Telluride's Time - Ski Mag

Telluride's Time

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Telluride 1205

You could see this one developing rom a long way off, but it unfolded slowly, as if it were happening underwater. The yahoo from one of the other heliski groups who kept bombing down the mountain, ignoring his guide, caught a fat tip in some windslab, ending up so far forward, with one ski behind him, that he was doomed. It was karma coming right back at him. There was nothing he could do but plant his face and cartwheel.

Watching the crash play out in such slo-mo detail and with such inevitability is like other moments of heightened clarity you experience in the mountains around Telluride, where it always seems as if you can see sharper, farther and deeper. That's how it is at the end of the day, too, as we're choppering out of Yankee Boy Basin, cresting one of the high, ragged ridges that guards town. It's the same startling purity of vision I've had looking at Telluride from many angles over the past 35 years, with the feeling that I could see what was coming as certainly as if it had already happened.

This perspective, following a day of pristine powder skiing, is one of the best views one could ever have of Telluride. Tucked into its high-walled box canyon at 8,750 feet, surrounded by spear-point peaks streaked with ski runs and frozen waterfalls, this former mining town, in all of its Victorian quaintness, sparkles like a gold nugget in the San Juan wilderness.

In truth, there are a lot of good views of and from Telluride. About the only places where the vistas aren't stop-and-gape gorgeous are in a few corners of town that are so tight against the canyon walls you can't see much of anything. But then, at least, you're surrounded by Telluride itself, a town designated as a National Historic Landmark in the mid-1960s, which has minimized the sort of runaway development that's plagued other resorts. Telluride was a helluva mining town at the turn of the 20th century, then a cherished semi—ghost town through the 1950s and 1960s. Now it's become a helluva ski resort, even if it has lost some of its charm along the way. That's the price you pay when it's your time.

It's been Telluride's time off and on for centuries, really. From the sacred summer camps of Ute Indians to its mining-day glory in the late 1890s (with more millionaires per capita than New York City), followed by the wonderfully deserted lows, to its emergence as a resort on such an elite level that it has taken the community a while to realize it has even happened. But how could it not?

It would be hard to conceive of a better mountain layout. Access from either town or Mountain Village, 800 feet above, is effortless, and you don't have to negotiate a lot of long flats or connector lifts to get around. Once rapped as a mostly expert hill because of the severe bumps and steeps on its town-facing frontside, the resort has added enough cruiser and intermediate terrain over the past decade to risk over-bluing the place. [NEXT ""]Telluride's locals remain the mountain's biggest fans and harshest critics. They're fond of carping that there's nothing wrong with Telluride's skiing that a good forest fire wouldn't cure. And indeed, some of the resort's best terrain is laced between trees so thick as to deprive you of air. That doesn't seem to deter anyone, though, because even 40-degree pitches in deep timber on the likes of Buzz's Glade, Chongo's and the East and West Drains get skied enough to generate bumps that will teach any skier humility.

A more serious complaint is that two of the frontside lifts, 8 and 9, are so old that Butch Cassidy, who locals say robbed his first bank here, may well have ridden them. They're so slow that it's hard to justify more than a couple of laps a day on their fabled slopes, which include Kant-Mak-M, Spiral Stairs and Powerline-to-Plunge (the frontside's famed mogul galleries), and the high-speed ripper of See Forever into Lookout and Coonskin. But no lift replacements have been announced.

As a resultthe Gold Hill section, on the edge of Prospect Bowl, has become home to some of my favorite skiing. It's as steepy-freaky as the frontside, but is served by a high-speed quad, Lift 14. The lift delivers you to Dynamo, which, taken in its twisting, churning, diving entirety, is one of the best runs on the mountain.

Casual groomers? The Palmyra, Sunshine and Village lifts provide them in fuzzy abundance. See Forever to Smuggler to Misty Maiden has always stood out, but now, so do seemingly endless offerings such as Woozley's Way to Polar Queen to Cake Walk and Sundance to Double Cabin.[NEXT ""]Alas, the fare off Prospect Bowl's high-speed quad, Lift 12, is marginalized by a long, flat run-out. The best lines here are through the trees off the top of Magnolia, and the nose of Bald Mountain. The Prospect quad is most valuable as access to the hike-to region of Palmyra, a radical, 13,320-foot peak. Almost every powder day sees new sets of tracks autographing its wild chutes, couloirs and bowls.

