My mother can't drive over high bridges or next to cliffs without hearing the void singing like a Siren in her ear. She slows to a crawl and clutches white-knuckled at the steering wheel to keep the car from lurching toward eternity. I see hints of my mother's fear in the slow, trembling steps of the British woman I'm walking past on this Italian mountain "trail."
Her fingers are wrapped tight around a steel cable bolted to a 1,000-foot cliff, her feet shuffling along. My partner and I scoot toward the edge to pass her, our left arms swinging over several hundred feet of emptiness.
We're a half-day's drive and 10,000 vertical feet above Venice's bustling canals, and the limestone towers all around us emerge from and dissolve into the mysterious clouds. In country like this, the most passionate expressions of man intertwine with the most fervent works of nature.
We're navigating the Via delle Bocchette in the Brenta Group of the Italian Dolomites, the best-known via ferrata (iron way) of them all, and behind the British couple (the husband waits just ahead), a band of American women and a small assortment of German, Dutch, and Italian men are clipped with carabiners and harnesses to those same cables, moving slowly along the skinny highway through the great empty spaces. Being intimate with the void from a lifetime in the high mountains, my partner and I find it easy to pass those who move tentatively in such a dizzying environment. We grab the cable after passing the British woman and round the next ridge, where again we're alone among leaning towers and operatic vistas.
After years of admiring the European system of cables and ladders that allows ordinarily earthbound hikers to venture into heavenly realms, I was determined to sample a real via ferrata for myself. Was it really the perfect marriage between heaven and earth, the exquisite thrill of the vertical realm joined to the security of a well-built hiking trail? Konrad Kirch, my lifelong friend from Munich, agreed to help me find out.
Europeans have been negotiating their high mountains since the great glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago. The sport of climbing began in the 1700s, but it was World War I that prompted the renowned via ferrata system. Troops carved barracks and tunnels into the Dolomites' towers and stationed guns there. Armies drilled in steel ladders so they could haul their supplies up sheer cliffs. After the war, climbers began taking advantage of some of these routes to gain easy access to unclimbed rock faces. The Italian Alpine Club started managing these "trails" and soon built new ones, and the system expanded into the vie ferrate of today.
Vie ferrate now span all levels of difficulty and are scattered across every Alpine country. In some places, though, climbers dismiss vie ferrate, calling them artificial. If God had meant for hikers to walk there, the logic goes, they wouldn't need cables and ladders.
But sharing the Via delle Bocchette route with hikers seems natural, in large part because of the incomparable geology of the Dolomites themselves. Laid down over 200 million years ago as sediment and coral reefs, the rock is horizontally stratified. Time after time we pause in our hiking, agog at the impeccably flat ledges that seem hand-carved, but aren't. The ledges form natural pathways perched halfway up 2,000-foot cliffs. Sometimes it takes a climb up a 50-foot ladder to reach such a trail, but once you're on it, staying there is as natural as sticking to the best lowland hiking path you've ever trodden. If the calls of the void's Siren haunts you, just clip into the safety cable against the cliff using harnesses and a special belay system available from most local outfitting shops.
After 2 days, even Konrad, a climbing purist with an elitist's attitude toward "assisted" mountain routes, admitted that this via ferrata made great sense for any mountain-lover in search of great views and vertigo-teasing thrills. As for me, I still feel the bliss of a perfect marriage between heaven and earth, between the climber's realm and the hiker's body.
Via delle Bocchette, Italy
Route: The Via delle Bocchette is rated at 11 hours for an average hiker, but schedule additional time for hiking approach trails. Alpine huts provide bunk bedding (bring a sheet or liner), dinner, wine, and breakfast for about $25 per person. Reserve in advance. For hut information, visit the Italian Alpine Club's www.cai.it. Click on the hut symbol, then on Online, English, Central Alps, and Brenta Dolomites.
Access: Travel by trail or gondola from the town of Madonna di Campiglio, about an hour's drive
west of Trento, Italy. Rent a car or ride a bus.
Season: June through September offers the best weather.
Safety: Wear a helmet to protect against falling rocks. Bring an ice axe and crampons early in the high season for occasional steep snowfields. Special via ferrata braking systems, along with a climbing harness, are a wise investment (about $50 for the carabiner system alone, available at most mountain shops in Europe). For more information, consult the guidebook below or visit Petzl's Web site (www.petzl.com/FRENG/tech/viaferrata.html).
Guides: Via Ferrata: Scrambles in the Dolomites, by Hofler and Werner (Cicerone Press, 011-44-151-01539-562069; www.
backpacker.com/bookstore; $21.95). Kompass Naturpark/Parco Naturale Adamello-Brenta #070 and Gruppo di Brenta #73 maps (Omni Resources, 336-227-8300; www.omnimap.com; $11.95 each).
Contact: Parco Naturale Adamello Brenta, 011-39-