Story and photos by David McKay Wilson
On the eve of my 60th birthday, I headed to the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado with my two sons and nephew to test a series of hypotheses: Would my legs hold up for six days of skiing down some of the world’s greatest ski terrain at Telluride, Silverton and Durango?
Did dear old Dad still have it?
Was 60 the new 49?
We gloried in the luxury of Telluride’s Hotel Madeline, skied its luscious groomers and harrowing chutes, and dined on fine cuisine in one of the West’s finest resorts. At Silverton, we experienced the steeps with a guide who led us down terrain we’d hiked to at 13,000 feet and chilled in a sleepy Colorado mining town making a go of it, catering to a winter clientele that likes its powder deep, and its terrain largely untouched by other skiers. We ended our journey in Purgatory – in a netherworld between winter and spring – all cozy in a fully-equipped condo, with groomed runs softened to perfection by the bright spring sun.
We arrived in Telluride in late March, our legs in shape from a season at Vermont’s Mad River Glen. After a snowless start in December, 2012, the snow finally arrived in the San Juan Mountains in mid-January, and by late March, the base hovered at around 50 inches mid-mountain.
We stayed four days at the Hotel Madeline, just steps from the lift, in adjoining rooms, with one son sleeping on a pull-out bed with a surprisingly comfortable blow-up mattress that the ever-attentive hotel staff inflated upon our request. We passed on the breakfast buffet – at $25 a pop – and opted for peanut-butter and jam sandwiches and Cheerios in the room, which we bought at the Mountain Village market, accessed by a two-minute gondola ride from the resort plaza.
Telluride was not immune from the escalating cost of a day on the mountain: three day passes cost $303. But the sticker shock quickly faded once we got up on the mountain. There’s something for everyone, and the beauty of Telluride is the fact that there’s a groomed run from the top of every lift – including down the middle of Revelation Bowl, at 12,500 feet.
The bowl skiing was spectacular. We found tons of good snow off the Prospect Express lift, where we skied Black Iron Bowl. Later, we earned our turns by hiking for 15 minutes up to the double-black diamond Gold Hill Chutes, which we negotiated with care, and amazement as one bowl opened into another as we crossed a ridge.
We stayed up in Mountain Village, the resort’s own municipality, which really is the resort’s mid-station. Down below is the town of Telluride, the former mining town that had it’s heyday between the 1870-s and 1920, which over the past 40 years has become transformed into a winter destination for skiers, and a summer haunt for lovers of the arts, who flock to its weekly festivals – which includes bluegrass, jazz, and blues, as well at the Telluride Film Festival.
It’s a hip scene downtown, with the restored Sheridan Opera House attracting national acts to the its cozy 244-seat theatre, outdoor recreation shops galore, and lunch places like the Butcher and Plate serving tasty avocado, bacon and cheese sandwiches.
I decided that to make it all week, we needed to pace ourselves. On our third day, we visited the Nordic Skiing Center in Town Park to rent some skinny skis. My kids had never experienced the pleasures that come with feeling the kick-and-glide. After I provided a quick tutorial from what I’d been taught 40 years ago in Norway, they were in the groove, and flying around the 3-kilometers of tracked trail by the summer stage and along the river.
The boys wanted more activity. So we walked downtown to Paragon Bootdoctors, to rent some “fat bikes” for a guided tour” up to Bridal Veil Falls, where Tesla helped design the world’s first hydroelectric plant. The bikes are modified mountain bikes, with huge tires, four inches wide, to give you better grab on the snow, and to provide a great work-out as you climb slowly out of town.
Upon our return, Ashley Boling squired us around downtown on a historic tour, which included a stop at the New Sheridan Hotel, with its original bar – and brass foot-rail – from 1895. Boling told us that the Wild West mining town kept the whiskey flowing during Prohibition. He seemed optimistic that the town’s six medical marijuana dispensaries for a town of 2,300 would prepare the town well for the legalized marijuana trade sometime in 2014.
Two-time Olympic gold medal snowboarder Seth Wescott, dining one night at Allred’s at the gondola’s midstation, told me he returns for the terrain, the feel of the place, and its 3,875 feet of elevation from the gondola in town up to the top of Revelation Bowl.
“It has a soul,” he said, sipping a Tempter IPA. “And the vertical is sick.”
From Telluride we drove 80 miles to Silverton Mountain, where you can access 1,800 of skiable acreage with a back-country guide, in a funky ski area served by a single lift, with nothing groomed, and no trail markings. We stayed in Silverton at the Teller House Hotel, a Victorian-era bed-and-breakfast in the sleepy town that once thrived during the gold mining days.
Now it serves vacationers, including the skiers who pay $139 a day to be guided on the mountain, in groups of up to eight. The terrain is steep, and you have to hike to much of it.
Our guide, Marc Kloster, met us at the base – at 10,400 elevation. The lift takes you to 12,300, and there’s another 1,000 of vertical you can hike to reach 13,487 – the highest –point for lift-served skiing in North America. We didn’t hike all the way, but we headed up for 45 minutes to reach the steep snowfield called Rope Dee Dope, pointed our skis down, and followed Kloster’s line down through powder, finding our rhythm in big, swooping turns.
At the bottom, an old laundry van, with reggae music throbbing, picked us up, and brought us back to the lift. We kept going all day, with Kloster dialing it back on the hiking, as my legs were starting to feel it. Nevertheless, we skied five runs that day; a bottle of Pin Stripe Red Ale in the tent at the Silverton base ended the day in fine fashion.
We were bushed as we headed south for our final destination 28 miles away at Durango Mountain Resort, once known as Purgatory. We stayed a Cascade Village, a condo development just two miles north of the ski area. Curious about downtown Durango, we drove 27 miles into town, hoping to grab a dinner and a beer at Steamworks Brewing Co. But there was a line out the door, we were bushed from a day on the slopes, so we discovered the spicy tacos at Nini’s Taqueria.
On our final day, the boys knocked off at noon, needing to address the schoolwork they’d been promising to do all week, but never seemed to get to. My legs had become stronger from a week in the Rockies. I still have more turns to make. So I did a slew of top-to-bottom runs – no stopping – as the spring snow softened in the afternoon sun. I quit at 3 p.m., and unwound at the resort’s Creekside Restaurant with a pint of Euphoria ale.
The 2012-13 season was over. Now we had to figure where out West our legs were destined for 2013-2014.
David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.