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Livestock Stampedes on the Hill

Rope drops bring out the competitive bastards in all of us.

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It was probably the most frenzied scene I’ve witnessed in Telluride, and I’ve lived here almost 11 years. The chaos owed to several things. For one, it was 10 a.m. on a Saturday in January and no one was at work. Two, the skies had dumped two feet in the last 24 hours, and snow still pelted down. Three, and this had a lot to do with number two, patrol had roped off Upper Coonskin where it connects to Telluride Trail, blocking access to Chair 9 so patrollers could throw bombs.

Not one of the 60 or so skiers milling anxiously behind the rope could remember the last time patrol needed an extra hour beyond the 9 a.m. opening whistle to prepare the runs spilling down from Chair 9’s 11,890-foot apex. The higher, more slide-prone runs off Gold Hill? Sure. But not Chair 9. Over there, skier compaction usually handled the avalanche danger.

And the ropes were even more rare. They imbued skiers with a new, distinct feeling: We were corralled livestock. And someone was gonna get slaughtered.

I was sure the victim wouldn’t be me. While many skiers congregated near the trail sign the rope was tied to, several others and I sidestepped upward to skier’s right. Telluride Trail bends sharply right after 30 yards of Upper Coonskin, and this put us, I thought, in pole position.

People were yelling and hooting for the patroller to drop the rope. Others stomped their skis with nervous energy. In the elbowing, shoulder-to-shoulder lineup I saw defense-minded folks plant their poles right in front of their best friends’ crotches. No one conceded an inch.

Even when the goods aren’t so good, a rope barricade creates hysteria. Take Blue Mountain, Ontario, for instance. Blue Mountain is flat. Still, before a recent rope drop there, hordes of skiers waited. When the rope fell, they stampeded for what was under guard: fresh corduroy. People joined the herd simply because they thought they should. Then they chuckled at themselves the whole way down.

Above Upper Coonskin, no one laughed. We had to deal with the interminable delay, not to mention the snow, still dumping. I began adjusting my hood to stop the blizzard from freezing my neck. And that—gahhhh!—is when the patroller dropped the rope.

“Sweet Jesus!” I yelled, jumping in. I couldn’t see a thing. The hood covered my eyes. Beelining straight over invisible moguls, I pawed at my face. That launched my goggles off and sent them skittering onto the cat track. I was mortified. Suddenly, I was the weak cow to be culled from the herd.

In truth, there was so much carnage, so many collisions, on Upper Coonskin that retrieving my goggles set me back only a little. I boarded Chair 9 only four chairs behind my buddies. Still, I caught crap for my hood-and-goggle fiasco for the next three months.

Two days after the Chair 9 rope drop, I happened upon another one, this time accessing the stashes off Telluride’s summit, Gold Hill. No hood futzing for me anymore. I muscled my way up front, determined to use my football and rugby heritage to stay in the lead.

In addition to scores of locals, the Gold Hill rope drop frenzy contained a fair number of tourists. I saw a friend named Lou there. Lou had lived in Telluride for several seasons in the ’90s but spent many recent winters in Brooklyn. He was screwed.

When the rope fell, 20 of us charged in an elbow-throwing line straight down. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lou bury a tip, cartwheel through the powder, and get trampled by a local. I didn’t stop to help. Rope drops, like 60-degree steeps, are no-fall zones.

My K2 Coombas were nicely waxed, and my solid push out the gate netted me the second chair on Chair 14. I’m not sure, but I don’t think I ran over anyone. At one point, my knee was bounced violently upward by something firm under the snow. I believe it was a mogul, but perhaps it was a skull.