Escape From Purgatory

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Escape From Purgatory

When I was about 9, I would ache so much to get out skiing that I couldn't wait for my mother to get the car started in the morning. I'd shoulder my skis and walk to the lifts, beating the family by all of, say, 15 minutes.

When my first love broke my teen-age heart, I headed straight for the mountain and skied double-diamonds until my quads hurt more than my heart. If skiing could hurt me more, I must love it more. To hell with him.

More recently, when overwhelmed by the weight of adult life-work, deadlines, relationships, parenting-I fled to the mountain. First run, the weight lifted. The snow insulated me. And for a day, I was without state. I was of mountain.

Such connection to a sport, you would think, could never waver. But for a time in my early 30s, it did. I found myself always waiting: for the right snow, the right day, the right light, the right run. I let my ski infrastructure slip. I lagged in updating my equipment. My edging got soggy, and I no longer jumped for powder days. I went into a kind of skier purgatory-a place of temporary suffering, just outside what you know as Heaven.

It can happen to ski resorts, too. Take Purgatory, which opened 35 years ago near Durango, Colo. The resort has always held promise-and magic. Tucked into the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, not far from Telluride and Wolf Creek, it is a place where mountains, mesas and canyons collide in one amazing setting. The ski area itself is a ridge that goes on and on, surrounded on three sides by peaks that put the rest of the Rockies to shame. Its glacier-carved "benches" are a natural terrain park, giving the resort more than 2,000 vertical feet of inspiring steeps and rolls. The visuals alone are worth a trip, just for the way the San Juans jut and soar. The Needle Range and Engineer Mountain toss up cragged edges and catch the light in ways that change from moment to moment, surrounding Purgatory with an IMAX film of natural wonders.

It's a lot for a mountain to offer, and Ray Duncan, the resort's original owner, had grand visions of its future when he invested a portion of his Oklahoma oil fortune to open it in the mid-Sixties. The first two decades went well, as Purgatory built a solid following-drawing from the regional market and from Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico-and a reputation as a pleasant, unpretentious resort. Skier days nudged toward the 300,000 mark, and the future looked bright.

Then, just as Duncan launched an ambitious makeover intended to turn Purgatory into a classy national destination, the price of oil plummeted in the mid-Eighties: bad news not only for him, but for Purgatory's oil-state customers as well.

As the recession set in, skier days went flat, marketing efforts withered and capital improvements fell off pace. While other resorts high-speed detached their brains out in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Purgatory's lifts aged. Lodging remained dormant. The restaurants grew kitschy. If a mountain could grow a paunch, Purgatory would have.

In this climate, relations between the mountain and the Durango community grew strained. When the latest CEO, Vern Greco, departed two years ago, the Ska Brewery toasted his departure with a commemorative batch: Adios Vern Ale.

But now, under ambitious new ownership and a new name, the resort that was Purgatory shows new signs of life. It'll have to spruce up and work hard to be the promising place it was 35 years ago, but it appears to have resolved to do so. A visit this past spring showed all it has to offer and what it plans to do to woo skiers out of their own mid-ski-life crises and back, along with the mountain, to a true celebration of what skiing is about.

It's late March, and while other ski resorts are winding down, Purgatory has just had four days of snow. It's as inviting as a ski morning can be, with glistening sunshine and copious powder. First run, on the advice (unsolicited) of the guy who tuned my skis (these folks love to she their mountain), I head to Catharsis, where there's fresh corduroy. Catharsis, a black-diamond run on the east-facing Frontside section of the mountain, is a carnival ride that pitches me straight down its 45-degree incline and then, as if laughing, rolls me back upward for a moment. I catch my breath in relief, but just as I've eased off my edge it tosses me again, downward, repeating this over and over until I'm laughing, breathless at the end of a heck of a run. Some warmup, I think.

I head back up Frontside again, this time with new resort Senior Vice President Bob Kunkel. Kunkel is a former Vail Resorts executive whom the new majority owner, Charles Cobb, has brought in to direct the makeover. He'll work with CEO Gary Derck, who also oversees another Cobb property, California's Kirkwood Mountain Resort, and who is charged with the development of high-end real estate at Purgatory.

The first move seems to be hurting long-timers the most: They're changing the name. Oh, not really changing, Kunkel says; more like adjusting. The new name, Durango Mountain Resort, attempts to encompass the whole picture-the mountain, the town and the rich surrounding landscape. The base area will still be known as Purgatory Village, and the new high-speed six-pack, debuting this winter, will be called the Purgatory Village Express.

Though old-timers dislike the name change-and are quick to say so-Kunkel firmly believes it's the right move. "If you check the maps, the peak was never actually named," he says. The name Purgatory was drawn from the nearby Animas River (animas means "lost souls") and the Purgatory Creek that runs off it. Kunkel insists rumors that the name change was to ease the worries of church groups who flock here from the Southwest are not true. And there are plenty of mountains, he notes, with more than one name. Aspen comes to mind.