This is where I'm heading with senior V.P. of mountain operations Jeff Proteau and a group bound for the resort's newest offering, the guided, pay-to-ski out-of-bounds terrain of Mountain Quail. A short hike—and $75—gets you lovely, untracked off-piste turns from first chair till about noon. If you're looking to raise the ante—starting at about $800 for a day—consider riding with Helitrax, Colorado's only heliskiing operation, and rack up 10,000 to 12,000 of ski country's most scenic vertical feet.

Telluride has always had all the pieces of the puzzle. It just needed time to fit them together—and the right ownership to put them all in place.

Chuck and Chad Horning, a father-and-son team of real estate developers from Newport Beach, Calif., just might be the right people at the right time. Sony heir Joe Morita bought the resort in 2001 and seemed to locals to run it without much of their input. Morita sold 75 percent of the resort in February 2004 to the Hornings.

Almost immediately, they began examining some of the company's core business beliefs, which had been based on the traditional model of striving for continuous growth in skier visits. Two problems with that were: it wasn't happening, and the town didn't want—and couldn't service—a significant increase in visitors. With the help of local input, the Hornings have now positioned Telluride as an exclusive, high-end destination—and done so without apology. Given the community's near-militant New-Age leanings, this will prove to be either genius or insanity.

But the truth is, because of terrain limitations (most of the land around Telluride is vertical and undevelopable), the number of people the resort can accommodate is sharply limited. Most Telluridians have accepted that high-volume skier days are not in their future—or best interests.

Blessed with one of the planet's most beautiful locations, the town is keen to protect itself. It already mandates strict green building codes and runs biodiesel buses. Locals are also coming to accept that fewer people with more money means less impact. Even Telluride's remoteness, long considered a drawback, becomes a plus when you accept that fewer is better. That business philosophy only works, of course, if your operation is first-rate.

"Try to find a 2,500-person town with these activities, restaurants, festivals and events, Stu Fraser, a Telluride town councilor, challenges. "My wife and I were living in southern California and looking for somewhere to get involved in a community, and this was it. I went from being a homeowner to part of an advisory group to the planning commission to nonprofits, and now the town council. Telluride is a place where you can live fantasies you never even knew you had, he chuckles.

The community has now had a few years to see if the changes wrought by the Hornings are progress or just changes. "I have good feelings about them, says Peter Harrelson, a longtime resident who in many ways typifies the Telluride image. Harrelson is a hardcore backcountry skier and a doctor on the nearby Navajo reservation. He's preparing to leave for a Doctors Without Borders stint in Sierra Leone. Committed and energetic, he has fought to keep critical parts of the Telluride area development-free. [NEXT ""]Harrelson also understands the realpolitik of the resort business. "I think talking about the skier's experience being equal to the spendy day ticket ($76) is smart, he says.

Everyone agrees that "it's an environmentally conscious community, as Harrelson puts it. With that as a basis, there seems to be fairly solid support for the limited-numbers business approach. "One of the things locals love, in essence, is that there are no liftlines. We don't like crowds. If that means focusing more on the high-end, we're aware there's a trade-off, he says with a rueful smile. "But there's still a little bit of funkiness here, still a willingness to embrace all aspects.

In some ways, this reveals a fundamental Telluride dilemma, and Jeff Proteau and I talk about it over lunch. When a resort has so much, it can raise expectations to a point where even the amazing seems commonplace. And then where's your next act?

"We'd like to get a lift into Palmyra Basin, Proteau says. "In the meantime, we'd like to do one-drop heli trips in there. We want to go for the upscale market, he says, reaffirming the company's new mantra, "but we also want to keep our local and regional guests, who are important to us. Proteau is well aware that's a delicate balance.

