As a Denver native, I learned to ski along the I-70 corridor at Winter Park and Copper Mountain, with an occasional trip to Steamboat and Crested Butte on my Rocky Mountain Super Pass. Throughout my 12 or so seasons as an adult, I have always wondered what skiing in the Southwest was like. I’d heard rumblings and rumors about bottomless snow and the beauty of the San Juan Mountains, but with a busy professional and personal life I didn’t think I had the time to make a weekend trip. That all changed in late January, when I decided to go for it.
The mystique surrounding Silverton Mountain’s guided experience and the allure of Purgatory, near Durango where I have never been, intrigued me. So I convinced a friend to join me to see if it was possible to make it to Durango and back, with lots of skiing in between of course, in a weekend.
Not only was it it possible, it was well worth it. The journey was so memorable that I decided to write about it and blog for the first time in my life. I hope you enjoy the round up and that it inspires you to go enjoy Southwest Colorado and the phenomenal skiing it has to offer.
The adventure began on a Friday. I frantically scrambled to finish up at work so we could get a head start to avoid any traffic. After dipping out of work early, packing up the car with skis, a snowboard, our backcountry gear and plenty of snacks, we were on the road by 3:30 p.m. The car was full of excitement as my friend and I discussed the 12-18 inches forecasted for the weekend.
After a quick stop in Grand Junction for dinner, we pulled into the Triangle Motel in Silverton at 10:15 p.m. The streets were practically deserted with the town seemingly buried in snow.
Saturday morning we were up at 6:50 a.m. to find a reported 12 inches over the last 24 hours. After a quick complimentary breakfast at the motel, we were on the road with plenty of time to make the 15 minute drive from town to the Silverton Mountain parking lot. After a few minutes in the base tent, where you can stop throughout the day for food, to warm up and, of course, for happy hour at the end of the day, we were back out in the base area being sorted into groups based on ability and desire to hike and ski/snowboard fast or slow.
Our group was made up of four people with previous guiding experience, a Silverton season pass holder, an expert skier from Durango, my friend and myself. Needless to say we were a little intimidated by the group. Our guide for the day was Rob “The Rooftop” Roof, who was tasked with showing us around while keeping us safe.
The day itself was blur of snow showers, brief breaks in the clouds, adrenalin, laughs, deep powder and exhausted legs.
It’s remarkable how a group can go from complete strangers to a functioning unit of friends looking out for one another in avalanche terrain in a matter of minutes, all because of a shared desire to enjoy excellent snow conditions. Rooftop made sure we knew the snow conditions and terrain obstacles on each run. He also kept us happy (which honestly wasn’t too difficult) and, more importantly, safe. In total we were able to get six runs, thanks in part to Charlie who drove the Silverton Correctional Facility bus.
With quads burning and tired vocal cords from all the powderhounds cat-calling each other, we headed into the tent for happy hour.
At 5 p.m. we hit the road again, this time heading for Durango over Molas pass. We passed Purgatory Resort on our way and stopped for pizza and a beer at Steamworks in downtown Durango just an hour and half after leaving the Silverton parking lot. After a quick drive back up to Purgatory, we were at the Purgatory Lodge within a few hundred feet of the lift and soaking in a hot tub, reliving the best powder turns from earlier that day.
The next morning we were up at 8 a.m.; turns out you can sleep in when you’re within a stone’s throw of the lift. We grabbed a breakfast burrito and breakfast sandwich at the Village Market and Deli and headed to the lift. While the day at Silverton was mostly overcast with relatively poor visibility, we were treated to a bluebird day – in addition to six inches overnight. The view of the San Juan’s I had heard so much about did not disappoint.
We spent the next three hours cruising Lifts 5 and 8, continuously finding new and better powder spots all morning. Lift lines, which I am used to on my usual weekend ski days, were non-existent, with the longest lasting approximately 30 seconds.
We stopped in at the Backside Bistro for a quick refueling and skied hard for another hour or so. While skiing we enjoyed the view from the backside, where what was previously San Juan Untracked, now Purgatory Snowcat Adventures operates the largest snowcat operation in the state. From what I could see, there are some incredible turns to be enjoyed. Maybe next time…
We made a final stop at Purgy’s on our way out to enjoy Steamworks’ Backside Stout, which was named when the co-founders of the brewery were skiing the backside of Purgatory.
Knowing we had a long drive ahead of us (and trying to beat the next storm) we hit the road just before 1 p.m. While pretty tired from the whirlwind tour of the Southwest (and some bare knuckle driving over the passes in less then optimal road conditions) we couldn’t stop smiling and talking about how we should do a Southwest Swing more often.
We eventually made it home and were unpacked by 8 o’clock on Sunday evening.
All in all it was over 17 hours in the car, but not only is a swing through Colorado’s Southwest ski areas doable, it’s more than worth it just for the experience of being somewhere else in Colorado. Add in some world-class skiing and it’s a must do for those of us on the Front Range looking for something different.
I’m hoping to sneak out of work a little early again sometime this winter and visit more Southwest ski areas, so stay tuned.
Words and photos by Chris Linsmayer.
For a follow up to this article, check out the The Southwest Swing #2: A weekend trip to Telluride and Wolf Creek.