Abandoning that line of thought, Kunkel exits the chair and leads me directly to the Legends area, located on the Backside section of the mountain. It faces north, so on this spring morning the snow is still cold. Kunkel leads, carving down Chet's Run on some crazy new Elan shorties. I follow on my K2 mid-fats, and we're both howling along. Kunkel hoots, and I join in, singing at the top of my lungs, taking in the tall Colorado Engelmanns and the bright southwest sun. I'm 18 again. And soon, Kunkel believes, the mountain will be, too.

The runs won't change, he says, and they really don't need to. I loved the steeps and rolls of Frontside, but I'm beginning to see why Kunkel likes Legends. The sun has just softened Sally's Run, and as we take it on, beams of golden light are filtering through the pines. The snow is glistening fresh, as if we're the first to ever ski there. The air is warm, but not soggy. At the bottom, Kunkel heads off to a meeting, and I hop on the Legends triple, head back up and then cut back down toward the Hermosa Park area, still on the Backside. There, I take the Grizzly double to the top. As it lumbers through the quiet, I think about the changes to come.

Kunkel has laid out the real estate plan. Up first-debuting next year, though sales of it will commence this season-will be the new 14-unit ElkPoint townhome project, just east of the new six-pack lift. There'll be more later-as many as 2,000 units at build-out-stretching across the mountain's flat and roomy base area. Permits are already in place, and the land is privately owned. But the resort won't rush it.

The existing base area will change, too. Already spruced up with new brick walkways, by next year it will have better restaurants and shopping and a new lodge. Up top, the Café de los Piños has already been transformed into a combination art-gallery/restaurant, displaying local work from the famed Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango. "I want it to be, like, 'Am I eating in a gallery, or am I looking at artwork in a restaurant?'" Kunkel says. Powderhouse, an older restaurant up top, has been redecorated as well, with historic paraphernalia from Purgatory's past-both skiing and mining.

Lifts will be updated, too, and this, I think, should be the mantra: Improve, grow and modernize, but keep a curmudgeonly double here and there. Ironically, one of the beautiful things about Purgatory's stagnation through the boom time is that the old magic of skiing was preserved. Not that I don't worship a high-speed quad on a cold powder day, but I also enjoy the romance of a slow, lumbering double, my burning legs resting, my face and soul soaking in the mountain aura. Durango Mountain Resort sounds great, but I beseech them: Don't change completely.

Durango rocks. About a half-hour drive and just over 2,000 vertical feet lower than the ski area, it's a true Western town, not a movie set. Settled by prospectors in the 1880s, it grew naturally. Original buildings remain, such as the wondrous Strater Hotel and the shops and houses of the historic-preservation district on Main Street. The town is filled with excellent restaurants and cool stores (including a real hunting store and the original Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory shop). And thanks to the lower elevation, it's always warmer here than at the mountain: Folks are wearing summer clothes, despite the completely white peaks rising behind them.

I start out with a slow-pulled draught beer at Diamond Belle, a ragtime barroom inside the Strater. It's a must for any visit. The music is live, the waiters dress their parts, and the folks are friendly. One guy actually says "durn tootin'" to me. For a moment, I'm in a turn-of-the-century boomtown saloon.

I head to dinner at The Palace, where Paul Gelose (Oprah's personal chef) runs the show. The meal is sublime. Fueled by a good red wine, I pop through a few shops and then head back up toward the ski area to take on the place locals have told me I mustn't miss-The Olde Schoolhouse, about a half-mile from the resort.

It's a dive, to be polite. And the moment I walk in the door, everyone knows I'm there. I find a stool, order a draught, and from either side of me, local men lean in. One fingers my wedding band and sighs. Another leans close, takes in my figure and says, with deep meaning, "I hate thin women." It doesn't work. Still, by the end of the night, the guys are my pals. We play a little poker, and I spring for the tab. There are five of us drinking draughts at a pretty quick clip, but hey, I figure I can swing it. The tab is $19. I've paid that for one martini.

I take the Purgatory Shuttle back to the hill and crash. The town was terrific, but here's a challenge for Kunkel: better shuttles. My only option is renting a car or limiting my comings and goings to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

I'm in love with cat skiing, and, lucky for me, the San juan ski Company has a spot for me. I return to the demo shop and trade my mid-fats for fats. The same guy helps me, this time wearing an arm sling. "Catharsis got me," he winces.

I join my group-eight clients, three guides-and we ride a short chair to where the cat awaits. The ride out to "Annie's Hill" is about an hour long, but when we get there, I understand why a snowcat full of Telluride residents finds this worth the two-hour trip to Durango. The vistas are amazing and the terrain is as varied as anywhere on earth. There's plenty of snow, and though the "San Juan cement" has set up here and there, our guides know where the good is.

I look out over the ledge to where we'll take our warmup run and breathe deep. I may have been in skier purgatory, but now I'm back.

I smile, suck in the clean air and launch into what I know will be the perfect run. But I choke. My skis won't turn. The snow is crunchy and difficult. I get tight. I lean wrong. I crash and crash and worst of all, I begin to doubt.

Finally down (thank goodness), I hop in the cat and sit one out. Next run, one of the guides, Tim, comes to me and promises he can get me going again. He leads me and two other strugglers ed as well, with historic paraphernalia from Purgatory's past-both skiing and mining.

