True Telluride

Features
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Features

This was to be the end, but it is not the end. It is the beginning. Deep in the pillows in the pre-dawn darkness, I hear the sound that gladdens the hearts, even the deep-sleeping hearts, of skiers. It is the sound of a snowplow. A big snowplow. Very big.You can judge the virility of a ski town's winters by the size of its snowplows. In diminutive Telluride, average snowplows don't cut it. Here they use machines as big as the houses.

The wished-for thing has come. At dawn more than a foot of new snow is on the January ground. The announcer on public radio station KOTO gives the good news over the bedside clock radio. His voice evinces a trace of glee: "Highway 145 over Lizard Head Pass is closed, and Red Mountain Pass is closed."

We will not be leaving today, after all. We're going skiing. Big time. In the 15 years I've been visiting Telluride, the wonder of the place has not diminished. If you drive Colorado Hwy. 145 over Lizard Head Pass on a winter evening, the experience is like winding your way into a secret redoubt. Clouds drift through the close, broad-shouldered peaks of the western San Juan Mountains. The 13,113-foot neck of Lizard Head Peak, a volcanic plug shaped like a chimney, pokes through the mists in the San Miguel massif. It appears and disappears in the evening sky like a dream remembered. As you descend into the hanging, glaciated San Miguel Valley, the westering sun kindles a glow upon the flanks of the Sneffels Range the color of melted strawberry ice cream. The spur into Telluride seems like a wrong turn. There are no fast food shops, no strip malls, no outlet stores, no neon signs. The bucolic, two-lane, dead-end road was given by the State of Colorado to the Town of Telluride, which didn't want state highway engineers overbuilding the approach route. It leads for 2 miles past wet meadows sprinkled with cottonwoods and willows. At its end, set like a jewel deep in the folds of 13,000-foot peaks, is Telluride, home to about 1,400 people.

Because the town was designated as a National Historic District in 1964, Telluride has largely avoided the excessive development and tasteless construction that characterizes too many ski resorts. Some architectural mistakes have been made, but the town exudes a pedestrian-friendly, Victorian mining town ambiance. It was a place built without automobiles, and it remains quintessentially functional for those on foot.

The ski resort opened in 1972 (six years before the last gold mine closed) and encompasses 1,050 acres. It climbs steeply up the conifer-draped, double-black slopes south of town to Coonskin Ridge, then folds over the ridge to the gentler, west-facing slopes above Mountain Village. While not the most euphoniously named community in Colorado, Mountain Village is the youngest, incorporated in 1995 (it was established in 1987). Today the Village is home to about 1,000 permanent residents.

Its architecture is derided by some Telluride locals as "Swiss Hopi," but Mountain Village will serve a critical function for Telluride: bed base. Construction has gone in fits and starts in the Village, which currently is booming. At buildout, Mountain Village is expected to offer about 9,000 guest pillows, almost twice the current inventory of Telluride and Mountain Village combined (now about 5,000 pillows). In 1996, Telluride Ski & Golf Co. (Telski) opened a $19 million gondola connecting Mountain Village, the top of the ski area and downtown Telluride. The gondola serves both as a ski lift and a free commuter service from dawn to well after dark; it cuts the travel time between the two towns in half (reducing it to 11 minutes) and has done much to nip parking and traffic problems in the bud.

The Village exudes the smell of new money; it's a bed-base ghetto for the rich that physically separates new construction from the historic town. Mountain Village did not come into being without its share of controversy; the town's charter allows non-resident operty owners to vote in Village elections. This is an unusual but not unknown arrangement whereby a second-home owner earns the right to vote in local elections in more than one place. Several full-time Village residents sued to have the charter overturned, but courts have upheld the buy-a-house, buy-a-vote arrangement.

