09/02/2010 03:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Via Ferrata: Taking the High Road

I clipped my daisy chains from my harness to the cable and traversed out onto the forged iron holds, hands first, then a tentative step, and I was aloft on the sheer rock wall. Was I 200 or 300 feet up? It really didn't matter, because I was too terrified to look down. This segment of the wall is nicknamed the "Main Event," and it's the most intimidating section of the Via Ferrata, a secret route high in the San Juan Mountains.

Secret, yes, but not a well-kept secret. An informal registry revealed that during the summer over a hundred people a month travel the route, clipping into the cable and clinging to the iron holds that were built and bolted into the rock route by legendary mountain man Chuck Kroger. Kroger passed away on Christmas Day, 2007, but he left the local community with concrete reminders of his adventurous spirit.

Kroger was an extraordinary character. He was well-known in the 60s for various climbing exploits all over the world, and after he made Telluride his permanent home base in 1979 he continued to travel, everything from mountain guiding in South America to working as a snowmobile mechanic for a National Science Foundation expedition in Antarctica. Eventually he started his own construction company (BONE-- Back Of Nowhere Engineering) and grew into a master welder and tinkerer. He synthesized his skills as both an adventurer and an artisan, creating a line of bikes that rode on railroad tracks, studding the tires of bikes to ride down the frozen Dolores River and crafting a super fast playground ride he named "The Puker."

Kroger never stopped exploring the backcountry. He was a six-time finisher of the Hardrock 100 (a hundred mile footrace in the San Juan Mountains) and he resurrected high alpine routes around this region like the La Junta Trail, Deer Trail, Ballard Trail and Clay Way (or Owl Gulch). He was an ardent believer in access, and with a group of his disciples dubbed the "Telluride Motorless Transit Authority," Kroger helped clear these trails by hand with an old crosscut saw. He liked to push the boundaries of where people could go: He helped plot the infamous Outlawppet on the Valley Floor (a loppet or Nordic race on the then-closed private parcel of land) and he pioneered an urbanized version of climbing called "buildering," where he scaled the Golden Gate Bridge and other edifices.

The Via Ferrata was modeled after a system of iron routes of the same name built during WWI in the Dolomites of Italy, and it was one of Kroger and his TMTA team's last gifts to the mountaineering community here. Kroger didn't name it the Via Ferrata, but called it instead the "Murder of the Impossible." Kroger was referring to an old essay by climbing purist Reinhold Messner, who lamented the idea that bolted routes were making it conceivable to ascend anything. While Kroger was a purist in his own right, a true hard-core athlete who relied on his own physical ability and prowess, he was also an artist and a craftsman. He used his special gifts to create the Via Ferrata, which can get even a non-climber or a novice climber to a breathtaking route high in the mountains. For someone like me, it did murder the impossible, and gave me a peek into what it would feel like to climb a big wall. So if you do happen to find your way onto the secret Via Ferrata in the San Juans, don't forget to give a nod to Chuck Kroger for helping you get there.