Masterpiece Trails: Vertical Limits

Get the story behind the Krogerata, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado—and how to see it yourself.
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Get the story behind the Krogerata, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado—and how to see it yourself.

LOOKING UP AT 12,785-foot Ajax Peak, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a route traversing the vertical cliffs along the flanks of this Telluride landmark. That didn’t faze Chuck Kroger, the mastermind who pioneered one of the first climbing routes up El Capitan in Yosemite, and who built a bicycle-powered rail car to pedal deep into the San Juan Mountains on abandoned mining tracks. Kroger had a history of converting mining routes around Telluride into hiking trails. On Ajax Peak, Kroger and his friends imagined a Dolomites-style via ferrata, or “iron way.”

Working in secret (because they weren’t sure the Forest Service would approve), the builder and his crew pieced together a horizontal route that links narrow ledges partway up a 1,000-foot-high cliff band via exposed hiking, scrambling, and a few stretches of playground-style monkey bars. For these passages, Kroger drilled steel rungs into the sandstone cliff to create hand- and footholds. Steel cables bolted to the wall protect the most dangerous sections: Hikers wear climbing harnesses and clip special shock-absorbing tethers to the cables in case of a slip. At the crux passage called the Main Event (pictured), you’ll be swinging from rung to rung with more than 300 feet of air below you.

Telluride locals kept the Krogerata quiet for about five years after it was built, but today, the Forest Service accepts the dozens of people who traverse the via ferrata daily in summer.

The Hike
The out-and-back route travels a little over a mile and takes four to six hours round-trip, with plenty of exposure the whole way. Go with a guide if you’re not a confident scrambler. About halfway, there’s a bench and plaque dedicated to Kroger, who died of cancer in 2007. It’s a safe spot to catch your breath and ogle 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls before braving the Main Event.

Trailhead 3 miles east of Telluride at the fourth switchback on the Black Bear Pass Rd. (4WD or 1.5-mile walk required); 37.922468, -107.766825Season June to September Guide San Juan Outdoor School (970-728-4101; tellurideadventures.com); $150 to $300/person for a full-day, depending on group size Contacttelluridemountainclub.org