Indeed, it's always been a balancing act in what may be the most beautiful high-alpine valley in America. After building six lifts and a daylodge, Beverly Hills entrepreneur Joe Zoline opened Telluride in 1972. Six years later, Colorado natives Ron Allred and Jim Wells bought the place and initiated a major transformation.

After installing Telluride's first high-speed quad and two lifts that connected the mountain to the town—the true heart of the resort—Allred and Wells had their eureka moment: They decided to build an upscale community on the mountain, away from the boisterous town (Telluride's last brothel closed in 1959, when the Silver Bell mine shut down) but close enough to benefit from the community's iconoclastic energy and quirky charms.

Evolving from the nine-story Wyndham Peaks building, Mountain Village has become one of the best enclaves of its kind. The next puzzle piece was the addition of the free gondola in 1996, making for an eco-friendly 12-minute ride between town and Mountain Village that allowed workers and visitors to leave their cars behind.

Mountain Village's success with the uptown crowd opened eyes to other, similar amenities. The Tempter House is a case in point. Built into solid rock near the top of the ski mountain on an old mining claim, it was purchased by Joe Morita for $2 million. It sits cantilevered out over Tempter Chute, a long, stunning powder drop into Bear Creek. It's perpetually closed because of avalanche danger and cliffs. It's also perpetually tracked.

For $5,000 a night, you or anyone else (Telluride second-home owner Tom Cruise, for instance) can rent the house, as Cruise did last New Year's Eve. The resort is contemplating adding a heliport to the property. It's swank stuff. (And I live in Aspen.)

But I think I get the message.The question is, with all that choppering about from one exclusive frolic to the next, are people missing some of the best elements of the town? Definitely. Does it matter? Not to them.

At least that's what I tell myself from my table at ridge-top Allred's Restaurant, enjoying some of the best resort food in the world. Where better to reflect on Telluride's remarkable array of amenities, which amount to more reasons why, in spite of some lean years and challenges, Telluride can't seem to fail now.

"We were trying to buy a house in Aspen when a real estate friend there called and said,ypifies the Telluride image. Harrelson is a hardcore backcountry skier and a doctor on the nearby Navajo reservation. He's preparing to leave for a Doctors Without Borders stint in Sierra Leone. Committed and energetic, he has fought to keep critical parts of the Telluride area development-free. [NEXT ""]Harrelson also understands the realpolitik of the resort business. "I think talking about the skier's experience being equal to the spendy day ticket ($76) is smart, he says.

Everyone agrees that "it's an environmentally conscious community, as Harrelson puts it. With that as a basis, there seems to be fairly solid support for the limited-numbers business approach. "One of the things locals love, in essence, is that there are no liftlines. We don't like crowds. If that means focusing more on the high-end, we're aware there's a trade-off, he says with a rueful smile. "But there's still a little bit of funkiness here, still a willingness to embrace all aspects.

In some ways, this reveals a fundamental Telluride dilemma, and Jeff Proteau and I talk about it over lunch. When a resort has so much, it can raise expectations to a point where even the amazing seems commonplace. And then where's your next act?

"We'd like to get a lift into Palmyra Basin, Proteau says. "In the meantime, we'd like to do one-drop heli trips in there. We want to go for the upscale market, he says, reaffirming the company's new mantra, "but we also want to keep our local and regional guests, who are important to us. Proteau is well aware that's a delicate balance.

Indeed, it's always been a balancing act in what may be the most beautiful high-alpine valley in America. After building six lifts and a daylodge, Beverly Hills entrepreneur Joe Zoline opened Telluride in 1972. Six years later, Colorado natives Ron Allred and Jim Wells bought the place and initiated a major transformation.

After installing Telluride's first high-speed quad and two lifts that connected the mountain to the town—the true heart of the resort—Allred and Wells had their eureka moment: They decided to build an upscale community on the mountain, away from the boisterous town (Telluride's last brothel closed in 1959, when the Silver Bell mine shut down) but close enough to benefit from the community's iconoclastic energy and quirky charms.

Evolving from the nine-story Wyndham Peaks building, Mountain Village has become one of the best enclaves of its kind. The next puzzle piece was the addition of the free gondola in 1996, making for an eco-friendly 12-minute ride between town and Mountain Village that allowed workers and visitors to leave their cars behind.

