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In the Alps, ‘entry level’ means a 10-hour climb

The writer and his family climbed a beginner’s vera ferrata that proved to be more challenging than anticipated, above Saas Fee, Switzerland.

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

In the middle of the sheer cliff clung our 13-year-old daughter, Rachel. Beneath her, granite plunged more than 100 metres to massive boulders and snow fields, brilliant in the July sun.

"My God, she's going to die!" sobbed my wife, Diane.

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I tried to calm my wife while also giving instructions: "That's great, Rach," I cried out. "Just step up to the next rung."

She was perched on a U-shaped iron bar sticking out of the rock. Her hands gripped another in the line of rungs spaced up the cliff. Beside them ran a steel cable to which she was clipped by carabineers on cords attached to her hip harness.

We were on a via ferrata (iron way in Italian), a mountaineering path that allows ordinary mortals to ascend routes otherwise accessible only to skilled climbers.

We were high above Saas Fee, in the shadow of the Dom, the highest mountain totally located  in Switzerland. The air was cool, the sky virtually cloudless and the views of peaks and glaciers truly spectacular – if only we could have enjoyed them.

The tourism office had told us the route on the 3,143-metre Mitaghorn would take five hours, with a gondola at the end to whisk us back to the village. This was an entry level via ferrata, "suitable for children aged seven and up to senior citizens."

Well, maybe if those seniors grew up hiking in the Alps.

Starting deceptively up a gently sloping rib, the route soon steepened into knife-edge ridges and vertical rock climbs.

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The real challenge came on the rungs. They were spaced such that our younger daughter, Natalie, could not quite reach her leg to the one above, so I had to climb close behind to boost her foot. It was truly unnerving.

The girls were troopers, stepping onto the precipice and ascending without hesitation. Finally, we were on the summit ridge, making our way toward a plaque and iron cross at its peak. "See – a grave marker for those who've been killed on the mountain," insisted Diane. The plaque actually bore the names of route sponsors.

After a few minutes rest, we sipped the last of our water – another miscalculation – and started down the "easy" descent. It turned into two hours of careful footwork through a minefield of baseball-sized scree.

With evening approaching, we reached the Plattjen cable car station – only to find that the lift had stopped running.

"No!" Diane screamed, rattling the locked door.

"I guess we're just slower than a Swiss seven-year-old," joked 11-year-old Natalie, and the girls actually started giggling.

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Exhausted, we had no choice but to descend kilometres of constant switchbacks, our thighs burning and knees wobbling.

By the time we emerged at the village, daylight had faded. Ten hours after our adventure began, we collapsed in a restaurant, gulped down litres of cold mountain water and feasted on the most welcome pizza ever.

That was 10 years ago. Saas Fee has since opened several other via ferratas, more difficult than our "beginner's" route.

Dare I broach the idea?

Editor's note: The original version of this story referred to the Dom as the highest mountain in Switzerland. The Dom is 4,545 metres high. Monte Rosa is 4,634 metres high, but its summit is on the border between Switzerland and Italy.

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