The Sheer Terror of Scaling Colorado's Via Ferrata
"Scaling the Krogerata" sounds like something that ends with rappelling down the side of a Midwestern grocery store. Which is enticing. But not nearly as enticing as its reality: namely, traversing the side of a 500ft rock face in the Rocky Mountains, and getting one of the greatest gut checks you'll ever have.
The good people at Mountain Trip were nice enough to invite me to scale the via ferrata in Telluride, Colorado, with an excellent guide. Now, for an experienced climber, it's just another Tuesday morning. Experienced climbers can scale this via ferrata with about the same ease that most people use a flyswatter. But I'm from Florida -- you know, that state whose highest point is a freeway on-ramp -- so going to the side of a cliff and spending two hours on the ledge isn't simply getting out of my comfort zone. It's dumping all my furniture onto the lawn and throwing my clothes out the bedroom window while the neighbors watch in horror.
What is a via ferrata anyway?
"Via ferrata" is Italian for "iron road." It's a system of metal rungs, hooks, and handholds bolted into the side of a mountain, initially developed to help move troops through the Alps during World War I. After the world wars, the iron remained, and it didn't take long for adventurous Europeans to turn it into a recreational activity. The tourists followed and climbing these things has become more popular in Europe than uncomfortably tight pants and chain smoking.
The US had lagged in the via ferrata craze, until a mountaineer and iron worker named Chuck Kroger settled in Telluride in the late 1970s. A fan of the via ferratas he'd experienced in the Alps, he set out to construct one near his hometown. He spent years constructing the course by climbing the mountain face with a rock drill and 5.5in bolts. After he died of cancer in 2007, his friends completed the via ferrata as a tribute. Informally it has been dubbed the Krogerata.
The Krogerata is a poorly kept secret
The drive to the trail isn't exactly calming. It's a narrow road of switchbacks leading up to Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride. When another giant SUV comes speeding around a corner, you're relatively certain the laws of physics dictate one of you is falling off a cliff. Reaching the "trailhead" about halfway up the mountain is a sort of relief on its own.
I say "trailhead" because it's completely unmarked, easy to miss. Colorado doesn't exactly promote Telluride's via ferrata: as with the state's pot tourism, your best resource is going to be word of mouth. Judging by the number of people jamming the trail on a Tuesday afternoon, the state is home to a lot of talkers.
"We're just gonna wind around this ledge," said Dave, my guide, as he pointed to a cliff face that seemed to stretch to Utah. I saw no ledge, but I assumed Dave wouldn't josh me. That is, after all, how people get really nasty things said about them on TripAdvisor.
Dave outfitted me in the requisite climbing gear: a harness, helmet, and carabiners with retractable cords. This adventure comes with heavy safety caveats. Much of the trail includes a thick metal cable to which you literally clip your life, one carabiner at a time. If your foot slips, the cable keeps you from plummeting into a heavily wooded abyss. Though they don't really explain how they yank you back up while you're dangling off the side of a mountain. I didn't want to ask Dave about that either.
Walking next to catastrophe
The beginning of the trail was simple enough, reminiscent of a mountain hike along a steep drop-off. Then we turned a corner. The path narrowed, and the steep slope that was the trail's left ledge was now a sheer cliff. I was one kinked ankle away from being Wile E. Coyote.
"Watch your step," Dave said. Probably because his lawyers told him he has to, the same way McDonald's has to tell you "this coffee is hot."
Another few hundred yards of walking beside death and we reached the trail's first cable. Dave told me to clip in one carabiner at a time ("In case you slip while you’re fastening them," he added). As I locked in, I noticed the trail seemed to disappear a few yards ahead. In its place: a giant boulder the cord stretched across.
"So, we just fly around that boulder?" I asked Dave.
"Sort of," he said, smiling. Dave walked ahead, attached to the cord, and put his leg around the boulder, kind of hugging it with his lower body. "You just put your foot on this foothold on the other side, and slide yourself around." He said it calmly, as if he were explaining how to operate a can opener. That's 500ft of nothing under you there, Dave, and all that stands between you and it is a boulder that's being unsuspectingly humped.
Then again, once you're on the via ferrata, your options are to slide around a boulder jutting out over a ledge, or turn around and go home like a baby. Really, there is no choice. I stepped up to the boulder, moved my carabiners onto the hook, and reached my leg around the rough rock until I felt the foothold.
"See?" Dave said. "Easy."
Time for the main event
After about 45 minutes we reached a park bench at a flat overlook. There stood a plaque explaining Charles Kroger and his life's work.
"They put this up here so people know who the man was responsible for this," Dave said. "And it also gives us a nice little rest right before the main event."
Right past this little overlook, the trail really did disappear. The metal cord continued on, straight across a sheer cliff face dotted with metal rungs.
"You ready?" Dave asked. I couldn't see the end of the cliff face I was supposed to traverse, which meant I could be clinging to the side of this mountain for possibly the rest of my life. Or, maybe a mile. They might as well have been the same thing.
Again, Dave went first, and again, he made traversing metal rungs that stuck 6in out from a cliff look like walking to the refrigerator.
"Just put your feet on the rungs and step your way along," he said, sounding a little like Bob Ross telling me to paint happy trees. Everyone in Colorado seems to talk like this.
The first few were surprisingly simple. After about 50 yards, the two rows' rungs -- which are ostensibly put at hand and foot height -- suddenly squeezed in, just 2ft apart.
"You're going to have to scrunch up a little bit," Dave said as he folded himself in half and scurried across the rungs like a spider monkey. I was not so graceful.
Imagine doing a full squat, then having to hold that squat and side-step your way about 5 or 6ft to your left. But instead of a nice gym platform to support you there's only void. Yes, you're clipped into a cable, but that makes the thought of slipping off these metal rungs no less terrifying.
"Is this going to support all my weight?" I asked, like somehow I was the first dude over 200lbs to ever cross the via ferrata. Dave nodded, and I put both my feet on one rung, with both my hands gripping the rung above it. My ass literally hanging out over the side of the cliff. And as I squatted there, thighs and forearms burning, I realized the key to getting through this, or anything, was just to relax.
So calmly, I moved to the next rung, and then the next, and despite some difficulties with some of the longer stretches, I made it without slipping at all. Or soiling the abyss.
The rest of the hike continued in much the same fashion, as we clipped in at difficult spots and walked confidently along a mountain ledge for the rest. The trail got dicey at times: for a climb down between boulders, at another rock face, and one stretch of climbing metal rungs at an acute angle to the ground. But once you've dangled yourself over a mountainside with nothing but a metal cable keeping you safe, a lot of things in life seem pretty easy. Just slow down, tell off your fear, and keep going, one death-defying step at a time.
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