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Inside the true Telluride

By Hal Clifford
Ski Magazine

The town of Telluride, Colorado, was designated a National Historic District in 1964.
The town of Telluride, Colorado, was designated a National Historic District in 1964.

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(Ski Magazine) -- This was to be the end, but it is not the end. It is the beginning. Deep in the pillows in the pre-dawn darkness, I hear the sound that gladdens the hearts, even the deep-sleeping hearts, of skiers. It is the sound of a snowplow. A big snowplow. Very big. You can judge the virility of a ski town's winters by the size of its snowplows. In diminutive Telluride, average snowplows don't cut it. Here they use machines as big as the houses.

The wished-for thing has come. At dawn more than a foot of new snow is on the January ground. The announcer on public radio station KOTO gives the good news over the bedside clock radio. His voice evinces a trace of glee: "Highway 145 over Lizard Head Pass is closed, and Red Mountain Pass is closed."

We will not be leaving today, after all. We're going skiing. Big time. In the 15 years I've been visiting Telluride, the wonder of the place has not diminished. If you drive Colorado Highway 145 over Lizard Head Pass on a winter evening, the experience is like winding your way into a secret redoubt. Clouds drift through the close, broad-shouldered peaks of the western San Juan Mountains. The 13,113-foot neck of Lizard Head Peak, a volcanic plug shaped like a chimney, pokes through the mists in the San Miguel massif. It appears and disappears in the evening sky like a dream remembered.

As you descend into the hanging, glaciated San Miguel Valley, the westering sun kindles a glow upon the flanks of the Sneffels Range the color of melted strawberry ice cream. The spur into Telluride seems like a wrong turn. There are no fast food shops, no strip malls, no outlet stores, no neon signs. The bucolic, two-lane, dead-end road was given by the state of Colorado to the town of Telluride, which didn't want state highway engineers overbuilding the approach route. It leads for two miles past wet meadows sprinkled with cottonwoods and willows. At its end, set like a jewel deep in the folds of 13,000-foot peaks, is Telluride, home to about 1,400 people.

Because the town was designated as a National Historic District in 1964, Telluride has largely avoided the excessive development and tasteless construction that characterizes too many ski resorts. Some architectural mistakes have been made, but the town exudes a pedestrian-friendly, Victorian mining town ambiance. It was a place built without automobiles, and it remains quintessentially functional for those on foot.

The ski resort opened in 1972 (six years before the last gold mine closed) and encompasses 1,050 acres. It climbs steeply up the conifer-draped, double-black slopes south of town to Coonskin Ridge, then folds over the ridge to the gentler, west-facing slopes above Mountain Village. While not the most euphoniously named community in Colorado, Mountain Village is the youngest, incorporated in 1995 (it was established in 1987). Today the Village is home to some 1,000 permanent residents.

Its architecture is derided by some Telluride locals as "Swiss Hopi," but Mountain Village will serve a critical function for Telluride: bed base. Construction has gone in fits and starts in the Village, which currently is booming. When finished, Mountain Village is expected to offer about 9,000 guest pillows, almost twice the current inventory of Telluride and Mountain Village combined (now about 5,000 pillows). In 1996, Telluride Ski & Golf Co. (Telski) opened a $19 million gondola connecting Mountain Village, the top of the ski area and downtown Telluride. The gondola serves both as a ski lift and a free commuter service from dawn to well after dark; it cuts the travel time between the two towns in half (reducing it to 11 minutes) and has done much to nip parking and traffic problems in the bud.

The Village exudes the smell of new money; it's a bed-base ghetto for the rich that physically separates new construction from the historic town. Mountain Village did not come into being without its share of controversy; the town's charter allows nonresident property owners to vote in Village elections. This is an unusual but not unknown arrangement whereby a second-home owner earns the right to vote in local elections in more than one place. Several full-time Village residents sued to have the charter overturned, but courts have upheld the buy-a-house, buy-a-vote arrangement.

Standing up to rock and ice

Telluride is small enough to walk across in 15 minutes, but you want to be wearing fleece-lined jeans when you do. The "jewel box," as miners called the twinkling town in the box canyon, is not for the faint of heart; winters in the 8,700-foot-high valley are long, dark and cold. Consequently, Telluride's attractive forces seem to pull strongest on those who view mountains as more than a pretty setting.

