A via ferrata makes scaling a vertical face like climbing a jungle gym

High over kingdom come, Candice Bednar, a mother of three from Connecticut, is clinging to the unnervingly vertical face of a rock spire called Nimbus Tower.

Bednar, 40, is the unlikeliest of rock jocks: She doesn't have Popeye-sized forearms, a devil-may-care attitude about great heights or the names of Sherpas in her Friends and Family Plan. She's never even set foot in a rock-climbing gym.

Instead of pulling herself up by tiny finger- and toeholds, Bednar is ascending something called a via ferrata, Italian for "iron road." This series of metal ladder rungs, safety cables and bridges forms a vertical pathway to the summit.

Invented by the Italian army during World War I, vie ferratebegan as a way to get soldiers to the tops of rock towers in the Dolomites mountains so they could fire down on the Austrians. They fell into disuse after the war, but hikers rediscovered them in the 1960s.

They've since become rabidly popular: There are now at least 200 vie ferrate in Italy and France, with new ones going up every season and others scattered throughout Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, New Zealand and even Malaysia.

They have recently begun to show up in North America -- not without controversy. More on that later.

The via ferrata on Nimbus Tower, in the Purcell Mountains of southeastern British Columbia, was put up by guides working for Canadian Mountain Holidays, a pioneer in heli-skiing, to spice up their summer heli-hiking business. It opened in the summer of 2008.

"It's a way to get people into high and wild places that normally would be accessible only to technical climbers," said Bruce Howatt, area manager for the company's Bobbie Burns Lodge.

The lodge, which we reach by a three-hour bus ride from Banff, Alberta, and a 15-minute helicopter flight over a partly logged forest, is a really small luxury hotel set in the backcountry, with its own wine cellar, pastry chef, masseuse, sauna, whirlpool spa and indoor climbing wall. Out the front door is a view of the charismatic spires known as the Bugaboos, standing like granite bowling pins above a crackling glacier.

Before we tackle the via ferrata, we spend a day heli-hiking -- it's basically heli-skiing sans skis -- in the mountains around the lodge. A twin-engine, jet-powered, 11-passenger Bell 212 helicopter takes three minutes to cover ground it would have taken a full day to walk -- had there been any trails -- and touches us down on a broad ridge above the timberline for a gentle stroll with jaw-dropping alpine views in all directions.

The group ranges from late teens to early 70s, with two things in common: Everyone is fit and fairly well-off. At about $800 a day, this sport doesn't attract the impecunious alpinists you find Dumpster-diving around Yosemite's Camp 4.

The guides constantly yodel and hoot to alert any nearby grizzly bears that we're in the area, and they keep a close eye on us as we boulder-hop across a frothing stream: They're evaluating who has the endurance and balance to tackle Nimbus Tower. Not everyone makes the cut.

Early the next morning, after a short flight into an alpine cirque, we hop out of the helicopter, using the stooped-over Groucho walk familiar to viewers of "MASH," and scramble up a series of shale-filled ledges to the base of Nimbus Tower. The summit looms 1,700 vertical feet above us; that's slightly higher than the 101-floor Taipei 101, among the world's tallest buildings. As the guides help us into climbing harnesses and helmets, Howatt scans the horizon for angry-looking clouds. "We want clear skies," he says, "because we're attaching ourselves to Canada's biggest lightning rod."

A quick safety briefing, and up we go. The spire here is almost dead-vertical, but a ladder of iron rungs drilled into the rock renders it about as difficult to climb as a jungle gym. A metal cable runs parallel to our route, bolted to the rock every 10 feet or so, and we are instructed to remain attached to it at all times with a pair of short leashes with locking carabiners.

Of the 10 clients in our group, I'm the only one with climbing experience. I'm accustomed to high and vertical places, but as terra firma grows tinier and tinier below us, I wonder about the others. The route is steeper and more exposed than I'd expected.

I end up climbing with Bednar and her friends Julie Gatta, Lucia Baratta and Cynthia Rusis, who are here to celebrate Bednar's 40th birthday. A fourth friend, Leah Soltas, chose to stay at the lodge.

"When I normally think about vacations, I think about relaxing on a sandy beach with a drink in my hand," says Gatta, a pharmacist and mother of three. "I never thought in a million years I'd be on the side of a vertical rock face."

After two hours of climbing, we're so high we can gaze down on the tops of distant clouds. From time to time one of the women freezes on the rungs, gripped by the first flush of vertigo, but her friends talk her through it.

"You can't look down," Bednar says. "You've got to focus on what's in front of you -- where to put your hand next, where to put your foot next. You clear your mind of everything else -- friends, family, work."

Whether we should be here at all, though, is a matter of dispute. In the Alps, where people have been engineering mountains for generations -- stringing gondola cables up to the summits and erecting chalets next to remote glaciers -- a via ferrata fits with their traditions. But in North America, critics say, we prefer to keep our wilderness as pristine as possible.

"Our wilderness ethics go back to [Henry David] Thoreau and [John] Muir," said Conrad Anker, one of America's most accomplished climbers and a board member of the Conservation Alliance. "We value open spaces; we feel there shouldn't be incursions into the wilderness. In the Alps, vie ferrate are kind of fun, but it's an amusement park mentality."

Howatt, an elite climber in his own right, doesn't disagree.

"I totally understand that point of view," he said. "But this is an area where no one has gone for many, many years. There are no roads or trails in there. There's nothing but some old mine shafts and mining scars.

"We're just adding some metal rungs, and the trade-off is that we're changing lives. By giving people a chance to challenge themselves and break through mental barriers, we're helping further their love of mountains."

Fortunately, the route to the top of Nimbus Tower isn't all vertical. Sometimes it leans back, and we can scramble up on big, juglike holds. Once we find ourselves tightrope-walking along the top of a knife-edge ridge barely a foot wide. We can see the summit now; it's not far above us.

Then we come to the bridge.

And now it's my turn to lose my nerve. Heights may not bother me much, but I have a lifelong fear of bridges. And this one would give even Indiana Jones the willies.

Strung across a yawning gap in the ridge, it's a swaying, 100-foot-long cable suspension span with wood planks every couple of feet and gulping quantities of fresh air in between. You can look straight down -- if you're unwise enough to do so -- nearly 1,000 feet.

Narrowing my focus on the next plank and reminding myself to breathe, I place each foot with desperate care. But I'm so gripped with panic that I grab the wrong cable for balance, causing the bridge to wobble and sway more than usual.

After the longest three minutes of my life, I'm standing again on solid rock. But the via ferrata designers threw in one more obstacle -- a small overhang right below the top. After a bit of grunting, cursing and inelegant gorilla-thrashing, though, I'm over it and standing on the summit.

It is, as French alpinist Gaston Rébuffat once wrote in another context, a place between heaven and earth. Below us, a Pleistocene world of tumbling glaciers and craggy spires stretches to the horizon. We're in the rarefied and exclusive world usually known only to mountaineers.

We nibble a little Toblerone as Baratta, an accomplished opera singer, serenades us with Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro," and then it's time to head down.

Half an hour of steep down-climbing brings us to a ledge where one of the guides ties us to a rope and lowers us 180 overhanging feet to the ground. Blown by the wind, I swing and spin like a human wind chime.

A short walk leads to the landing spot where, moments later, a helicopter clatters out of the sky.

In three minutes, we're back at the lodge. The women dash off to their spa appointments; I head for the bar.

That evening I pass the lodge's sole telephone, where Bednar is speaking to her family in Connecticut.

"Wait till you see the pictures," she says. "You're never going to believe what your mom's just done."

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