Southern Comfort: Telluride

It isn’t the alps, but it sure feels like it. Big mountain. Quaint village. Great food. The works.
400-acre Revelation Bowl

Forgive me for thinking I’m in Europe. Above timberline on a sharp ridge, I’m huffing up a bombproof steel staircase that evokes flights climbed in Verbier and Chamonix. Alpine bowls yawn below both sides of the ridge and promise big turns on ungroomed snow. My skis are French, my bindings Swiss, my boots Italian. Then again, no cigarette butts litter the staircase. No one’s wearing a one-piece. And a red-rock desert shimmers off to the west. There’s certainly no ski area in the Alps with a view like this. Since I’m looking at the Utah Canyonlands, I must be in far western Colorado. Telluride, to be precise, which I’ve called home since 1998. Back when I moved here, Telluride skied small and American, with a vertical drop you could find in New England. Trees marched all the way to the lift-served apex. The skiable acreage hovered around 1,000 then; it’s since doubled to 2,000. Management and the Forest Service spent the past decade christening new lifts and opening alpine terrain. Now the highest lift tops out at 12,570 feet (higher than all but two others in North America), and anyone with the lungs for it can hike even higher—to a sky-scratching 13,150 feet on Palmyra Peak. From there, the drop to town runs an Arlberg-like 4,425 feet. The Gold Hill Stairs I’m climbing were installed (airlifted into place by a massive helicopter) in spring 2010, easing access to previously hard-to-reach, double-black-diamond Gold Hill Chute 9. I’m hardly the only one experiencing Alps déjà vu here. Whether we asked for it or not, Telluriders now see, on a regular basis, lederhosen. It’s what the waitstaff wears at Alpino Vino, the rifugio/wine bar perched on the resort’s eastern boundary. On days like this, when sun pours through hazeless Four Corners skies, the deck at Alpino Vino resounds with giddy laughter, clinking glasses and the crunch of antipasto-topped crackers. No doubt friends are enjoying a good time there right now. Without me. So I move quickly when I reach the mouth of Gold Hill Chute 9. I unsheathe my skis, lay them as level as possible on the steep pitch and click in. The chute is controlled for avalanches and patrolled, so I don’t need a transceiver, a shovel or even a partner. Just guts. I whipsaw tight turns in the 30-foot-wide crux of the upper chute, barely skirting rock ramparts guarding either wall. The lower part spreads wider, though you’d hardly call it an apron. I execute bigger, more confident turns all the way down to the Gold Hill Express chair…and the four-minute ride to Alpino Vino. A stunning blonde in a St. Pauli Girl dirndl steers me to a sun-drenched table. Soon I’m stripped down to my baselayer, reconnecting with the nice Italian blanco I sipped on my last two visits to Alpino Vino. I know that last sentence sounds foofy and will make some Telluride hardcores squirm. But not the ones who’ve skied the Alps, where midday wine is as accepted as a gondola toke in the American West. The Europeanization of Telluride is no accident. Telluride Ski & Golf CEO Dave Riley makes regular visits to ski areas across the pond. From the cradles of downhill skiing came Riley’s inspirations for an on-slope rifugio, the Gold Hill Stairs and bold openings of alpine terrain (Gold Hill Chutes 1 through 10, for instance, as well as Revelation Bowl and Electric Shock). While Telluride has witnessed an infusion of luxury lodgings and day spas, it remains the odd, funky outpost I sought as home following seven traffic-choked years in antiseptic Orange County, Calif. Thirty-nine miles from the nearest traffic light, Telluride lies a good 90 minutes of 15-mph curves away from the next-nearest chairlift (the sole double at Silverton). Telluride couldn’t be more remote. It’s closer to Albuquerque than to Denver and offers easier access to the dirt roads of the Uncompahgre Plateau than to I-70. Compared to other Colorado resorts, which sit just a valley or mountain pass away from one another, Telluride has grown up alone. And like an only child, it has reached adulthood as a thoroughly independent individual. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about it. While tolerance is valued at most ski areas, it seems more prevalent in Telluride. Cowboys get along with Rastafarians, who live with trust-funders, who buy tickets to the movies made by part-time residents Tom Cruise and other celebrities, who—or, more accurately, whose caretakers—ride lifts with woods-dwelling transients. The hippies who pad down the town’s streets have been known to put off visitors because they don’t look like Barbie and Ken dolls. But remember that Barbie and Ken’s dream world is made of plastic, and that’s about the last word you’d use to describe Telluride. Founded in 1878 by rowdy gold and silver miners, Telluride didn’t close its last bordello till 1959. It retains its Victorian architecture and Old West vibe so well it qualifies as a National Historic District. Visitors are reminded (too often) that Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here. The skiing remains rowdy as well. My buddies and I usually work the high-speed quads serving advanced terrain in Prospect Bowl till they close at 3:15, then head for classic frontside drops like Mammoth, Spiral Stairs or Kant-Mak-M, so named because turning is next to impossible on the steep, thigh-high moguls. When we reach the junction at Bushwacker (always groomed) and Lower Plunge (always bumpy), we usually take the latter. I’d like to blast down Bushwacker more than we do, but that’s apparently not an option with hardcores who live and train at 8,750 feet. Like Chamonix, Telluride boasts lots of paragliders and lots of machismo. Oh well. I like Lower Plunge; it’s an enduring favorite of locals and tourists alike. From Plunge, you can look across the box canyon carved by the San Miguel River at a 40-foot waterfall. The National Historic District gleams directly below. I can peer between my ski tips at my condo. I bought it back when Telluride skied more like Vermont than Verbier, and it’s pretty much the smartest thing I’ve ever done. ●