Telluride is also in the heart of Colorado's ice-climbing country, and anchors backcountry hut systems that lead east to Ouray, Colorado, and northwest to Moab, Utah. Runners and mountain bikers clamber over passes as high as 13,113 feet. Plenty of mountain towns are full of raccoon-tanned jocks, but Telluridians seem a little grubbier, a little less interested in finery and comfort, a little more committed to proving themselves against rock and ice.

Telluride experienced an Aspen echo in the '90s when celebrities such as Oliver Stone and Oprah Winfrey bought homes there. But those two and others have come and gone; Telluride has not taken off as the next Hollywood East. It remains high, cold and relatively hard to get to. Plenty of residents seem to like it that way.

On my first day of skiing, the score to Stanley Kubrick's "2001" rings in my head as I take in the drama of the crenellated peaks circling the ski area to the south, east and north. To the west, 100 miles across the Uncompahgre Plateau, Utah's La Sal Mountains rise from beyond the horizon. We hop the chairlift up to the 12,247-foot crest of Gold Hill. This is double-black, terrain that skiers had to hike to in the past. To the east lies the deep cleft of Bear Creek, a jagged slice ripped through the mountains.

Shoestring-thin gullies drop through cliff bands on 12,804-foot Ballard Mountain, which lies on the opposite side of Bear Creek from the ski area. I can spot several lines, noting they've all been skied by resident hard-core alpinists. From this perspective they appear absolutely vertical and seem to be about 6 feet across -- it seems like just about any downhill line has been tested by skiers.

I turn my attention to the west and the steep slopes of Gold Hill. Once the patrollers have thrown their bombs, some of these runs can provide 1,000 vertical feet of uninterrupted fluff. Right now, in a dry January, the story's somewhat different.

Booming market

In the meantime, Telluride's real estate has been booming. As at Aspen, Whistler, and other high-cache ski escapes, savvy developers have come in and created luxury homes and condominiums. This has meant better places to stay in recent years, such as the upscale Peaks Spa & Resort and the Hotel Telluride.

Despite its flashes of luxury, however, Telluride often feels like a throwback to the '70s version of a ski town: Locals, many in their 20s, live in Gore-Tex and polypro for months on end. At Leimgruber's Bar on West Pacific Avenue they laugh over glasses of wickedly potent Paulaner Salvator Ale. The truly connected have their names written on one of the 100 personal mugs hanging over the bar.

These cliched images of an old-style ski town are notable for their rarity when you see them in Aspen or Vail. In Telluride, the cliche isn't cute, it's real. Everyone owns a dog; at least one in five people has dreadlocks; and the town's navel is The Steaming Bean, an exceedingly groovy coffeehouse on Colorado Avenue. Residents do business face-to-face by walking down Colorado and running into their colleagues.

Everyone is ridiculously friendly, too -- until it snows. Then the true nature of the Telluridian shows its face, and people become competitive. Nice, yes, but get out of my line.

On the day of our aborted departure hundreds of locals lined up outside the gondola and the maze into Lift 8. Snow poured from the sky; the tension was palpable. "Which lift?" people wondered aloud. Which lift would get them to the greatest snow before everyone else?

My wife and I crammed into a gondola car with six others, and at the top we exploded out of the gondola station onto Coonskin Ridge and raced to clip into our bindings. Our co-riders vanished into the snow storm ahead of us. We turned into the big bumps of Coonskin. The icy humps of the previous three days were supplanted by pillows of snow knee deep, sometimes thigh deep. I careened through sheets of powder, drinking in mouthfuls of snow, hardly bothering to turn.

There was tangible joy amid the dark shapes cutting lines down the slope, the same joy that comes to farmers standing in a soaking rain at the end of a long drought. Yet there was something more. As the snow fell at the rate of an inch an hour, hour after hour, there was a sense of awe, and of great privilege.

We skied until we couldn't ski any longer, and then skied some more. In the end I was down to six-turns-and-stop, six-turns-and-stop. My wife dragged her demo skis back to the shop and turned them in. The ski tech, a dead ringer for a circa 1971 Paul Simon, appeared insulted. "What are you doing, dude?" he demanded. "Tomorrow's going to be just as good!"

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