Reporting from The Purcell Mountains, Canada — 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.