TELLURIDE — The foot-wide trail on loose rock above sheer cliffs is disconcerting, requiring deliberate steps.
But when the footpath disappears, the Telluride Via Ferrata becomes a little more than thrilling.
“I had a little sinking spell heading up there for sure,” said Justin Settle, a dentist from Illinois who last month dabbled in the fabled via ferrata’s adrenalized adventure above the valley floor.
The roughly 2-mile traverse delivers on electrified elation without the challenging risks that typically accompany technical rock climbing. Bomber cables bolted to the wall, as well as steel monkey-bar rungs and steps, keep the risk low. Guided climbers wear harnesses and a pair of elasticated lanyards — aptly nicknamed “screamers” — that clip to the cable and prevent a jolting fall.
While not required on the public, no-cost route on Forest Service land, heavy-hitting guides from Telluride help keep newbie climbers focused on the task at hand instead of the rocky valley so far below.
“Be careful right here and really pay attention to your feet,” says guide Kristin Arnold, whose casual demeanor curbs the natural angst of lofty dangling.
Via ferrata — Italian for “the iron way” — is a traverse used all over Europe. Created in World War I by Italian soldiers battling in the Dolomites, the permanent lines and steel ladders helped the gear-laden fighters quickly ascend rugged mountains. Today, the routes are maintained by climbing clubs across Europe. While many of the European via ferratas are vertical, Telluride’s traverse is horizontal, making it somewhat less arduous.
Chuck Kroger – a famed Telluride climber, artist and ironworker — started building the local via ferrata more than a decade ago, forging the rungs and steps in his workshop and mounting them to the valley’s volcanic rock and purplish Telluride conglomerate with exceptionally sturdy, 5½-inch bolts. He often worked alone and sometimes scaled the route at night to install his illegal masterpiece in the cover of darkness.
Back then, the via ferrata was Telluride’s secret. There were a few whispers out there but locals — who called it the Krogerata after its creator, who died of cancer in 2007 — kept the adventure quiet, largely due to its rogue, unpermitted status on federal land. Despite its relative safety and awesome views of the box canyon and its Bridal Veil waterfall, there were no efforts to promote visitor traffic on the route. Maybe a few hundred people traversed the route every summer.
But over the past couple years, the Telluride Via Ferrata has shed its underground status.
The Telluride Mountain Club helped negotiate access easements in 2015 allowing trail access to the route through private land. Visitor counts to the via ferrata doubled in 2014 and again in 2015, reaching more than 3,000 annual climbers, according to a weather-proofed register at a steel bench on the route below a poem-emblazoned plaque honoring Kroger’s work.
Telluride’s mountain guiding outfitters — such as Mountain Trip, San Juan Mountain Guides and Telluride Mountain Guides — worked with the Telluride Mountain Club to hire geologists and engineers in 2016 who assessed the route and charted each bolt, cable and rung. An engineer measured a worst-case scenario load on the cables and bolts and designed an upgraded system capable of withstanding five times the load of the worst-case scenario. European regulations require systems capable of withstanding only two times the worst-case scenario.
“This is so overbuilt and overengineered,” said Todd Rutledge, the co-owner of Telluride’s Mountain Trip guide service. “What we do as a company is manage risk, and that’s how we manage the risk up there.”
With the increasing popularity of ziplines and adventure courses, via ferratas are popping up in the U.S., but there still only a handful. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming opened a six-route via ferrata on Forest Service land inside the ski area boundary this spring, requiring mandatory guides and offering introductory-to-advanced tours.
Across Colorado, where summer visitors are seeking more immersive adventures, ziplines and ropes courses are thriving. Arkansas Valley Adventures last spring unveiled a new three-hour via ferrata tour above Idaho Springs in addition to its rafting, ziplining, fishing and climbing adventures. The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs has a via ferrata segment on its Fins zipline course on private land in South Cheyenne Canyon. NRocks Outdoor Adventures offers a vertical via ferrata in West Virginia. All those operations require guides.
Telluride’s via ferrata is open to anyone, but unguided climbers need skills and the right equipment. Or hire a guide.
Luring adventurers without any climbing experience is somewhat troubling for the Forest Service, which is grappling with how to manage the sudden surge in popularity of the Telluride Via Ferrata.
The Forest Service has never really celebrated the illegally built via ferrata. Matt Zumstein, the district ranger for the Norwood District inside the Uncompahgre National Forest, said options for the future of the via ferrata include establishing the route as a formal Forest Service trail as a permitted use or shutting down the iron-runged route.
The agency typically requires pre-approved designs and operation and maintenance plans for trails and recreation infrastructure on public land.
“This is a different animal. We need to address this a little differently than we would treat a traditional climbing route because it invited a user that doesn’t have the typical level of climbing experience that a climber going up, say, a 5.6 sport route would have,” said Zumstein, who took the reins of the Nordwood District in 2016. “We are trying to understand it. We are aware it’s a very popular piece of infrastructure here regionally, and I think it’s gaining even international popularity. You Google ‘via ferrata’ and you get Italy, France and Telluride. It definitely presents a unique set of issues and challenges for us.”
Search and rescue has never been called to the Telluride Via Ferrata. And definitely no serious injuries or fatalities. In Telluride, certified guides with worldwide mountaineering experience carry mechanical-advantage systems that enable them to hoist someone up and onto the route if they fell and were dangling beneath the cables.
Guide companies in Telluride, who offer adventures around the world as well as demanding excursions into the rugged San Juans, are staying busy with the via ferrata, offering serious rock climbing thrills to first-timers or less-experienced climbers, including Settle and his wife, Brynne.
The parents of three taking a quick holiday in Telluride “wanted to try something different,” they said. There’s not much for mountains and certainly no big-wall climbing back home in Marion, Ill.
“I’m a little shaky, but I’m good,” Brynne said after “The Main Event,” the route’s signature feature, a daunting shift from a sliver of dirt to wide-open sky.
Despite their lack of advanced rock skills, Justin and Brynne excelled, letting out occasional whoops as they scooted along the precipitous rock under the watchful eye of their guide, Arnold.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to take normal people up there,” said Bill Allen, the Everest-scaling co-owner of Mountain Trip.
Source : DP