Imagine a climber clinging to the edge of a sheer cliff, cracked fingertips clutching to rock, searching anxiously for a metal rung to place a shaky foot on, the safety of flat ground some thousand feet below. The brief respite of a vertigo-inducing rope bridge is not far off in the distance, but for now, the only thing keeping the daredevil from falling is a harness tethered to a steel cable that is drilled onto the rock.
The sport is called via ferrata (Italian for iron way), and pros say it dates back to World War I, when Italian soldiers who needed to move troops quickly through the Dolomites built protected climbing routes by bolting cables, metal rungs, ladders and bridges into the rock face. Today there are thousands of these fixed climbing routes along European mountain chains, including the Alps and the Pyrenees. But unlike the sport of rock climbing, which requires special shoes, ropes and belay devices (along with serious technique), just about anyone can ascend a steep cliff on a via ferrata, giving the casual adventurer a chance to explore otherwise isolated routes in gorgeous terrain without the risk associated with unprotected climbing.