Last March George Gillett, Jr., proprietor of Booth Creek Holdings (which operates 11 ski resorts), bought eight Mountain Village lots for $7.25 million from Telco, the development arm of the ski resort. Many locals expected Gillett to buy the resort next. Instead, he struck a deal with Hideo Morita, whose Netherlands firm Morita Investments International bought Gillett's eight lots in late April for an undisclosed sum and then bought Telco's remaining property, 14 lots, for another $12.4 million. Morita-son of Sony founder Akio Morita and a Beaver Creek investor since 1989-was expected to invest further as a joint venture partner in Telski over the summer.

"With all the changes they're doing this summer, I think it's going to be a heck of a ski area," said Gillett, the former owner of Vail. The fact that Telski owners Ron Allred and Jim Wells were looking for an investor was common knowledge. Now, Telluride's business community is cautiously optimistic about Morita's investment, and there is talk that Gillett may have a future ownership stake as well.

Telluride is small enough to walk across in 15 minutes, but you want to be wearing fleece-lined jeans when you do. The "jewel box," as miners called the twinkling town in the box canyon, is not for the faint of heart; winters in the 8,700-foot-high valley are long, dark and cold. Consequently, Telluride's attractive forces seem to pull strongest on those who view mountains as more than a pretty setting.

"In so many other resorts you've got rolling hills and sagebrush nearby," says Margaret Quenemoen, founder and president of The Jagged Edge, a Telluride mountaineering shop (one of four that cater to the vertically inclined). "Here you get a true alpine experience, and you get the real hardcore: lots of rock climbers, lots of extreme skiers and backcountry skiers.

"I would say the majority of the town, if they're not participating in an extreme sport, have in the past or will in the future. Everybody's at least hiking the peaks. If you're not involved in some kind of physical activity here, which is probably about 1 percent, there's no point in being here."

Telluride is home to Colorado's only heliskiing operation, Helitrax (owned by Telluride Outside). It's also in the heart of Colorado's ice-climbing country, and anchors backcountry hut systems that lead east to Ouray, Colo., and northwest to Moab, Utah. Runners and mountain bikers clamber over passes as high as 13,113 feet. Plenty of mountain towns are full of raccoon-tanned jocks, but Telluridians seem a little grubbier, a little less interested in finery and comfort, a little more committed to proving themselves against rock and ice.

Telluride experienced an Aspen echo in the early Nineties when celebrities such as Oliver Stone and Oprah Winfrey bought homes there. But those two and others have come and gone; Telluride has not taken off as the next Hollywood East. It remains high, cold and relatively hard to get to. Plenty of residents seem to like it that way.

For my first day of skiing I meet Telski communications manager Virginia Lucarelli, Peter Walker, manager of non-traditional mountain activities, and ski patroller Gerry Wilcox at the top of the ski area. The score to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 rings in my head as I take in the drama of the crenellated peaks circling the ski area to the south, east and north. To the west, 100 miles across the Uncompahgre Plateau, Utah's La Sal Mountains rise from beyond the horizon. A quick snowmobile tow from the 11,890-foot ski area summit, courtesy of the ski patrol, brings us to the 12,247-foot crest of Gold Hill. This is double-black, hike-to terrain. To the east lies the deep cleft of Bear Creek, a jagged slice ripped through the mountains. The route off the ski area into the OB terrain in Bear Creek was closed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1992 following the avalanche deaths of several skiers who had entered from Gold Hill's ridge. Several community groups, however, including the town government and San Miguel County Search & Rescue, agitated to re-open access via the ski area into Bear Creek-something the Forest Service agreed to do in June.

Shoestring-thin gullies drop through cliff bands on 12,804-foot Ballard Mountain, which lies on the opposite side of Bear Creek from the ski area. Peter points out several lines, noting they've all been skied by resident hard-core alpinists. From this perspective they appear absolutely vertical and seem to be about 6 feet across. "Anything that looks like a line, or that might traverse out to something, it's been skied," says Peter.

We turn our attention to the west and the steep slopes of Gold Hill. Once the patrollers have thrown their bombs, some of these runs can provide 1,000 vertical feet of uninterrupted fluff. Right now, in a dry January, the story's somewhat different.

