The Main Event: In which I hang off the side of a mountain for fun


A couple of months ago, G nonchalantly asked if I had any interest in going to Telluride, CO with some of his friends who wanted to mountain bike there. My answer was “OF COURSE.” I had never been to Colorado, but everything I had heard about it made it seem like pure magic. Mountains, endurance races, mountains, aspen trees, mountains, rock climbing, and did I mention mountains? There was no question that I wanted to go.

I did a little research about Telluride itself. An old mining town that was once notorious for its saloons and brothels, it is currently a thriving ski town located picturesquely in the valley of a box canyon.

I would not be joining the guys mountain biking, so I looked up what other activities I could do. Hiking seemed to be the natural choice, but I nixed that idea due to the fickle state of my knee.

I came across some websites about what is called the “Via Ferrata”, a phrase that means “iron path”. It’s a hiking path that traverses a ledge sideways across the face of one of the mountains of the box canyon. Hmmm. Walking straight on a trail instead of climbing up. That could work, right? The kicker for the Via Ferrata though is the “iron path” part of it. Somewhere in its geologic history, the ledge that the pathway follows broke away from the mountain, leaving nothing to step on to, until endurance runner and rock climbing legend Chuck Kroger came along. Unbeknownst to any authorities, he installed a system of steel cables and steps and handholds in the national forestland to create a safe passageway across the mountain. Where the path drops off, there are rungs to hold on to and a cable to attach a harness to.

The Via Ferrata was completely illegal when it was completed about 10 years ago, but authorities in the national forest have since allowed adventurers to use it. I found two mountain guide organizations that lead hikes over it and decided that if I did nothing else for the entire trip, I would traverse the Via Ferrata.

About a month before the trip, I called up San Juan Outdoor Adventures to make a reservation. I made it for myself, with the possibility of adding another person or two at the last minute. I chose this guiding company because they offered so many conveniences to make it run smoothly. Included in the trip was gear, pick-up and drop-off at my accommodations, and even snacks during the hike. They had me at snacks.

When the trip was finally upon us, G and I drove out to Colorado while the rest of the group flew. We towed a trailer with all of the guys’ bikes (mountain bikes and dirt bikes) and stayed overnight in campgrounds in our roof-top tent along the way. We only stopped when necessary (besides a brief but mandatory detour to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison) so we could maximize our time in Telluride, which was a good idea because there was so much to do once we got there!

On our first full day, two of the other ladies went horseback riding with me. I hadn’t been on a horse since I quit lessons when I was 5 years old, so it was a little scary when we headed right into the trees to ride along creeks and through aspen groves. It was almost like hiking, but without trashing my knee!

I was so excited about the riding and everything else there was to do that the Via Ferrata took a backseat in my mind. Telluride was filled with things to see and do in celebration of the July 4th holiday, and on one of the days, G treated us girls to a drive on Jeep roads over Ophir Pass to Ouray, where we had lunch with more awesome mountain views and hiked to Cascade Falls.

 

The time difference from the east coast was kind of rough on me. Every day I awoke feeling pretty fresh and awake at 5 am, but I was so excited by everything that I usually couldn’t get to sleep before midnight. I knew that it would catch up with me eventually, and it did – on the morning of the Via Ferrata hike.

When my alarm sounded at 6:30, I fumbled around to turn it off feeling simultaneously like I was in a fog and like I had just been hit by a truck. I tried to sleep in a little, but I ended up just lying awake feeling groggy. The trail guide would be arriving at 8 am, so I finally dragged my sorry butt out of bed and headed upstairs to get some coffee.

G’s buddy had decided the night before that he wanted to join me (coincidentally, his name is also G – from here known as GB). He was already up and finished with breakfast as I tried to force my mind into alertness with caffeine. Then I scurried around and tried to get my gear together. When the guide knocked on the door, I wasn’t quite ready. I finished filling my hydration pack, grabbed my climbing gear, and scooted out the door, feeling totally unprepared.

Somewhere on the way I realized that I had forgotten the cord for my prescription sunglasses to catch them if they somehow fell off. This annoyed me and added a level of unease. I was pretty quiet on the drive there as GB and the guide, Tyler talked, and I wondered about whether the hike would irritate my knee and if I was steady enough on my feet to capably handle the unprotected parts of the trail. I wondered if the coffee I drank would hit me in the middle of the trail where I couldn’t do anything about it. I wondered and felt apprehensive.

When we reached the trailhead, we began gearing up, and I was able to take care of unresolved coffee business before getting on the trail, which made me feel a little better about starting out.

Ready(?!) to start the Via Ferrata

Tyler rigged up some ropes to mimic the steel cable we would be using and showed us how to clip in. The gate on one of the carabiners on my lanyard stuck a little, so Tyler swapped it for his. The lanyard is a device specifically made for via ferratas that connects your harness to the cable. If you fall, extra rope uncoils to prevent snapping of the rope or excessive shock to your body.

After our tutorial, we were ready to begin, and it got real.

The first bit of trail crossed a waterfall and went immediately up. So much for babying my knee. I had been acclimating to the altitude for a couple of days, but I was still huffing and puffing on this short but steep climb. Tyler asked how we felt when we reached the top and I replied “tired.”