Lifts will be updated, too, and this, I think, should be the mantra: Improve, grow and modernize, but keep a curmudgeonly double here and there. Ironically, one of the beautiful things about Purgatory's stagnation through the boom time is that the old magic of skiing was preserved. Not that I don't worship a high-speed quad on a cold powder day, but I also enjoy the romance of a slow, lumbering double, my burning legs resting, my face and soul soaking in the mountain aura. Durango Mountain Resort sounds great, but I beseech them: Don't change completely.

Durango rocks. About a half-hour drive and just over 2,000 vertical feet lower than the ski area, it's a true Western town, not a movie set. Settled by prospectors in the 1880s, it grew naturally. Original buildings remain, such as the wondrous Strater Hotel and the shops and houses of the historic-preservation district on Main Street. The town is filled with excellent restaurants and cool stores (including a real hunting store and the original Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory shop). And thanks to the lower elevation, it's always warmer here than at the mountain: Folks are wearing summer clothes, despite the completely white peaks rising behind them.

I start out with a slow-pulled draught beer at Diamond Belle, a ragtime barroom inside the Strater. It's a must for any visit. The music is live, the waiters dress their parts, and the folks are friendly. One guy actually says "durn tootin'" to me. For a moment, I'm in a turn-of-the-century boomtown saloon.

I head to dinner at The Palace, where Paul Gelose (Oprah's personal chef) runs the show. The meal is sublime. Fueled by a good red wine, I pop through a few shops and then head back up toward the ski area to take on the place locals have told me I mustn't miss-The Olde Schoolhouse, about a half-mile from the resort.

It's a dive, to be polite. And the moment I walk in the door, everyone knows I'm there. I find a stool, order a draught, and from either side of me, local men lean in. One fingers my wedding band and sighs. Another leans close, takes in my figure and says, with deep meaning, "I hate thin women." It doesn't work. Still, by the end of the night, the guys are my pals. We play a little poker, and I spring for the tab. There are five of us drinking draughts at a pretty quick clip, but hey, I figure I can swing it. The tab is $19. I've paid that for one martini.

I take the Purgatory Shuttle back to the hill and crash. The town was terrific, but here's a challenge for Kunkel: better shuttles. My only option is renting a car or limiting my comings and goings to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

I'm in love with cat skiing, and, lucky for me, the San juan ski Company has a spot for me. I return to the demo shop and trade my mid-fats for fats. The same guy helps me, this time wearing an arm sling. "Catharsis got me," he winces.

I join my group-eight clients, three guides-and we ride a short chair to where the cat awaits. The ride out to "Annie's Hill" is about an hour long, but when we get there, I understand why a snowcat full of Telluride residents finds this worth the two-hour trip to Durango. The vistas are amazing and the terrain is as varied as anywhere on earth. There's plenty of snow, and though the "San Juan cement" has set up here and there, our guides know where the good is.

I look out over the ledge to where we'll take our warmup run and breathe deep. I may have been in skier purgatory, but now I'm back.

I smile, suck in the clean air and launch into what I know will be the perfect run. But I choke. My skis won't turn. The snow is crunchy and difficult. I get tight. I lean wrong. I crash and crash and worst of all, I begin to doubt.

Finally down (thank goodness), I hop in the cat and sit one out. Next run, one of the guides, Tim, comes to me and promises he can get me going again. He leads me and two other strugglers to a gentler incline where the snow is light and the trees are sparse. I find myself again. The turns begin to connect, and by the end of the run, I'm back.

Despite the moments of doubt, the day ends up being exciting, challenging, therapeutic, exhausting, cleansing-all I've found the sport of skiing to be since I was that 9-year-old champing at the bit.

And there-for skiers and resorts that have ever wavered-is the lesson: All the new equipment, renewed dedication and desire in the world won't keep you from encountering a few glitches upon your return. To those looking for Purgatory/Durango Mountain Resort to prosper: Be patient, and like Tim the snowcat guide, nudge it along in a positive way. In the dictionary, "Purgatory" falls just before "purity." To move beyond Purgatory, one must be willing to update, push harder and face the new without trepidation. And there, on the other side of Purgatory, you'll find the heaven that is ski purity.

I know. It happened to me.ers to a gentler incline where the snow is light and the trees are sparse. I find myself again. The turns begin to connect, and by the end of the run, I'm back.

Despite the moments of doubt, the day ends up being exciting, challenging, therapeutic, exhausting, cleansing-all I've found the sport of skiing to be since I was that 9-year-old champing at the bit.

And there-for skiers and resorts that have ever wavered-is the lesson: All the new equipment, renewed dedication and desire in the world won't keep you from encountering a few glitches upon your return. To those looking for Purgatory/Durango Mountain Resort to prosper: Be patient, and like Tim the snowcat guide, nudge it along in a positive way. In the dictionary, "Purgatory" falls just before "purity." To move beyond Purgatory, one must be willing to update, push harder and face the new without trepidation. And there, on the other side of Purgatory, you'll find the heaven that is ski purity.

I know. It happened to me.