"It's a little windblown," warns Gerry before traversing across the top of a funnel-shaped avalanche chute called Little Rose. He should have said, "It's a little like sheet steel." Despite having sharpened my edges the night before, I worry about losing my grip and taking a slide for life. A few desperate jump turns lead into soft snow, then softer snow still. We glide out a thousand feet below into Prospect Bowl, where Telski hopes to add 700 acres of terrain and raise its vertical drop from today's 3,522 feet to 4,010.

When that expansion will happen remains to be seen. Approval was granted by the U.S. Forest Service in 1996, then withdrawn when the agency was sued by an environmental group. A new expansion plan was granted in June, but opponents had until August to file new appeals. Telski officials are prepared for more legal challenges, in particular regarding lifts and trails proposed for old-growth forest in the western edge of the expansion area. Four new lifts were approved, including one yo-yo chair servicing an east-facing bite of upper Bear Creek. In addition, the feds OKed a new backcountry access point from the ski area into the upper reaches of Bear Creek.

The expansion will open up a half-score of west-facing avalanche chutes known as Gold Hill 1 through 10 for hike-to skiing. In addition, a number of hike-to and traverse-to lines beckon in the upper Prospect Bowl below the stunning, jagged crest of Palmyra Peak. One chute, Dihedral, offers 1,000 feet of continuous 45-degree slope.

Lower down in Prospect Bowl, intermediate trails and glades are planned through the spruce forests and across the rolling terrain of the bowl. Plenty of the town's skiers seem ready for an expansion. Said one old-timer: "It's time for the reality to catch up to the hype."

But Telluride is more than hype. Despite the uncertainty about expansion timing, Telski spent the summer of 1999 improving existing lifts. Lift 6 was re-aligned 700 feet to the south and now offloads higher up the Gold Hill ridge, making skiing there more accessible. The old, slow chairlifts 3 and 4 were removed, and a high-speed quad was installed along the Lift 4 alignment. The company is building an on-mountain restaurant, Club St. Sophia, located at the midway gondola stop on Coonskin Ridge. It is to open in summer 2000.

In the meantime, Telluride's real estate is booming. In 1998, Mountain Village tallied $127.6 million in real estate sales, up 37 percent from 1997. Telluride was up 31 percent, to $56.2 million. Judi Kiernan, whose company Telluride Consulting tracks the local real estate market, called 1998 "an all-time record year in dollar volume, with a compound growth rate in dollar volume over the past 10 years of 17 percent."

Tel hike-to terrain. To the east lies the deep cleft of Bear Creek, a jagged slice ripped through the mountains. The route off the ski area into the OB terrain in Bear Creek was closed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1992 following the avalanche deaths of several skiers who had entered from Gold Hill's ridge. Several community groups, however, including the town government and San Miguel County Search & Rescue, agitated to re-open access via the ski area into Bear Creek-something the Forest Service agreed to do in June.

Shoestring-thin gullies drop through cliff bands on 12,804-foot Ballard Mountain, which lies on the opposite side of Bear Creek from the ski area. Peter points out several lines, noting they've all been skied by resident hard-core alpinists. From this perspective they appear absolutely vertical and seem to be about 6 feet across. "Anything that looks like a line, or that might traverse out to something, it's been skied," says Peter.

We turn our attention to the west and the steep slopes of Gold Hill. Once the patrollers have thrown their bombs, some of these runs can provide 1,000 vertical feet of uninterrupted fluff. Right now, in a dry January, the story's somewhat different.

"It's a little windblown," warns Gerry before traversing across the top of a funnel-shaped avalanche chute called Little Rose. He should have said, "It's a little like sheet steel." Despite having sharpened my edges the night before, I worry about losing my grip and taking a slide for life. A few desperate jump turns lead into soft snow, then softer snow still. We glide out a thousand feet below into Prospect Bowl, where Telski hopes to add 700 acres of terrain and raise its vertical drop from today's 3,522 feet to 4,010.

