostly still accurate (and is very good for crag-finding) as of 2018. However, as many areas have climb names and grades written at the base of routes, as well as publicly-displayed topo boards, it is entirely possible to climb in Carinthia without a guidebook.
Where to stay and else to do
There are many affordable hotels and apartments in the region. Millstätt is a lovely lakeside town, close to most crags, and you can spend a rest day swimming in the lake, or trying to catch the arctic char that are one of its unique features. The mountain biking in the area is superb, and very popular, and of course there is world-class bouldering in Maltatal, and alpine climbing all around. There are various lake-based activities as you would expect, and of course thousands of trails for hiking. Prices are competitive, and the cost of food and drink is very reasonable in the region. Be warned, though, that almost all grocery shops close at 6.50pm. Stock up before you head out on that multipitch adventure, or you're going to go hungry later!