Knife Edge at Wolf Creek
By David McKay Wilson
There’s a truism in skiing – the higher up the mountain you go, the better the snow, especially if want to ski in a mid-winter drought in southwest Colorado. That was our theory when we flew west from New York for four days in late February at Wolf Creek and Telluride.
Our first stop was Wolf Creek, the world-class Mom & Pop operation that was founded 75 years ago with a rope tow connected to a Chevy engine at the top of Wolf Creek Pass. The ski area has $65 lift tickets, lodging 23 miles down the mountain in Pagosa Springs, and some of Colorado’s most challenging terrain. We ended our trip at Telluride, the mega-resort with high-speed lifts galore, fabulous terrain, lavish accommodations at 9,400 feet, and adult lift tickets at $122 a pop.
These two mountains, at very different ends of the Colorado ski experience, traditionally wrack up staggering depths of high-alpine snowfall. The 2015-16 season’s November and December bounty has provided some of the West’s best early season snow.
But back in February, there was some concern about exactly when the heavens would open to blanket the rugged San Juan Mountains in white. Even movie director Quentin Tarantino groused at a nearby ranch, as his crew chilled in Telluride’s Prospect Bowl as they waited for a Colorado Rockies dump to set the stage for The Hateful Eight, his 19th-century drama of wilderness survival and betrayal.
It was our Mancation in the Mountains – me and the boys heading out West as we’ve been doing for seven seasons. I’ve watched them grow up as they’ve skied down, and the memories of those alpine adventures have become milestones in our lives.
At 61, I’m still hanging with the young dudes – it’s a fitness goal that keeps me active. My son and godson are growing older, but it’s good to see there were still boys, despite being 16 and 26. At Telluride, they raced each along the meandering 4.6-mile-long Galloping Goose. Later, as I paddled about the apres-ski pool, they careened down the two-story water slide, making grand splashes, much to the delight of the surrounding eight-year olds.
Showing us around at Wolf Creek was Roseanne Pitcher, a member of the family that has owned the ski area since 1976. It was the first time I’d gone alpine skiing with a dog. As we loaded onto the Treasure Stoke quad, her collie, Spencer, leapt to her lap. From the top the hound scampered straight down the fall-line with great exuberance.
On our third run, she left Spencer with her husband, Dave, who was doing the plumbing at the long-awaited Expresso bar at the summit, which was built with spruce hewn on the mountain. It was four years in the making.
“We got delayed by the lifts we were building,” said Dave, referring to the three lifts, including two high-speed quads, that were installed in recent years.
We climbed a bit from there, before descending in the steep, wide-open, Boundary Bowl. The boys went down first, eager to attack the fall line, up tempo. I waited for them to clear out, and I found my own rhythm in the hard-pack, which still had plenty of snow to turn upon. She took through Pitch’s Gate, named for her father, Pitch, who was part of founding the mountain in the 1930s.
We’d passed her test, so she declared us fit for a hike up to the precarious Knife Ridge, and down into some of North America’s most radical terrain that you reach from the Alberta lift.
After getting off the chair, there’s the heart-pounding 80-step hike up the steep snow cliff, then another 42 steps up the steel stairway to the ridge, at about 12,000 feet. There wasn’t much cover on the ridge, but there was just enough to traverse out to the Dog Chutes.
What Wolf Creek lacks in vertical elevation – it’s only 1,600 feet from its 10,600-foot base – gets made up in its horizontal expanse along the ridge. Pitcher led us past the harrowing rock-strewn chutes called King Pin, Big Cornice, and Tres Amigos. We found an opening called Haydukes, where Rosanne treated us to a stash of fluffy powder up to our boot tops, several weeks since the mountain had seen a serious storm.
We’d skied plenty by the end of the first day, and could feel our quads as we should drove down the mountain pass to our tidy two-bedroom pad in Pagosa Springs at the Mountain Landing Suites , which rents for $318 a night, just outside of town. We found solace at the Pagosa Springs Spa and Resort, sampling the 30 pools built into the riverside cliff of the San Juan River.