When that expansion will happen remains to be seen. Approval was granted by the U.S. Forest Service in 1996, then withdrawn when the agency was sued by an environmental group. A new expansion plan was granted in June, but opponents had until August to file new appeals. Telski officials are prepared for more legal challenges, in particular regarding lifts and trails proposed for old-growth forest in the western edge of the expansion area. Four new lifts were approved, including one yo-yo chair servicing an east-facing bite of upper Bear Creek. In addition, the feds OKed a new backcountry access point from the ski area into the upper reaches of Bear Creek.

The expansion will open up a half-score of west-facing avalanche chutes known as Gold Hill 1 through 10 for hike-to skiing. In addition, a number of hike-to and traverse-to lines beckon in the upper Prospect Bowl below the stunning, jagged crest of Palmyra Peak. One chute, Dihedral, offers 1,000 feet of continuous 45-degree slope.

Lower down in Prospect Bowl, intermediate trails and glades are planned through the spruce forests and across the rolling terrain of the bowl. Plenty of the town's skiers seem ready for an expansion. Said one old-timer: "It's time for the reality to catch up to the hype."

But Telluride is more than hype. Despite the uncertainty about expansion timing, Telski spent the summer of 1999 improving existing lifts. Lift 6 was re-aligned 700 feet to the south and now offloads higher up the Gold Hill ridge, making skiing there more accessible. The old, slow chairlifts 3 and 4 were removed, and a high-speed quad was installed along the Lift 4 alignment. The company is building an on-mountain restaurant, Club St. Sophia, located at the midway gondola stop on Coonskin Ridge. It is to open in summer 2000.

In the meantime, Telluride's real estate is booming. In 1998, Mountain Village tallied $127.6 million in real estate sales, up 37 percent from 1997. Telluride was up 31 percent, to $56.2 million. Judi Kiernan, whose company Telluride Consulting tracks the local real estate market, called 1998 "an all-time record year in dollar volume, with a compound growth rate in dollar volume over the past 10 years of 17 percent."

Telluride's boom has meant better places to stay in recent years. The $4.2 million, 21-room Hotel Columbia opened in 1996, setting the Telluride standard for luxury. In 1997, the elegantly spartan, $11 million Camel's Garden Hotel opened its doors to 31 rooms, and last March the opulent 32-room Inn at Lost Creek opened in Mountain Village. All three hotels cluster around the two bases of the gondola, which has proved wildly popular as public transportation.

The boom imperils the pristine valley floor surrounding the uncluttered entrance to Telluride. Residential development by the landowner, San Miguel Valley Corp., appears likely, but when, and in what form, remains unknown.

Despite its flashes of luxury, however, Telluride often feels like a throwback to the Seventies version of a ski town: Locals, many in their twenties, live in Gore-Tex and polypro for months on end. At Leimgruber's Bar on West Pacific Avenue they laugh over glasses of wickedly potent Paulaner Salvator Ale. The truly connected have their names written on one of the 100 personal mugs hanging over the bar.

These clichéd images of an old-style ski town are notable for their rarity when you see them in Aspen or Vail. In Telluride, the cliché isn't cute, it's real. Everyone owns a dog; at least one in five people is dreadlocked; and the town's navel is The Steaming Bean, an exceedingly groovy coffeehouse on Colorado Avenue. Residents do business face-to-face by walking down Colorado and running into their colleagues. Range Rovers are rare. The only fur store opened in the mid-Eighties and failed (its goods were stolen and deposited in the Free Box for the taking).

Everyone is ridiculously friendly, too-until it snows. Then the true nature of the Telluridian shows its face, and people become competitive. Nice, yes, but get out of my line.

On the day of our aborted departure hundreds of locals lined up outside the gondola and the maze into Lift 8. Snow poured from the sky; the tension was palpable. "Which lift?" people wondered aloud. Which lift would get them to the greatest snow before everyone else?

