Admittedly, feeling the excitement and adrenaline rush of easing across a precipitous mountain cliff face suspended several hundred feet above the valley is not for everyone.
But for Amy and Tyler Cuff, the Telluride Via Ferrata was just what they were seeking.
Avid hikers who don’t mind scaling a mountain or two, the Cuffs of Albuquerque first experienced the Via Ferrata at Banff National Park.
Hoping to find something closer to home, last year they discovered Telluride’s hidden gem.
“The main part, called the Main Event, is a big face about two-thirds of the way through,” Amy Cuff recalled. “It was a sheer face. You get around a corner and you just have hand holds and your feet are on iron rungs bolted into the wall. It was pretty intense. Did one Via Ferrata before, and this one was much more intense than that one. It was straight down about 300 or 400 feet.”
The exposure actually got one of the people in the group.
“We were in a group of four and one of the other people in our group … had a little anxiety attack,” Cuff said. “It was pretty exposed. I kept telling myself, don’t freak out, don’t be like her.”
Via ferratas – which means iron way – are a growing phenomenon in the U.S. Started in Italy during World War I to allow troops to pass through rugged alpine areas, the idea spread across Europe and it becoming a staple at many ski resorts as an additional off-season activity.
The Telluride Via Ferrata traces its lineage to local climber and ironworker Chuck Kroger, who discovered and explored a ledge system that eventually petered out. To continue his exploration, he forged and installed some bolts and rungs in what is now the Main Event, said Todd Rutledge, co-owner of Mountain Trip, mountaintrip.com, which regularly guides people across the expanse.
Although Kroger died of cancer before the route was finished, he asked his climbing friends to finish it and make it safe enough that his wife could cross it.
Illegally installed and known more through word of mouth, it eventually drew the ire of the local leadership of the National Forest Service, which wanted it removed.
The Forest Service relented after a leadership change. Following engineering studies and many hours of volunteer work, the route was fully established to professional specifications, and is now in the process of becoming a part of the Forest Service’s trail system, Rutledge said.
“It’s a traverse in a high alpine mountain environment, so we treat it like a mountaineering route,” he said.
That means users are equipped with a helmet, since rock falls are not uncommon. In addition, each must utilize a climbing harness and forced-reducing, dual lanyard tethers, as well as a sturdy pair of footwear.
The route itself is about two miles long, with 1,600 feet of that lined with cables.
“The majority of the route is a hike on a really good single track trail,” Rutledge said. “But it’s a trail on a side of mountain with a side of exposure. There’s big air off to your left. In some places the ledge is 20 feet wide and some 20 inches wide. And in the areas where the ledge completely peters out, you traverse with handholds and footholds.”
At some point, as the valley continues to drop, the exposure is about 1,000 feet, he said.
But the views, especially now that the leaves are changing, are incredible.
In addition to the iconic Bridal Veil Falls, the scenery features a series of 13,000-foot peaks, framed by cliff walls 1,000 feet high.
It all adds up to an unforgettable experience, Cuff said. “It gets your heart pounding, but I felt totally safe the whole time,” she said. “We’re not super comfortable with rock climbing but I like the thrill of it. … It’s a way of getting the thrill without having to do all of that. And it was beautiful. When you’re on the face and you look east you see the box canyon and see Bridal Veil Falls, the whole valley and the town of Telluride. It was really beautiful.”