The Iron Road

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The view from the bottom

We walked a path through farmers' fields to reach the trailhead on a crystal-clear Swiss morning, up a trail, a set of steep wooden steps built into the hillside. Then we spotted the cable mounted on the side of the hill, next to a nearly vertical track uphill. We scrabbled upwards, and soon reached the first series of ladders and handholds and footholds attached securely into the rock.

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A metal "road" underfoot, a cable to clip into at waist height.

My husband and I were climbing for the first time on a trail called a "via ferrata," Italian for "iron road." Our mellow and patient Swiss friend Dmitri guided us. Mountain routes that would otherwise be inacessible--or at least really hard for people who aren't climbing experts--are made passable with ladders, hand- and footholds, bridges, and cables that can be clipped into. In this way, climbers can clip in to the cable and follow the route, knowing that a slip might mean a bump or a scrape, but will not likely lead to a terrible fall. The Italians created a series of iron roads to move troops during World War I, but the trail we were following was a new one near Martigny, Switzerland.

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Clipped in and climbing

Ladder rungs are mounted into the rock outcroppings. Foot pedal-like footholds are placed where the natural rock hand- and footholds are lacking. Wire bridges span chasms. Running as a literal lifeline alongside these is a cable that traces the route continuously from start to finish.

We wore climbing harnesses with two short ropes attached. At the end of each rope was a carabiner. As we climbed, we clipped the carabiners into the cable, and those ropes ensured that if we fell, we wouldn’t fall far. Periodically, the cable threaded through an eye-bolt mounted in the rock. Each time we reached one of these eye-bolts, we would unhook one carabiner, and re-hook it on the far side. Then we would unhook the other carabiner, and re-hook it on the far side. In this way, we were never fully untethered from the cable.

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Acting cool on the outside before it was my turn....

The most extreme part of the climb was when we had to cross a wire bridge strung across a chasm hundreds of feet above a waterfall and a rushing stream. There I felt newly grateful for the yogic notion of "drishti." A drishti is a point of focus, a single spot onto which you can insistently, belligerently screw your eyes in order to create steadiness and balance. 

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Crossing the chasm

Before that late-August day, I had only used drishti to create more steady postures in yoga class. But that afternoon, as the clear Alpine sun shone down on my head, the only thing I could do was fix my eyes on a spot straight ahead of me on the cable, forward of my front foot, and take one step forward, and then another, and then another. Slowly, deliberately, the air moved in and out of my lungs. Right and left hands slid down the two waist-high cables, feet were carefully placed one in front of the other on the cable forming the bottom point of a three-strand triangle spanning two vertical rock faces. 

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Downhill through the vineyards to finish

We climbed to the halfway mark on the trail, where there is a connection to a road winding back down the mountain, through a vineyard. The second half of the trail was closed because a search and rescue training drill was in progress. The climb had been a walk in the park for Dmitri, but my arms and legs were getting shaky from exhaustion and adrenaline, and I was relieved not to have a via ferrata trail just as long ahead of me as I had behind me.

It was a terrifying experience, and I want to do it again. I like the single-mindedness of climbing, and I suppose that’s partly because there are consequences to letting my mind drift. I love the feeling that comes with reaching further than I thought I could, the fire in my legs when I plant my foot on the next higher spot and then straighten up to my full height. It’s a sport that motivates me to become more strong and more flexible, and it makes trips to the gym and sessions on the yoga mat feel more purpose-driven. 

I am looking forward to doing more climbing, both outdoors and on the climbing wall. It’s pretty thrilling to discover this sport in my 40s. I just celebrated my 42nd birthday, and it’s great to feel like I’m still getting stronger as I get older.

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 (Thank you, Michael Cooney, for all of the photographs in this post.)