Between a rock and a high place: Facing down a 300-foot drop in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

The path ahead, etched into a shadowy gray massif high in the Rocky Mountains, is narrowing — two feet wide, one foot, six inches and then . . . nothing. Your next step could take you into a column of air extending infinitely upward and, somewhat more concerning, more than 300 feet straight down.

This is a couple of miles east of Telluride, Colo., halfway through a 1½ -mile traverse of thin trails, rock ledges and sheer cliffs at 10,000 feet. You are face to face with the most harrowing section of this passage, known as the Main Event, a roughly 100-foot crossing of a vertical wall.

This isn’t quite as daring as it sounds: The route is a via ferrata — Italian for “way of the irons” — and is augmented with more than 100 handholds and footholds of forged iron as well as intermittent sections of safety cables, which you clip to with pro-grade mountain climbing gear.

Via ferrate are found on mountain terrain around the world. Some feature ladders, walkways, handrails and even bridges. These protected routes date back centuries, with the more modern ones traced to World War I, when the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies set hundreds of them to move troops and supplies through the Dolomites. Following the war, many of those routes lay dormant until the 1960s and ‘70s, when mountaineers began using — and improving — them for recreation.

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