On The Road To Telluride

A road trip to the height of the San Juans

I drive a 2000 Subaru with 241,842 miles on it. Her name is Lola America. She doesn’t see as much of the country as she used to. While her ailments are many, she’s still got it. Last week, with an outstanding invitation to Telluride waiting, I loaded three pairs of skis, two pairs of boots, a cooler, a backpack, a basket full of gear, road sodas, cheese, and a brown and white terrier mutt named Topaz into the car.

From Santa Fe, we took the hot route. A dusty car, a dusty dog, a dusty road, and my dusty head all converged on highway 550, which follows arroyos, plateaus, sagebrush, and places where men get lost and are never found again. Somewhere in the middle of the high desert, we narrowly avoided a tumbleweed the size of one of those inflatable balls well-meaning folks sometimes use as office chairs.

We drove through Zia Pueblo, the town of Cuba, the Apache Nugget Casino…

The temperature pushed 80 while the elevation remained a steady 7,000. We listened to Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin.” Whenever I rolled the windows down, Topaz sat up and pointed her mouth, agape, toward the window, gobbling up the fresh air. We drove through Zia Pueblo, the town of Cuba, the Apache Nugget Casino, and Chaco Culture, home to thousands of ancestral Pueblo people around the turn of the first century. We drove past mega churches in the middle of nowhere, coal industry, the Continental Divide, and a lot of Subways.

Around Farmington, New Mexico, we hit the 170 to go north. The dirt turned from yellow to red. The trees got taller. Hearty pinyons to tall pines. Across the Colorado border, everything at once felt more familiar. The homes more traditionally American—big and uniform. The hills got larger, too, and greener. We even saw signs of water. Topaz stopped panting and instead sat staring serenely out the back window.

We hit snowline somewhere above Dolores. By Rico, at 8,825 feet, we saw backcountry lines and skiers drinking beers and smoking cigarettes outside the lone bar in town. I thought seriously about stopping for a pint, but we had far higher yet to drive. The mountains seemed to go straight up. I craned my neck to see their peaks and kept Lola pointed toward our slow ascent.

Some 350 miles from Santa Fe, I coasted into Telluride. Tucked away in a small basin in the middle of the San Juans, it felt like I had arrived at the ski town idyll. Alpenglow lit up the dramatic cliffs and peaks above where this road ended. The haven had an energy about it. The streets were lined with happy drunk hippy mountain people and Texan tourists on Spring Break. I had been there all of 20 minutes and I already felt like Telluride had me questioning all of my major life choices. Like a good cult, I could see how this utopia sucks you in. Touristy? Trendy? Completely unaffordable? Yeah, yeah, yeah. All of those things, for sure. But damn, those mountains…

I stayed at the Lumiere. The place is definitely not for people in my income bracket, but maybe you aren’t in my income bracket. Regardless, the room was large and comfortable and the staff treated both me and Topaz as if we were royalty. The Lumiere is in the Mountain Village, a very Intrawesty cluster of hotels, restaurants, bars, a plaza, an ice rink, and tourists with the most perfectly bred Labradors I’ve ever seen. All of the hotels (and mansions) here have as simple access to the chairlifts as you could ask for.

In all, it looked like Telluride had inbounds and backcountry skiing that was probably the steepest, rowdiest, and biggest in the country.

They are also close to the commuter gondola. Once one arrives in Telluride, there is no reason to ever get in a car. Running from 6 am to midnight, the three-mile long gondola, which opened as the first of its kind in 1996, has now carried over 37 million passengers. It heads up and over the hill, and descends right into the middle of Telluride. In the morning after my arrival, I took the gondola into town where I was meeting someone for breakfast at the New Sheridan Hotel. Along the way, I passed folks commuting to their jobs in the village—reading the paper, taking naps, staring at their phones.

It was a beautiful, warm Colorado spring day. After breakfast we got on one of the two beautiful old double chairs that ascend the mountain from Telluride. It was still early and the mountain was in a refreeze cycle, so we did more looking than skiing. The “lines” into Bear Creek baffled me. Gold Hill, though scoured and bare from high temps and higher winds, looked rowdy and fun. Palmyra Peak seemed ambitious and steep. It is incredible that it is controlled terrain. In all, it looked like Telluride had inbounds and backcountry skiing that was probably the steepest, rowdiest, and biggest in the country.

We skied a couple of slushy groomers before we ended up at the “Beach,” which had wood buildings from the 1800 mining days serving beer and stadium style seating with lawn chairs for skiers to enjoy live music. I ate some chili-mac next to some Texans and then called it a day. Topaz needed a walk.

Scott Hargreaves, John Clary Davies, and Matt Steen take in the San Juans with Helitrax. PHOTO: Brett Schreckengost

The next morning I took the gondola commute to meet Brett Schreckengost and Victor Major for a ski tour. Schreckengost is a longtime photographer and filmmaker who has contributed to POWDER and lived in the area since the mid-90s. Major is a young former ski racer turned big mountain skier. A few weeks prior, I watched Major ski at the Taos Freeride World Qualifier. It was the second time he had ever competed in such an event. He took second place.

The three of us rode a series of chairlifts until there were no more above us to ride. We took off our skis and walked through a backcountry gate and then skied down a ridgeline and into a massive basin. We skied underneath the beautiful San Joaquin Couloir, a local proving ground.

