We’re out on the Via Ferrata upwards of a few hundred times per summer, so we know a thing or two about the iconic, formerly underground route. One thing is certain: It really doesn’t get old. It’s hard to limit the list to just a few, but here are the top five factors that we think make the local Via Ferrata—or “Krogerata”—so special.
This one is kind of a no-brainer, considering you’d be hard-pressed to find any views around Telluride that aren’t spectacular. However, the Via Ferrata is in a class all its own. The route traverses the rocky southwest-facing flank of Ajax Peak, overlooking the town of Telluride and the surrounding ridgelines, basins, and alpine lakes, far below the high cliffs at the head of the valley. From the precarious trail and rungs, climbers can gaze all the way down the glacially-carved box canyon to the reaches of the high Utah desert, framed by the San Juan Mountains.
The views largely depend on the season, and the route boasts a different “feel” throughout the year.
Springtime means Bridal Veil Falls, the tallest freefalling waterfall in Colorado at 365’, and Ingram Falls near the start of the trail will be surging with snowmelt from the high alpine, while smaller waterfalls will be cascading gently over some sections the route. Summer brings a rainbow of wildflowers, berries, birdsong, and echoes of concerts and festivals from far below in Telluride Town Park. Fall imparts more solitude and features crisper mornings, with spectacular views of golden aspens far below and perhaps a dusting of snow on the high peaks. The ever-evolving scenery throughout the seasons keeps it interesting.
The Via Ferrata began as a secret for local alpinists, and its location remained relatively unknown for several years after it was created and installed. The route was the vision of big wall climber and wayward adventurer turned local legend—Chuck Kroger—in the late 1980s.
A skilled, self-taught ironworker, mountaineer, ultra-trail runner and world traveler (among other pursuits) Kroger found himself in Telluride in 1979 after a childhood in Montana, a sojourn in Yosemite and climbing expeditions around the world. He noticed the ledge running across the cliffs at the base of Ajax, and promptly decided that Telluride should have such worldly amenities as its very own Via Ferrata. Via Ferrata routes exist throughout the mountains of Western Europe and originated to help troops cross high mountain areas during times of war. But Kroger’s vision was quite different; of art, frivolousness and increased enjoyment of the mountains he loved. He and friends installed the route, secretly, on public land. The Via Ferrata existed as little more than a rumor about town for years.
These days, an iron bench conveniently located directly before the ‘Main Event’ commemorates Kroger’s life of adventure and pays homage to his reverie of building the route. Kroger’s other work, metal trail signs, can be found at remote trail junctions around the Telluride area. Kroger, unfortunately, passed away after a battle with cancer in 2007.
The trailhead for the Via Ferrata remains unmarked.
Often, in order to hang hundreds of feet above the ground on a rock wall, one must master a variety of rope skills, knots, meticulous belay technique and finger strength, as Kroger had—not to mention maintain unflappable composure while moving upward in a lofty, challenging environment.
The ‘Main Event’ of the Via Ferrata, where the route becomes overhanging and traverses a section of vertical rock hundreds of feet below the valley floor to a backdrop of Bridal Veil Falls, imparts the sensation of climbing in extreme exposure, but only requires the technical skills similar to climbing horizontally on a ladder (albeit much more mentally demanding).
For our trips, we often bring along a professional photographer to “get the shot” of climbers traversing the Main Event. It’s certainly a moment you’ll want to capture and remember.
If you do have the technical climbing skills and have rock climbed outdoors before, try out a different way to access the Via Ferrata instead of the standard approach: A 5.7, three-pitch climb to meet the route just before the Main Event. The route is bolted, so you need only a rack of quick-draws, your helmet, harness and belay device. The last pitch is a bit run out, but it’s a fun variation. You’ll get some wide-eyed looks from those on the trail as you suddenly emerge from the vertical cliffs below.
It's also possible to rappel down off the route to the mining ruins below from certain sections, with the right knowledge and equipment. Everything about the Via Ferrata and the different variations are about finding your own adventure. Kroger would be proud!
The Via Ferrata can infuse a bit more adrenaline into your summer vacation to Telluride than many standard excursions; while it’s nearly as accessible and less physically demanding than the average day hike in this area, both the risk and reward are much higher. It’s certainly not every day that you get to hang from an iron rung with some of Colorado’s most beautiful views beneath your feet.
However, if you don’t have the proper gear, or you’re at all nervous or apprehensive about the route—especially about doing so with your children—please contact a local guide service to help mitigate the inherent risks. While we’re a little biased to the benefits of going with a guide, if you don’t have the experience in the mountains, it’s often the best option for lowering the stress level and increasing the enjoyment of the outing. Our Via Ferrata guides are all medically trained from Wilderness First Responder to EMT, all hold AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) certifications, and most spend part of the year guiding Denali up in Alaska or other big, high elevation peaks around the world.
At a minimum, you really want to have the right equipment for the job. Load-limiting lanyards are very important to stack the risk management equation in your favor. While you’ll see some climbers on the route using webbing slings hitched to their harnesses, such systems have inherent weaknesses that can fail with catastrophic results. Helmets are similarly necessary, as rocks tumble from far, far above with regularity.
Most of all: Walk deliberately, and enjoy every step of the adventure!