What do Italian soldiers in WWI, an unprecedented battle between the U.S. Forest Service and a group of adventurers, a climbing legend’s dying wish, and a mountain hamlet’s impressive unity all have in common? The answer is an exotic and mysterious word: the via ferrata.
Outside of the Colorado’s rock climbing community, the term via ferrata might ring empty, but for those in the know, the name either brings a thrill of excitement or a sweating of palms – maybe both. In Colorado, “via ferrata” has been inextricably tied to Telluride for years – but what exactly is it?
A via ferrata (an Italian term meaning “iron path”) is a hike of sorts, but instead of gradually ascending hills or mountains, you traverse horizontally, usually along cliff sides with tiny or no actual trail to speak of. These routes originally began in the Dolomite Mountains in World War I. Italian troops sought to gain tactical advantages over the Austrians and began scaling routes no one thought was possible with the help of steel rungs drilled into the sides of cliffs. Since that time, Europeans have created over a thousand recreational via ferratas.
The story starts in Colorado with a man named Chuck Kroger. Chuck was a legendary rock climber and builder. After spending some time in Europe and learning about via ferratas, he came back to his home of Telluride and saw the potential of the tall cliffs of the box canyon surrounding town which didn’t have the right rock for climbing, but might be perfect for a different use.
By the time he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, Chuck had welded and bolted a fairly thorough set of hand and foot rungs along the base of Ajax Peak, at the horizontal meeting of the Uncompahgre and the Telluride Conglomerate layers of the canyon. Using these, confident climbers could scuttle sidewise, 500 feet above the canyon floor with views of the valley and Bridal Veil Falls in the distance.
When Chuck passed away later that year, friends held a memorial event in which, to honor Chuck, they all did his route as a group. To make it accessible for everyone attending and to fulfill Chuck’s final wish that one day the via ferrata would be safe enough for his wife to experience, the group installed a metal cable along the path at waist height so that, in addition to hand and feet holds, people would have something to hook a harness into.
Now that Chuck’s legacy was an up-and-running via ferrata in Telluride, outdoor enthusiasts flocked to the unusual adventure, guide companies offered tours, and the 100% community-managed and funded route became one of Colorado’s most legendary treks. Everything was going great – that is, except for one little hiccup: the route was on National Forest land and also ran through a couple private mining claims…and it had never been approved.
When the Forest Service caught wind of this strange new route in 2013, they didn’t know what “box” to put it in. Was it a hike? Was it a climb? At the time, there were no other via ferratas on state land anywhere in the US, and due to worries about liability, there was talk of shutting it down. The via ferrata’s many vocal supports quickly squashed that silly notion, however, and it stayed open. After a couple of years of slow discussion, a new head park ranger took the position and was immediately in favor of figuring out how to get the route sanctioned.
Together, the Forest Service and the community partnered to get their creation approved by creating their own set of standards to prove and uphold the safety of the via ferrata. Engineers assessed hand and feet holds, a geologist participated in a pull-test performed on the same type of rock in a nearby canyon, climbers mapped out holds, a local gear shop donated suspension bolts, and 480 volunteer hours were donated to update and overall fortify an already-safe trek. Anyone who loved the via ferrata (and there were many) found a way to contribute, and was coordinated by the Telluride Mountain Club – one of the main organizations that funnels donations and community support into the right avenues.
In a monumental moment in September 2018, the local branch of the Forest Service committed to promote sanctioning the route to their superiors in the National Forest Department in Denver after being taken on the route to examine all the updates and heartily approving.
Now that indefinite access to Telluride’s via ferrata is imminent, you’re probably wondering if you need to get out there and try it.
According to Todd Rutledge, a director of the Telluride Mountain Club and professional mountain guide, the physical barrier to completing the via ferrata is not high, it is still not for everyone. With the hundreds of feet in drops and some parts of the trail where you are not connected being as narrow as 10-15 inches, it is not ideal for people with a paralyzing fear of heights. Luckily, for anyone who really wants to experience the trek, there are guides in Telluride who can turn a seemingly insurmountable challenge into an invigorating and empowering experience.
If Telluride is too far from home for a fun weekend adventure, three businesses recently caught wind of the potential popularity of such an adventure and opened three new via ferratas around the state.
Cave of the Winds opened a via ferrata on their property in 2017 specifically for inexperienced climbers. AVA Rafting & Zipline opened one on Mount Evans in Idaho Springs in 2017 and another in Buena Vista in 2018. Via ferrata number five is scheduled to open in Cañon City at the Royal Gorge Park in 2019. These four new attractions are only accessible through a guided tour, and being closer to Denver and geared towards novices, they might be just what Colorado’s ever-growing tourism industry is looking for. As the number two tourist activity in the state, outdoor travel accounted for $28 billion in spending in 2017, and activities like the via ferrata are sure to drive it even higher.
I asked Rutledge if, as a caretaker of the original, inherently anti-establishment Telluride via ferrata, the prospect of these new, for-profit endeavors offend his sensibilities. Quite the opposite turned out to be true. He believes that greater interest and improved understanding of via ferratas in general will benefit the activity as a whole in the future. For example, he hopes that increased demand will reduce the prices and difficulty of obtaining the specialized gear that is currently so challenging to acquire. Also, theoretically, the more information and examples of via ferratas that are available, the easier time future groups will have trying to establish routes in partnership with governmental organizations like the Forest Service.
Speaking with Rutledge, the passion of Telluride’s via ferrata community was easily evident. He says, “The views are huge, the exposure is exciting, [yet] it’s something anyone can do.”
Owning a company that guides all over the world, even in extreme locales like Everest, Denali, and Aconcagua, he assured me that Telluride’s via ferrata has some of the most exhilarating stretches to be found anywhere in the world.
With warm weather around the corner and adventures on your mind, see if you have what it takes to climb a cliff side and admire the views mountain goat-style. With a variety of locations and difficulties to choose from, experiencing a via ferrata might be just the adrenaline and beauty-packed adventure that you’ve been searching for this summer.