We attached our skins, shed layers, and toured up another basin to a ridgeline. The sun was smoking everything now, especially us. At the top, the San Juans stretched forever. Schreckengost pointed out Silverton and the Weminuche and the many lines just above his home in Ophir. Major rattled off a number of big ski lines he had skied in the area. We ate croissants I picked up from the Butcher and the Baker, ripped off skins, and began the 2,500 descent to Schreckengost’s house.

We skied pockets of corn, pockets of refreeze, pockets of glue, and pockets of death, on our way to a road. We poled by the former house of Ace Kvale, another longtime POWDER contributor, and then across patches of snow in a meadow, to Schreckengost’s modest cabin. Ophir is an Alpine style hamlet with wood homes and no commercial spaces. Healthy looking cows with large bells around their neck would feel right at home.

Schreckengost and I sat on benches and leaned against the wood office he built, staring up at the intimidating mountains above his home. Major sat on a backpack in the snow. We cracked Coors Light cans and talked about the Southwest. The snow was quickly disappearing, revealing several dog toys. Nessie, Schreckengost’s 120-pound yellow Lab threw a destroyed tennis ball to herself, plunging her face in the snow to retrieve it. From inside we could hear the cries of joy from Schreckengost’s 1-year-old son, Brody.

Ski towns are running out of these kinds of bars. The types of places you can hear and smell from a block away.

As we loaded his truck to drive back to Telluride, a couple backcountry skiers asked us for a ride. We recognized one another from the afternoon prior, when I received a tour of the Wagner Skis facility from Pete Wagner, the custom ski company’s founder. They are taking requests for skis and pressing them right there in Telluride’s Mountain Village, just down the plaza from the chairlifts. Scott Hargreave, who has helped press nearly every ski with the Wagner name and Eric Mularz, who was fine-tuning the edges of a new ski when we met, loaded into the truck and we wrapped around the mountains back into Telluride. I loaded one of the slow doubles back up the mountain with Major. The aromatic scent of weed wafted from the lift ahead of us. We parted ways and I skied slushy bumps in an under-layer back to the Mountain Village.

Scott Hargreaves, who presses skis for Wagner Custom Skis, drops in to Junior’s in the Telluride backcountry with Helitrax. PHOTO: Brett Schreckengost

From my first walk through town, I knew I’d end up at the Last Dollar Saloon sooner or later. The forces of Telluride would have it no other way (nor did I want it any other way). Ski towns are running out of these kinds of bars. The types of places you can hear and smell from a block away. I saddled up at the bar and had a pint of Telluride Brewing Company’s Face Down Brown, then walked across the street and ate some mediocre pizza and had another beer while watching my March Madness bracket crumble. Disheartened and wanting some quiet, I got in the empty singles line for the gondola ride back to the hotel. I rode the lift with a family who had also come in for dinner. It was pitch dark except for the glow from the phones of their teenage boys. Their youngest daughter, about 5, sat on her mom’s lap and pointed out different constellations.

I had plans to leave in the morning, but I received an invite to get into a helicopter with my skis from Helitrax, the heli-skiing outfit that operates out of the base of the Mountain Village. I knew I would be forever disenfranchised from the skiing community if I said no, so I changed my plans.

The office graciously said they’d look after Topaz, who made a sprint for freedom just as the helicopter was about to land on the 18th hole of the Telluride Mountain Village golf course. Hargreaves, Schreckengost, and our guide, the affable Matt Steen, waited patiently while I corralled the dog. We soon forgot that episode as we flew above the San Juans, marveling at their incredible expanse.

We landed atop a peak with a north-facing couloir called Junior’s. It was too early for the refrozen snow to be soft, so we hung around the peak for an hour getting to know one another a little better. Steen recently proposed to his girlfriend as their helicopter took off from a peak near Silverton, then they skied their way back to Telluride. (She said yes.)

I skied last. The couloir held pockets of chalk but the snow seems pretty irrelevant. A helicopter dropped us on top of a mountain and then we skied through a 1,000-foot, beautiful couloir with walls taller than any building in the town I grew up in. It was fucking awesome.

We skied another 1,500 feet down through some shady trees and along a sunny road until we reached an opening. We sat on our jackets in the snow eating turkey sandwiches until we heard the helicopter. We huddled up and held on to our hats as the machine landed in front of our faces.

The weightlessness as we flew up and over a ridgeline was breathtaking—far better than the best rollercoaster in the world. We flew over a large basin and to another flank. The nose of the helicopter and its skids rested precipitously on the edges of a massive slope, and its tail hung off an endless cliff. The pilot floated away as gracefully as a raven.

We skied 2,000 feet of punchy corn down to the basin, arcing slow, controlled turns. Then we traversed over to a knoll overlooking the town of Telluride and clicked out of our skis. We sat in the snow and opened cans of beer.

When they were empty, we skied through steep trees and sticky snow, past snow cascading off massive cliffs, ice falls, through the old mining facilities, and back into town.

There’s about 55 miles of highway that connects Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to Chama, New Mexico, through the Rio Grande National Forest, that might be the most beautiful drive in the Southwest. As I drove it, the sun was at our backs, turning the tall pines golden. I pulled over on a gravel shoulder between the welcome to New Mexico “Keep New Mexico True” sign and the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign. Topaz and I both stretched, relieved ourselves, and had a snack. As I looked back into Colorado, a pink/orange alpenglow had settled on the San Juans along the horizon.

The author and the always game terrier mutt Topaz. PHOTO: Selfie alert!

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