Surfing the San Juans

on March 18 | in Skiing & Snowboarding | by | with Comments Off

This post is brought to Colorado Ski Country by Justin Patrick.

The Ute Indians had a name for Telluride long before the hoards of miners flooded the surrounding hills.  They called it “storm catcher.”  Out of the high desert of Utah and Southwestern Colorado rise the sharp, daunting peaks of the San Juan Mountains.  They are part of the Rocky Mountain Range, but the look and feel varies greatly from the central Rockies of the Front Range.  They are regal, angular, sharp; they’ve got personality, and anyone who lives in their presence will tell you they have moods too.  Seven 14,000 foot plus peaks are clustered in the neighborhood.  Five hundred foot cliffs are commonplace.  Storms that settle in the wind can be gale-force, the snow utterly blinding.  But when the weather is fair, the skies blue and sunny, Telluride offers some of the most blissful skiing in North America.

A brief break in the storm reveals the ridgeline from Lift 12.  Palmyra Peak is shrouded by mist in the background.

A brief break in the storm reveals the ridgeline from Lift 12. Palmyra Peak is shrouded by mist in the background.

After a six-hour drive from Denver my friend and I turned in early at a slope-side inn.  We awoke to a gray sky and a light snowfall characteristic of the San Juans.  Oftentimes these tiny, delicate snowflakes will dribble from above for hours at a time.  It never seems like much, but hour after hour it falls, and before you realize it several inches of light, fluffy powder has accumulated.  Then you know why “storm catcher” is an apt title.  It was one of those days.  The snow blew in until letting up briefly in the early afternoon.  The effect was wonderful for greedy powder hogs like us; the early sour weather deterred the crowds and the mountain was ours for the taking.

Skier William Comfort owns a rock outcropping in Jello’s Bowl at the base of Mountain Quail.

Skier William Comfort owns a rock outcropping in Jello’s Bowl at the base of Mountain Quail.

I could easily write a novella-length essay detailing why Telluride will always remain one of my favorite resorts in the world.  It is like Super Mario World, teeming with hidden universes that can take several seasons of exploring to discover.  If you’re smart, you will make friends with a local who will guide you to these wonderlands.  Otherwise only dumb luck and an adventurer’s spirit will allow you to experience all the mountain has to offer.  Of course, there is plenty of amazing terrain easily accessed from the lifts that appeal to riders of all levels.  But here I’d like to detail my favorite area of Telluride, the famous Black Iron Bowl.

I’ve skied most bowls in the state.  This is the best one for your advanced, thrill-seeking rider.  First of all, there is an entrance fee beyond the ticket price.  The majority of the Black Iron Bowl is accessible only by hiking for great distances at high altitude.  The longer you hike, the more vertical you get.  The Holy Grail is Palmyra Peak, 13,319 feet above sea level.  An exceptionally fit, experienced hiker adapted to altitude can make the ascent in about an hour and a half, but the rest of us can expect at least two hours of tedious exhaustion before strapping on our gear and rocketing down the steep crest.

A brief respite in a quiet pine glade.

A brief respite in a quiet pine glade.

But only the die-hards ski Palmyra more than once or twice a season.  There are plenty of shorter routes that offer up fabulous lines.  There are essentially two access points to the bowl.  The first is through the gates off the top of lift 12, which delivers you to the beginning of the ridge line at 11,815 feet.  This is where my buddy and I found ourselves alone at 11:00 a.m. in the middle of a snow storm of whiteout ferocity.  We braved the howling winds scathing the ridgeline.  We made it as far as Mountain Quail and for the first time in my life I got fresh tracks on this steep, open face.  After a rapid descent we entered Jello’s Bowl, a sort of mini-bowl playground within the confines of the larger Black Iron Bowl area.  This tapers off into a series of random ups and downs defined by forested shots, jumpable rocks, and smooth glades.  That’s one of my favorite features of the Bowl; there’s just a million ways to get down it.  You can spend a whole day there mix-matching routes and never get bored.  And that’s what we did, at least until our legs begged for mercy and we moved on to the mechanical relief of the lifts.

Day two was a classic blue bird and we skied Black Iron from the other access point.  We dipped into the Revelation Bowl and hopped lift 15, which conveniently delivered us to an access gate at 12,570 feet.  From this ridgeline runs the Gold Hill Chutes, 1-10.  Gold Hill 1 is accessible from the top of 15 without hiking.  It’s a classic fun run, but you won’t get much after the initial descent.  To get into the honey pot you have to sweat.  Chute 2 is accessible after a brief ten or so minutes.  Then the chutes pop up at intervals.   Fortunately, after the initial ascent the ridge inclines only slightly, so it’s more a matter of time commitment than physical exertion to deep traverse.  The exceptions are Chutes 9 and 10, which require an additional final push.  Telluride built a steel stairway a couple seasons back, making this effort safer and quicker.  You can expect about forty-five minutes to make it to the top of these last chutes.

A skier creeps his way down the exposed face at the Gold Hill Chute 2 access point.

A skier creeps his way down the exposed face at the Gold Hill Chute 2 access point.

Each chute has its own qualities.  It’s hard to choose favorites.  Chutes 3, 4, and 5 are rarely if ever open due to extreme rock exposure.  The earlier chutes are longer and more forgiving but drop you into the middle of the bowl; no big deal, but it’s worth it to go the extra mile to 8, 9, and 10 and cruise the lovely snow that collects in Palmyra Basin. Nine and 10 are particularly steep and narrow; expect quick turns through the choke and stay strong on your sticks (or board).  Trust me, you don’t want to take a tumble.

Gold Hill 2 in all its glory

Gold Hill 2 in all its glory

When we visited only Chutes 1 and 2 were open.   At the top of 2 we had to scale over a rock field before we could reach skiable terrain.  Only confident riders and mountaineers have business poking their way down a scree field in ski boots.  If you have doubts ask ski patrol about current conditions.  While you can always turn back and return to the access gate, it would be a shame to put in the work for nothing.  Once we got past the rocky mouth it was a blast.  We hit the far side and carved fresh tracks in day-old powder.  The narrow choke was like skiing a roller coaster track in a house of mirrors.  The ancient volcanic rock formations are just magical for riders.  It’s like skiing on another planet and it never gets old.

The choke at the end of Chute 2; egress options abound.

The choke at the end of Chute 2; egress options abound.

For all you Front Rangers who’ve “been meaning to go to Telluride, but just never make it out there,” as I so often hear, just do it.  It’s isolated and requires greater travel commitment, but that means fewer crowds and better views.  Foreigners and out-of-state tourists come at great expense to visit Telluride and it’s right in our backyard.  Take a few days and ditch the crowded Front Range for a taste of paradise.  And by the way, the night life is as vibrant and electric as the riding.  It’s a party 24/7.  Who could ask for more?

You don’t need skies to enjoy Telluride.  A glider prepares to launch himself off the ridge near lift 14.

You don’t need skies to enjoy Telluride. A glider prepares to launch himself off the ridge near lift 14.

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