Mountain Village's success with the uptown crowd opened eyes to other, similar amenities. The Tempter House is a case in point. Built into solid rock near the top of the ski mountain on an old mining claim, it was purchased by Joe Morita for $2 million. It sits cantilevered out over Tempter Chute, a long, stunning powder drop into Bear Creek. It's perpetually closed because of avalanche danger and cliffs. It's also perpetually tracked.

For $5,000 a night, you or anyone else (Telluride second-home owner Tom Cruise, for instance) can rent the house, as Cruise did last New Year's Eve. The resort is contemplating adding a heliport to the property. It's swank stuff. (And I live in Aspen.)

But I think I get the message.The question is, with all that choppering about from one exclusive frolic to the next, are people missing some of the best elements of the town? Definitely. Does it matter? Not to them.

At least that's what I tell myself from my table at ridge-top Allred's Restaurant, enjoying some of the best resort food in the world. Where better to reflect on Telluride's remarkable array of amenities, which amount to more reasons why, in spite of some lean years and challenges, Telluride can't seem to fail now.

"We were trying to buy a house in Aspen when a real estate friend there called and said, why don't you buy Telluride? Chuck Horning tells me in Allred's. "We liked what we saw and made an offer.

Chuck, 61, a graying dynamo, seems to be taking to his new role as resort owner with enthusiasm. He'll decide, for instance, to go out on the deck at Gorrono's and dish up free chili for skiers. Right now he's standing tiptoe on a bar stool in crowded and fashionable Allred's at 8 o'clock at night trying to install lighting over a favorite piece of artwork. ("Instead of paying an electrician $45 an hour, he grumbles.) There's a suspicion around Telluride that Chuck is a tad...eccentric. And in a place like Telluride, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

After two winter seasons in the business, the Hornings are nearing their goal of acquiring as much real estate as possible in Mountain Village to provide for the luxe, ski-in/ski-out hotel development they've been told they need if they're going to pull off their "quality, not quantity plan. They're now courting the likes of St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt, along with several elite boutique hotels.

It used to be easy to see what was coming here. But today, for the first time in my many visits, I'm not so sure. For better or worse, Telluride as a resort has arrived and is perched at a crux in its history. And now that crisp, sharp mountain air, scented by the nearby deserts and sandstone canyons, is a little less clear than ever before. It's not just emissions from SUVs parading up and down the canyon, but the mystery of the future that makes matters hazy.

Telluride has clearly achieved greatness. Now, can it embrace, sustain and preserve it? It's a question that confronts any place, anywhere, when its time has arrived.

December 2005aid, why don't you buy Telluride? Chuck Horning tells me in Allred's. "We liked what we saw and made an offer.

Chuck, 61, a graying dynamo, seems to be taking to his new role as resort owner with enthusiasm. He'll decide, for instance, to go out on the deck at Gorrono's and dish up free chili for skiers. Right now he's standing tiptoe on a bar stool in crowded and fashionable Allred's at 8 o'clock at night trying to install lighting over a favorite piece of artwork. ("Instead of paying an electrician $45 an hour, he grumbles.) There's a suspicion around Telluride that Chuck is a tad...eccentric. And in a place like Telluride, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

After two winter seasons in the business, the Hornings are nearing their goal of acquiring as much real estate as possible in Mountain Village to provide for the luxe, ski-in/ski-out hotel development they've been told they need if they're going to pull off their "quality, not quantity plan. They're now courting the likes of St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt, along with several elite boutique hotels.

It used to be easy to see what was coming here. But today, for the first time in my many visits, I'm not so sure. For better or worse, Telluride as a resort has arrived and is perched at a crux in its history. And now that crisp, sharp mountain air, scented by the nearby deserts and sandstone canyons, is a little less clear than ever before. It's not just emissions from SUVs parading up and down the canyon, but the mystery of the future that makes matters hazy.

Telluride has clearly achieved greatness. Now, can it embrace, sustain and preserve it? It's a question that confronts any place, anywhere, when its time has arrived.

December 2005

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