Luckily, that was the most strenuous part. We looked out at awesome views of nearby Bridalveil Falls cascading down the opposite slope and the town of Telluride in the valley. It was incredible. Tyler reminded us that we could stop for views at any point, but while walking we had to watch our foot placement.

The path was narrow and had a lot of loose debris that we had to be careful not to knock over the edge onto rock climbers below.

We were outfitted with harnesses and lanyards with carabiners, but honestly, they were useless on 80% of the hike. The cables were only installed in the absolute most dangerous sections. That meant that if you weren’t careful of your footing, you actually could fall off the mountain.

I took this very seriously and was extra careful while walking. That also meant that I stopped for pictures every few minutes, making for a very slow hike.

The slow pace might be what saved my knee, because the technical terrain was certainly not sparing it. I couldn’t help but wonder when it would blow up and leave me limping, but it never did.

Around 12-12:30 we arrived at Kroger’s bench, a metal bench installed at the east end of the “main event” (the main event being the scary section with nothing but rungs to hold on to).

Here we stopped and snacked on trail mix and granola bars. GB and I snapped some pictures and chatted with other hikers. The guide checked his gear. I took off my rain jacket and stowed it in my pack, but I put it on again after seeing two guys come right back after starting because they needed an extra layer.

The main event rounded a curve, and the other side of the cliff, not yet touched by the sun, was wicked cold in the wind without a jacket. We enjoyed the views as we waited for the other hikers to suit up and get a head start.

When it was time for us to start, I was a little scared, but mostly just excited.

Tyler went first and demonstrated how to place your feet in the corners of the rungs for the most stability. I grabbed hold of the rungs and began making my way sideways.

It didn’t take me long to get really, really scared.

After about two or three moves to the left, the rungs dropped down several feet. For a split second I froze. GB later told me that there was one time when he could see fear in my face, and this was it. I watched Tyler move down with ease, but being 6 inches or so shorter than him, I had to reach further, and I couldn’t figure out how to shift my weight properly to do it. Talk about trial by fire. This was just the beginning of the scary stuff!

Tyler gave me some tips, and as I executed the moves with 400 feet of air below me, he said “That’s Contortion Corner.”

“Good name,” I thought. I grasped the next rungs, and I was more confident. The moves weren’t as tricky, and I was thankful to see that I was past the crux moves at the beginning of the route. Trial by fire, yes, but it wasn’t too much of a blaze.


I was still terrified, but I was actually able to concentrate pretty well. I slid the carabiners on the lanyard along the cable and found a stable position to hold on with one hand while moving the ‘biners over the bolt with the other hand.

Every once in a while I would doubt the traction of my shoes and rely extra hard on upper body strength. “Trust your feet” I reminded myself, as I so often do in the climbing gym. I wasn’t wearing rock shoes, though. For this adventure I had resurrected my Brooks Cascadia trail runners, which hadn’t seen the light of day since I wrecked my knee running a trail marathon in them 20 months earlier.

The Cascadias were a tad flexible for this activity. Light hiking shoes probably would have been better, but despite my doubts, the trail runners had plenty of traction.

I also had good traction with my hands thanks to lightly-padded cycling gloves (heavy padding would have been too bulky).  Knowing how sweaty my hands get, I didn’t want to risk slipping off the bar, and some half-finger gloves really did the trick.

I won’t pretend that I wasn’t scared. My legs were shaking around Contortion Corner, and I was vividly aware of the consequences of falling every time I looked down at the next rung to place my foot above the abyss.

For every bit of the main event, though, I was able to keep my head and appreciate the sheer awesomeness of it all. Looking past my feet to the valley floor hundreds of feet below me was unbelievably beautiful and both humbling and empowering at the same time.

This was not conquering the mountain. It was stepping up and attempting to be worthy of its harshness and ruthless grandeur. Because nature, by nature, is not calm or peaceful or benevolent.

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When we reached the end of the main event, we paused and took in what we had just done.  Had we been hiking the full Via Ferrata across the entire mountain face, we would have looked over our shoulders at the exposed wall and its rungs and then continued westward on the footpath. But the full Via Ferrata involved a lot of downhill hiking at the end. When I had booked the reservation, the owner of the guide company recommended only doing the half-day hike to make it easier on my knee.

So after the exhilaration of completing the main event, we went right back and did it again in the opposite direction. Not only was this ridiculously awesome, but the guide was able to take our pictures as we made our way back across the main event on our own.

When we all reached Kroger’s Bench again, Tyler opened up a black canister at the edge of the bench with a log book inside – the trail register. Every hiker who comes through should sign the register. GB wrote our names and a short message for himself. For me, in shaky adrenaline-fused print I wrote:

A badass librarian was here!

The rest of the hike was just as beautiful as it had been before, but all of my trepidation was gone, making it even more fun. I took more pictures than a hollywood paparazzi and practically glowed. And to top it off, my knee didn’t blow up. (It wasn’t perfect, but the “bad pain” I’m used to getting never materialized, and icing it back at the condo warded off any lasting pain.)

The end result? An awesome, awesome experience that ranks up there with running my first marathon (just without months of training or a lasting injury…).  My trip to Colorado was magical, as I expected, but the Via Ferrata was truly the “main event”.

 

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