Guided climbers on a Mountain Trip excursion navigate the Telluride Via Ferrata in August 2022. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

A decade ago, only a brave few ventured onto the Telluride Via Ferrata, traversing hundreds of feet above the valley floor as they clipped and unclipped from about 1,100 feet of cable bolted to the sheer cliffs. 

The aerial alpine adventure, once a secret for locals, has grown more popular and now as many as 2,000 people a month make the 8,000-foot traverse along sheer cliffs beneath Ajax Peak. 

It’s the only via ferrata on Forest Service land that is open to the public with no direct supervision. Most via ferratas on federal land are at ski resorts and managed by operators with a permit from the Forest Service that often requires visitors to hire guides to access. The Telluride Via Ferrata does not have any rules requiring guides. (But it is recommended.) And it was built without Forest Service permission. That’s caused some angst for the agency as traffic on the daunting route grows. 

The Forest Service has proposed that the town of Telluride or San Miguel County take over ownership and operation of the via ferrata on the east end of the box canyon. The agency asked local outfitters if they would take over maintenance and operations with a federal permit. No group stepped forward to take responsibility for the route, citing liability concerns. (The Telluride Mountain Club coordinates inspections and maintenance of the route with guides and local climbers documenting all upkeep.)

Megan Eno, the district ranger for the Norwood District of the Uncompahgre National Forest, said the route is “integral … to the local recreation economy and the community as a whole.” 

“So the only remaining option besides removing it was to work with our current outfitters and guides and the Telluride Mountain Club, to bring the infrastructure up to Forest Service engineering standards and adopt it into the Forest Service Trail System,” she said. 

Outfitters and the venerable Telluride Mountain Club are raising money now to retrofit the route so it can officially become part of the federal trail network, which means it will finally be legitimate and the ever-present threat of removal can be buried. 

“The route was established without permission so in order for us to protect it, for the via ferrata to be sustainable over time, it needs to become part of the Forest Service inventory of trails,” said Todd Rutledge, the owner of expedition outfitter Mountain Trip and a Telluride Mountain Club board member. 

Mountain Trip guides regularly shepherd adventurers along the Telluride Via Ferrata. This summer the company increased its donation to the Telluride Via Ferrata Sustainability Fund to $10 per guided guest, up from $5. Since 2019 the company has donated more than $18,000 to the fund. (The outfitter charges guided guests $209 to $389 for the four-hour trip.)

Supporters estimate they need about $300,000 to re-engineer the route so it can meet Forest Service standards. But the agency does not have specific standards for via ferratas. 

The plan was outlined by Eno in a Decision Memo issued in July after a month of research and public input earlier this year. The design criteria proposed by Eno included engineering standards for ziplines outlined by global standards organization ASTM International’s requirements for ziplines and amusement rides. Trails reaching the cable will be built and maintained to Forest Service standards “to meet public safety requirements,” Eno’s memo reads. 

(The only recorded falling death on the route involved a 53-year-old Arizona woman who fell while unclipped from the cable in 2021. She was not part of a guided trip. A 76-year-old man died on the route in 2018 after what authorities described as “a life-threatening medical event.” There is not a lot of research into via ferrata deaths in the U.S. In the European Alps, where there are more than 1,000 via ferratas, a 2019 study counted 62 deaths in the previous decade, with falling while climbing unsecured to the cable as the most common cause of death.)

Eno noted in her decision — which exempted the upgrades from intense environmental review — that many commenters on the plan expressed “a desire to keep upgrades kept to the minimum necessary for public safety.” 

The route was built by an inimitable climbing craftsman and mountain man named Chuck Kroger. In the 1980s, the creative Kroger forged fun art from junkyards and automobile graveyards and built bikes that could cruise on rails and down frozen rivers. In the early 2000s he also bolted custom hand and toeholds into the granite wall above his home, offering adventurers in his canyon a lofty, semi-technical traverse hundreds of feet above the valley floor. 

Telluride creator, craftsman and climber Chuck Kroger built the Telluride Via Ferrata in the 1990s. A plaque at the start of the route honors his contribution. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Since Kroger’s friends finished his project after he died in 2007, the via ferrata route has become one of Telluride’s most popular attractions.

Eno’s memo supports a plan that keeps the route “as close to the original alignment as possible.” She said some public commenters on her plan recommended a permit system if traffic continues to increase on the via ferrata. (Permits and reservations are becoming much more common at the Forest Service hot spots in Colorado.) 

Rutledge said it’s taken years of work among climbers, guides, the Telluride Mountain Club and the Forest Service to reach this point. Rutledge said supporters want to protect the experience crafted by the legendary Kroger. He expects the route will get all new cable, replacing three-eighths-inch with ATSM-required half-inch stainless steel cable. Some currently unprotected sections will get new cable, he said, “but not much.” 

“The goal is to preserve the experience to be as similar as possible for what it is today,” he said. “Once it’s incorporated as a system trail, it will be around in perpetuity.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out.

Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things

Location: Eagle, CO

Newsletter: The Outsider, the outdoors industry covered from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state

Education: Southwestern University


X (Formerly Twitter): @jasonblevins