The fourth day of our southern Colorado trip was also our seventh wedding anniversary. Hubby and I have tried to make it a point to do an adventurous activity on or near our wedding anniversary date every year and we have done some pretty memorable activities: hiking a 14er in Colorado, kayaking 17 miles along Kauai’s Na’Pali Coast, hiking a steep trail to the Drangarnir sea stacks on the Faroe Islands, and most recently last year, completing a 22-mile hike and backpacking adventure on Hawaii’s Big Island. This year, we decided to hike/climb Telluride’s via ferrata!
Via ferrata is Italian for “iron path” and they are named accordingly for the metal ladder rungs that are placed on mountainside and rock face traverses and used for handholds and footing. There are many via ferratas worldwide and Telluride just happens to have one of the best ones in the United States that includes a jaw-dropping backdrop of the iconic and magnificent Bridal Veil Falls, as well as the famous and terrifyingly steep switchbacks of Black Bear Pass (a four-wheel drive dirt road).
Hubby and I both have indoor and outdoor rock climbing experience and already owned the necessary climbing harnesses and helmets, but we didn’t have the expensive, special via ferrata lanyard that was also needed and we weren’t quite familiar with the skills needed for this type of climbing. Furthermore, while I have been rock climbing for almost a decade since hubby introduced me to the sport in late 2011, getting to the top of a rock climbing route is still something that makes me incredibly nervous and a via ferrata includes nothing but scary heights! As such, we decided it was best that we hire a local guide (which included an equipment rental) to take us through the route and make me feel safe.
We met our guide at the earliest available time, 8:00 AM, to avoid heavy crowds and be socially-distanced from other climbers. After driving up several steep switchbacks on the Telluride side of Black Bear Pass (which required a 4WD vehicle during our visit due to one particular rut that even bamboozled our guide driving ahead of us in a truck), we parked and hoofed it up a few more switchbacks before reaching a random, unmarked switchback we would branch off of for the start of our via ferrata adventure.
Before the trip, I had second-guessed whether we really needed a guide or if we should have just put the money towards purchasing or renting the expensive lanyard; however, after starting our hike, I was immediately grateful we had hired a guide to not only teach us how to use the gear properly, but to simply show us the way.
The route started up a steep scramble with loose dirt and rocks, and even though we knew the trail must be close, no matter how much we eagerly scanned the landscape ahead of us trying to see what we were getting ourselves into, a trail was no where to be seen! A short while later after our brief scramble, a narrow, dusty trail suddenly appeared.
Even when we were finally staring at the start of the trail dead in the face, it was still impossible to tell exactly where the trail continued. Not far ahead of us, the trail dipped into the rocky mountainside and disappeared, only to be revealed for another short increment when we rounded the corner into the mountain. The trail followed this pattern throughout the entire via ferrata length, so we never really had much foresight into the adventure ahead and whether it was going to get more difficult or easier or just stay the same. Ironically, although we could rarely spot the trail ahead of us, sometimes we could look back on the trail we had just come from and with enough squinting, we could make out the tiny, winding via ferrata foot path situated uncomfortably close to the edge and just above the textured cliff band.
The first part of the route included mostly hiking on a very narrow trail that was mere inches from the cliff edge with no protection or gear. Hubby had no trouble with these sections since he surely must have part mountain goat in his blood, but I struggled with the hiking sections the most. You can bet I was down on all fours a few times doing the crab walk, despite being told exactly not to do this, but if I had “trusted” my nervous, jittery legs as the guide and hubby kept insisting I do, I feel pretty certain I wouldn’t be here telling this story.
The more exposed and slippery sections of the foot trail included cables where we would use our fancy via ferrata lanyards to clip in for extra safety. And the most technical sections of the via ferrata, where the foot path disappeared and climbing was necessary, included cables, natural rock for hand holds, and convenient metal ladder rungs to hold onto and stand on as we made our way horizontally across the mountain. The second half of the route included more climbing than hiking, but it was never too much climbing for us to be concerned with muscle fatigue.