They are fed by the world’s deepest geothermal spring – 1,002 feet underground – which comes out of the Earth at 144 degrees. The springs draws its name from the Native American Utes, who discovered the water’s therapeutic and healing qualities.
The spa has 30 pools filled with the underground mineral waters from the mother spring. The temperatures in the pools varied from the somewhat tepid 98 degrees in one called Serendipity to the sizzling 109 degrees in the Lobsterpot, right down by the San Juan, which my intrepid son and godson dipped into to cool themselves off.
For breakfast, we fueled up at the Pagosa Baking Company with two-fisted breakfast burritos, brimming with beans, cheese and rice. For dinner, our we felt at home at the Riff Raff brewery, a gathering spot for skiers and other high-altitude wayfarers. It’s a cozy brew pub, where I savored a hoppy IPA, and chowed down on a Cabrito burger, slathered in carmelized onions, cotija cheese, and garlic lime sauce.
Our day done in Wolfs Creek we headed for Telluride – 66 miles as the crow flies, but 180 miles over Lizard Pass.
At Telluride, we checked into a room at The Peaks Resort and Spa, the sprawling slope-side destination in Telluride Mountain Village. The spa, which was purchased by the Telluride resort in 2015, calls itself Colorado’s largest. If a day on the slopes isn’t enough, there’s a fitness club with a rooms for spinning, lifting, yoga and squash.
The sparsity of fresh snow had proved a boon for Helitrax, the helicopter ski operation operating in the hotel. Guide Joe Shults said he’d taken out a group of four that day – at $1,200 a person – and had another group booked for the following day. The powder hounds were antsy. The phone rang. Could he take another group tomorrow?
I ordered Pin Stripe Red Ale and settled into a comfy leather chair in the Great Room, with a fire blazing in the four-story atrium while a troubadour named Jeff sang ballads by James Taylor and Cat Stevens. The night was young, so we changed into our swim trunks to soak in an outdoor hot-tub in the crisp San Juan Mountain air at 9,400 feet. I could get used to this.
At Telluride, the lower mountain was in perfectly good shape, with the groomers buffed in corduroy each morning. But the upper mountain has issues. Much of it was closed. It was no fun on Happy Thought, with the rock-solid snowpack providing little on turn on.
Telluride needed snow.
It was a different story up in Black Iron Bowl at 12,000 feet. The snowpack was still deep, and the 10-minute hike was well worth. We make looping turns as we did laps down Genevieve, Crystal and Confidence.
We recounted our exploits later that night at Allred’s, Telluride’s premier dining spot at the top of the gondola, where you can see the sunset in all its majesty while sipping a Telluride Brewing company pale ale. The Colorado rack of lamb was succuclent, topped with warm tomato-eggplant jam, watercress, shaved fennel, and goat cheese.
As our bad luck would have it, one of those legendary San Juan blizzards was drawing nigh. I imagined Tarantino was happy. But we were flying the next morning from Durango-Plato County Airport, over a mountain pass, 125 miles away. This wasn’t hype. We needed to get out of Dodge.
But before we left, the boys insisted upon stopped at their favorite Telluride restaurant – Cucina de Luz, on Fir Street, with endless chips and salsa, and all sorts of enchiladas and tostados. They remembered it from our last visit in 2013.
The next morning, Telluride reported 14 inches of fresh snow. Wolf Creek had a foot. There was so much snow in Durango that our flight was canceled. We flew to Denver, overnighted there, and made it back to New York the next day. And by the time the storm ended, the San Juans had four feet of new snow that set up Wolf Creek and Telluride for a most marvelous March.
Another truism in skiing: timing can be everything.
David McKay Wilson, a veteran journalist who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an avid cyclist, skier and swing dancer. His travel writing has taken him around the world, with his work appearing in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, and several Gannett daily newspapers.