Last season, 2 of my fellow ski writers, Peter and Phil, and I decided we were in need of a change of scenery from the mundane man-made snow of the east and ventured to Colorado to hopefully, get some good skiing. Before I go any further I have to change that to fantastic skiing!
We started our trip in Albany and flew directly to Montrose, Colorado. All bags and personal arrived safely. After getting our car we drove on some very clear highway to Crested Butte a couple hours away. The weather report was for snow that evening and as we pulled up to our lodging in the center of the Crested Butte ski area it did start to snow. It snowed and snowed and snowed all night. The next morning it was still snowing and the trails had about 14” of fresh fluffy Colorado powder for us to play in.
Crested Butte has 1547 acres of skiable terrain and 2775 vertical feet of lift serviced terrain. On our first run down with our guide Erica Mueller, we saw this big dog bound out of the woods and cross our trail into the woods on the other side. It turned out to be a timber wolf. (Wildlife abounds in Colorado!) We skied all over the mountain except for the more extreme trails that Crested Butte is noted for (I am beyond in years to take any extreme trails anymore). Powder skiing at its best!
We took a lunch break at Uley’s cabin where you can get a nice interesting and different gourmet lunch or dinner. It’s much different than the usual fair at most ski area cafeterias. Out in front of Uley’s is an ice bar where a quick warm up schnapps or hot toddy might be in order on your way along the trail. This place was bordering on the ski experience of lunch being as important as skiing like you would find in Europe. But that’s a completely different story which will be coming up soon.
It continued to snow into the second day and now we had about 30” of powder to deal with. I must admit that to ski in 30” I am not the greatest. You need to go straight and fast both of which I do not like to do. Needless to say the second day was a day of falling since I tend to overturn to slow myself down and thus fall. It’s not fun getting up from a deep powder surface. We then took a lunch break at the new Umbrella Bar which is at the top of the Gold Link lift. After lunch we ventured out to find an easier way down that side of the mountain. Conditions had gotten close to a whiteout at the time so the visibility was zero. We were following a couple skiers along a trail that appeared to be an easy one and then they disappeared. Then the trail disappeared. We were in a whiteout. We couldn’t see where we were going other than we were on the periphery of the ski area. So I went ahead. BIG mistake.
I dropped into an abyss and started to pick up speed. The snow was over my knees and there was no visibility. I was finely balancing with my skis starting and lunging forward as the terrain dropped off. Then I stopped dead in my tracks. There I was, stopped in snow up to my thighs. My legs felt like they were in concrete. There was no visibility and I could not move. I started to think that this may be a good time for the ski patrol to pick me up. I slowly tried to lift my skis one at a time a little bit at a time until I got them to about a foot below the powder surface. I slowly began to move forward. I could barely see that there was a groomer’s track ahead but I certainly was not sure. When I got to that spot my skis were moving more freely. It turned out to be a trail called Columbine Hill and the groomed area was a snowshoe trail.
As we progressed down, I looked back and saw Phil do a 360 full forward flip into a snowbank. It took him awhile to get straightened up. I was too far below him to offer assistance. So much for experiencing new trails at an area you are not totally familiar with in a whiteout.
On the third day we saw the sun for first time as we made the drive to the mountain. It was fairly well groomed but you still could find some loose powder stashes tucked away along the side of a trail or in a wooded area.
I have been to Crested Butte 4 times now. I have never been disappointed. Each time the ski conditions have been great. The fresh powder was icing on the cake. Even though I had a tough time skiing it, it was a great learning experience. We don’t get fresh soft fluffy dry powder here in the east very often.
The next morning, we left Crested Butte and began our drive to Durango to ski Purgatory. The trip over was both beautiful and interesting as we drove over the top of a mountain pass from Ouray to Silverton. The pass could easily have been closed due to the heavy snowfall earlier in the week.
This road is called the Million Dollar Highway and stretches for about 25 miles as it follows U.S. Route 550 between Silverton and Ouray. It’s part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Between Durango and Silverton, the Skyway loosely parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Though the entire stretch is called the Million Dollar Highway, it’s really the twelve miles (19 km) south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass which gains the highway its name. The stretch through the gorge is challenging and potentially hazardous to drive. It’s characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guardrails. The ascent of Red Mountain Pass is marked with a number of hairpin curves used to gain elevation, and again, narrow lanes for traffic—many cut directly into the sides of mountains. During this ascent, the remains of the Idarado Mine are visible. Travel north from Silverton to Ouray allows drivers to hug the inside of curves; travel south from Ouray to Silverton perches drivers on the vertiginous outside edge of the highway. Large RVs travel in both directions, which adds a degree of excitement (or danger) to people in cars. The road is kept open year-round. Summer temperatures can range from 70–90 °F highs at the ends of the highway to 50–70 °F in the mountain passes. The snow season starts in October, and snow will often close the road in winter. Chains may be required to drive.
North of Durango, the highway passes by Trimble Springs, a hot spring that has been open for visitors since the late 19th century. The highway runs north along the Animas River, under the Hermosa Cliffs. It enters the San Juan National Forest and goes past Haviland Lake and Electra Lake. Drivers pass by Engineer Mountain and Twilight Peak before crossing Coal Bank Pass. Next is Molas Pass, which offers a panoramic view of Molas Lake, the Animas River Gorge, and Snowdon Peak. Northbound travelers then pass through the town of Silverton, elevation 9,320 feet (2841 m). It’s surrounded by 13,000 foot (4000 m) peaks Sultan Mountain, Kendall Mountain, and Storm Peak.
The highway leaves Silverton and proceeds up Mineral Creek Valley before ascending to Red Mountain Pass. The ruins of the Longfellow Mine are visible along the way. The highway then goes through a series of steep grades and hairpin turns before reaching Lookout Point, which offers a view of the town of Ouray.
The trip was white knuckles all the way and to be honest I did not want to drive back on the same highway so I let someone else drive and I took the pictures.
So we are now at Purgatory, a ski area that none of us have ever been too. Sitting in the more southerly part of the state of Colorado just outside of the city of Durango we find an area that services the city well. There are 1525 acres of skiing with 2029 feet of vertical, plenty of trails to ski with tremendous variety. We skied there for 3 days.
At first we were told Durango has all these plateaus that intercepted their fall line but it turned only to be crossover trails on the front face. This was nothing to be turned off about. Much to our surprise the backside of the area is where most of the skiing was. To be honest it was some of the best skiing I have had in years. Why? Well firstly they received the same 30” of snow that we had in Crested Butte but now the sun was out and everything was corduroy skiing. We skied all day and still found untouched corduroy late in the day. There were trails that were so varied and wide, like Boggie and Peace, that you could ski them all day and pick different lines as if you were not really skiing the same trail each run. They were so wide and varied with little cut offs and rollers that it was just a ball to ski. Many of their trails were that way. After skiing there, we’re convinced we we’ll go back.
For après ski there were options at the mountain but driving down to Durango, about 30 minutes away, there are many more choices for dinner and night life. Durango is not a small ski town like Crested Butte but a much larger city that does not mainly cater to skiers and tourists.
Our trip back to Montrose was back over the Million Dollar Highway. Again I let Peter drive while I took the pictures. Our plane connections were perfect and all and all it was a great trip to remember forever especially when last year was a bust in the east. Thankfully, this year is off to a much better start.