The trail alternated between hiking and climbing, but the difficulty of it ended up being about the same the entire route. This was obviously a subjective rating based heavily on our hiking and rock climbing experience. If I had not been more accustomed to rock climbing, heights, and trusting the safety gear, I surely would have lost my mind during this adventure.
In fact, during our climb, our guide offered to take pictures of us so we could focus on and enjoy our climb. For the most part, I was so focused on being careful with my footing that I didn’t have much of a chance to look down and freak out. During one particular photo op, our guide took a picture of us from above and told us we could “look down later” to see how far up we were hanging off the cliff. Not wanting to wait to see the view in a photo later, I looked down immediately and surprisingly didn’t feel as nervous as I thought I would!
After about two hours of hiking and climbing on the via ferrata route, we were finally on solid trail again (i.e., not cliffside!) and headed back towards our vehicle without a scratch on us! The guide thought we had completed the route like rock stars and even recommended we try out a new via ferrata in the nearby town of Ouray. Sign us up!
In normal, non-pandemic times, it was optional to climb/hike the via ferrata back on the same route, but during our visit, climbers were only allowed to run the route in the standard direction (east to west) and had to take a separate foot trail back to the starting point. After completing the route ourselves, it was hard to imagine how climbers could be allowed to run the route in the opposite direction, regardless of a pandemic, because passing other individuals while hanging off a cliff would be mighty tricky and nerve racking!
We finished our activity shortly after 11:00 AM, which included a half hour to drive/walk up Black Bear Pass to get to the trail start, two hours for climbing/hiking the via ferrata itself, and another half hour to get from the end of the via ferrata back to our vehicle. Our early finish allowed us to complete the entire route in the cool morning shade (without bumping into any other visitors) and left us plenty of time in the day for more adventures on our anniversary!
During our via ferrata activity, we had noticed some waterfalls that were big enough to spot from our unique vantage point high up on the mountainside. We grilled our guide for more information on the waterfalls and found out that the waterfalls were further downstream from the iconic Bridal Veil Falls of Telluride and a trail to get to them was actually brand new this past season. We knew what was going to be next on our itinerary…after coffee, that is!
Bridal Veil Creek Trail was a quick, two-mile hike and the two waterfalls cascading down the textured rock was a spectacular sight up close, but the trailhead was also located [too] conveniently close to town, which meant it was packed with visitors during our August visit! We didn’t spend much time at the waterfalls before we headed back to town to refuel our bodies before yet another adventure for the day!
During one of our previous winter trips to Telluride for my birthday, we had accidentally stumbled upon some magical icy waterfalls on a trail just outside town. These frozen waterfalls were some of the first I had ever seen and since then, frozen waterfalls have become a new obsession of mine. We have seen these particular icy waterfalls near Telluride twice now in the winter, but never unfrozen because we are never around Telluride in the summer. We definitely had to take the opportunity to visit them during this trip, even if it meant having to squeeze them in as the third activity in one day!
There isn’t a very clear/official trail to the waterfalls and ironically, finding the waterfalls in the summer ended up being much more difficult than the winter. We treaded upstream climbing on top slippery, mossy boulders and over huge downed timber, only to realize once we were finally there, that there was a much easier route in and out of the canyon that we had never discovered in the winter.
Nonetheless, the arduous and somewhat dangerous trek paid off! Although we weren’t spending our anniversary in Hawaii like had done twice before, this little piece of paradise felt like Hawaii and it was right in our state’s backyard!
During our gondola ride back to our lodging that evening, it started to become pretty obvious from the glowing sunset that the wildfire smoke was not going to let up, and in fact, it was only going to get worse! Hubby was somehow not affected by the wildfire smoke, but my throat could not have felt worse after inhaling smoke all day from our three exhausting outdoor activities. This was not good news because the next day we had a very long and tough hike planned.