Charles Frederick “Chuck” Kroger was a pioneering climber, ultra runner, cyclist, master craftsman, and mountain renaissance man – a jack of all trades and master of many.
Born on December 1, 1946, Kroger grew up in Kalispell, Montana, where his love for the outdoors took hold. While at Stanford University, Kroger became a member of the elite Stanford Alpine Club, serving as its president in 1968-69. Known as the “college boy climbers,” Kroger and his friends spent weekends at Yosemite’s famed Camp 4, often besting the full-time climber residents of the camp when Yosemite was the center of America’s big wall rock climbing world.
He was the first person to climb four routes on El Capitan in a single season, 1968-69, including the North America Wall, considered one of the most difficult climbs in the world at the time. He also put up a first ascent of the iconic Heart Route in 1970.
Kroger worked at Great Pacific Ironworks, the California climbing equipment company that was the precursor to Patagonia for about a year. He also worked for climbing legend Raffi Bedayn, who owned a construction company that would hire itinerant climbers, fully expecting and encouraging them to take extended vacations to travel and climb. Bedayn’s embrace of a free-spirited lifestyle impressed Kroger and shaped his own business philosophy when he ran a construction company years later.
Climbing expeditions took Kroger all over the world: the Alps, South America, Alaska and the Soviet Union. But it was his love for hiking in the canyons of the American West that led him to cross paths with his future wife, Kathy Green. Green was working as a ranger in the Grand Canyon when Kroger came to her to request a permit. The couple married and soon found themselves driving into the tiny southwestern Colorado town of Telluride in late September with blazing aspen leaves and bright blues skies. It was 1979.
In the days before nail guns, the sound of hammering filled the air and Kroger and Green knew they had come to the right place. They wanted to build houses and the burgeoning Telluride Ski Resort meant there would be plenty of work for them.
Although he had chosen a home, Kroger didn’t exactly settle down. He worked as a guide in South American, a shrimp farmer in Mexico, and spent six winters working as a snowmobile mechanic in Antarctica. But at age 33 and in the midst of planning to climb the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. After eight months of radiation, Kroger was well again, but was left with permanent side effects and so scrapped his high-altitude goals. The cancer, he believed, was a blessing.
“He credited the cancer with saving his life,” Green said. “Cancer saved him from a death on the peaks.”
Kroger turned his attention to other hobbies. He taught himself how to weld and created custom rail bikes, which could be ridden on train tracks. Along with Green and friend Ron Gilmer, he started BONE (Back of Nowhere Engineering) Construction. They hosted – and employed – traveling climbers, kayakers and adventurers looking for a seasonal stopover in Telluride. Carrying on the Raffi Bedayn tradition, Kroger taught them carpentry and welding and the art of balancing a trade with mountain passions.
Kroger was always up for a huge day in the mountains and regularly climbed the 14ers in his backyard of the San Juan Mountains. To summit a peak by fair means meant getting to the trailhead by a self-propelled method, like biking. He began participating in 10Ks, marathons, and the Imogene Pass Run. When the organizers of the Hardrock 100 consulted him about installing ropes on a particularly steep and often snowy section of course, Kroger became interested in the race. He manned the Hardrock’s aid station at Virginius Pass and was inspired to sign up, eventually completing the 100-miler six times, the first when he was 53 years old. Virginius Pass now bears the unofficial name of “Kroger’s Canteen,” with a tiny bottle of Sauza tequila to revive weary runners tucked into a hand-crafted metal sign bolted to the rock wall.
Green is not sure when exactly Kroger noticed a break in the horizontal rock layers beneath Ajax Peak at the end of Telluride’s box canyon. But he realized the narrow rock ledge, which slants toward the abyss, would be the perfect site to construct a via ferrata. Modeled after routes in the Dolomites, via ferrata means iron road in Italian.
“Chuck got obsessed with building a via ferrata,” Green said. “He thought he should put those amenities in his backyard.”
Kroger and Green crafted the two sets of metal rungs – one for hands and one for feet – in their basement and then screwed them into the boulders, creating a traverse with sweeping views of the Telluride valley and its waterfalls. Kroger, always one for flouting authority, had built the route illegally on public land. A well-kept secret for years, the now-wildly popular traverse has been climbed by more than 6,000 people, according to the Telluride Mountain Club, which oversees the management of the route. It’s sometimes called the “Krogerata” in homage to the legendary climber.
Unfortunately, Kroger’s second brush with cancer was not as lucky as his first. After dropping from the Hardrock in 2007 due to exhaustion, he saw a doctor and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. Kroger died on Christmas Day 2007.
But his spirit lives on high in the hills surrounding Telluride. Metal signs with cut-in letters created by Kroger can be found on trails at McCarron Junction, Deer Trail, Clay Way and other places off the beaten path. Hikers have to slow down and be attentive to their surroundings to spot them.
“It’s like ‘Where’s Waldo,’” Green said. “They blend in really well. It’s very subtle. That’s what he liked.”