What do World War I, the Dolomites in Italy, and Telluride, Colorado have in common? The iron road aka via ferrata. I didn’t know what a via ferrata was and had never even heard the term before our German exchange student introduced it to me. His family does a via ferrata trip every summer.
During WWI, the front line between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces ran through the Dolomites. To help troops access high places in difficult conditions, fixed lines and ladders were installed on rock faces. The difficulty and length vary widely and while these originals are steeped in history, newer ones have popped up in the Alps. They have become very popular with adventure seekers in Europe, and I wanted to try one.
When my Google search revealed a via ferrata route in Telluride, I couldn’t believe it! I was anticipating having to travel much further. Unlike its European brethren, the Telluride route is completely horizontal, save a very small vertical section. Traversing 2.5 miles, 500 feet above the valley floor, it is one of the most spectacular and breathtaking things I’ve ever experiencedThe route isn’t all metal rungs. In fact, most of the 2.5 miles is hiked along a trail, albeit a very narrow one with a significant drop off. At certain points along the trail, it becomes so narrow that it is necessary to hook in with harness lanyards. At these points the trail is literally inches wide, and at one particularly interesting spot, there is a tree right in the middle of the path, with a cable running behind it. You hook in and then hug the tree as you swing around, your rear end suspended 500 feet in the air.
The actual via ferrata section is called the “main event” and it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I don’t have an issue with heights and have been skydiving, zip lining and hot air ballooning, but all of those are passive activities. You don’t really have to do anything. Getting yourself across the rock face however, is anything but passive. It’s not even all that physical, but it is off the charts mental for newbies to the rock climbing gig.
Brett told me that on our first traverse (we did it twice, there and back) he had to give himself a serious pep talk. Our guide, Tyler was cheering me on at that point and I felt awesome! It was a walk in the park, so easy and Tyler was there validating those feelings. I was in for a reality check though. As we were eating our lunch after having successfully completed one pass, Tyler asked if we would like to go back over it again. He said he felt confident in our abilities and we could go on ahead while he stayed back to take pictures of us. How could we say no to that?!
As we eased back onto the rungs, I felt a little differently than before. I was missing Tyler and his encouragement very much, and in the middle of the “main event” panic was knocking at my door. I looked back to Brett for comfort and was shocked to see him looking down and all around, hanging one leg and one arm off the rungs and thoroughly enjoying himself. His pep talk had sure worked! I didn’t want to ruin his joy, so I quickly gave a pep talk of my own and was able to pull myself back from the figurative edge while standing on the literal one.
I think testing oneself and proving that we CAN do things even if we have doubts is one of the most rewarding things in life. In retrospect, I’m glad I had that moment of panic. It gave me a sense of accomplishment that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Nothing worthwhile is easy, and sometimes you just have to get out of your own way and go for it. You just might end up having one of the most memorable times of your life!
I’d like to give a huge thank you to Tyler at San Juan Outdoor Adventures. He picked us up, drove us out to the via, gave us a thorough lesson on the gear and always stressed safety, from the beginning to the very end. “It’s when you feel comfortable that you get complacent and accidents can happen.” Very wise words! He entertained us with historical stories of Telluride (the early miners were insane in their bravery and chutzpah!) and he brought us delicious turkey club sandwiches for lunch. I’d also like to thank Josh for answering all my questions and returning my call when I realized that I had forgotten to ask something important, i.e., is upper body strength vital to success? The answer is no. These guys are seriously the best! When you decide to pay Telluride a visit and view the box canyon from 500 feet up, tethered to the iron road, I recommend giving San Juan Outdoor Adventures a call.