My wife and I crammed into a gondola car with six others, including Tony Daranyi, then publisher of the Telluride Daily Planet. "God, I hope I made the right decision," Daranyi fretted. "I gave up a really good place in the Lift 8 line." We exploded out of the gondola station onto Coonskin Ridge and raced to clip into our bindings. Daranyi vanished into the storm, cursing about Lift 9 opening unexpectedly. We turned into the big bumps of Coonskin. The icy humps of the previous three days were supplanted by pillows of snow knee deep, sometimes thigh deep. I careened through sheets of powder, drinking in mouthfuls of snow, hardly bothering to turn.

There was tangible joy amid the dark shapes cutting lines down the slope, the same joy that comes to farmers standing in a soaking rain at the end of a long drought. Yet there was something more. As the snow fell at the rate of an inch an hour, hour after hour, there was a sense of awe, and of great privilege.

We skied until we couldn't ski any longer, and then skied some more. In the end I was down to six-turns-and-stop, six-turns-and-stop. My wife dragged her demo skis back to the shop and turned them in. The ski tech, a dead ringer for a circa 1971 Paul Simon, appeared insulted. "What are you doing, dude?" he demanded. "Tomorrow's going to be just as good!"

Telluride's boom has meant better places to stay in recent years. The $4.2 million, 21-room Hotel Columbia opened in 1996, setting the Telluride standard for luxury. In 1997, the elegantly spartan, $11 million Camel's Garden Hotel opened its doors to 31 rooms, and last March the opulent 32-room Inn at Lost Creek opened in Mountain Village. All three hotels cluster around the two bases of the gondola, which has proved wildly popular as public transportation.

The boom imperils the pristine valley floorr surrounding the uncluttered entrance to Telluride. Residential development by the landowner, San Miguel Valley Corp., appears likely, but when, and in what form, remains unknown.

Despite its flashes of luxury, however, Telluride often feels like a throwback to the Seventies version of a ski town: Locals, many in their twenties, live in Gore-Tex and polypro for months on end. At Leimgruber's Bar on West Pacific Avenue they laugh over glasses of wickedly potent Paulaner Salvator Ale. The truly connected have their names written on one of the 100 personal mugs hanging over the bar.

These clichéd images of an old-style ski town are notable for their rarity when you see them in Aspen or Vail. In Telluride, the cliché isn't cute, it's real. Everyone owns a dog; at least one in five people is dreadlocked; and the town's navel is The Steaming Bean, an exceedingly groovy coffeehouse on Colorado Avenue. Residents do business face-to-face by walking down Colorado and running into their colleagues. Range Rovers are rare. The only fur store opened in the mid-Eighties and failed (its goods were stolen and deposited in the Free Box for the taking).

Everyone is ridiculously friendly, too-until it snows. Then the true nature of the Telluridian shows its face, and people become competitive. Nice, yes, but get out of my line.

On the day of our aborted departure hundreds of locals lined up outside the gondola and the maze into Lift 8. Snow poured from the sky; the tension was palpable. "Which lift?" people wondered aloud. Which lift would get them to the greatest snow before everyone else?

My wife and I crammed into a gondola car with six others, including Tony Daranyi, then publisher of the Telluride Daily Planet. "God, I hope I made the right decision," Daranyi fretted. "I gave up a really good place in the Lift 8 line." We exploded out of the gondola station onto Coonskin Ridge and raced to clip into our bindings. Daranyi vanished into the storm, cursing about Lift 9 opening unexpectedly. We turned into the big bumps of Coonskin. The icy humps of the previous three days were supplanted by pillows of snow knee deep, sometimes thigh deep. I careened through sheets of powder, drinking in mouthfuls of snow, hardly bothering to turn.

There was tangible joy amid the dark shapes cutting lines down the slope, the same joy that comes to farmers standing in a soaking rain at the end of a long drought. Yet there was something more. As the snow fell at the rate of an inch an hour, hour after hour, there was a sense of awe, and of great privilege.

We skied until we couldn't ski any longer, and then skied some more. In the end I was down to six-turns-and-stop, six-turns-and-stop. My wife dragged her demo skis back to the shop and turned them in. The ski tech, a dead ringer for a circa 1971 Paul Simon, appeared insulted. "What are you doing, dude?" he demanded. "Tomorrow's going to be just as good!"