Monday, January 14, 2008

"Please do not urinate on the peak"

So says the sign atop Alberta Peak at Wolf Creek, the final stop on our weekend swing through southwest Colorado. My wife and I left Thursday morning and hit, in order, Kendall Mountain, Silverton, Purgatory (DMR), Hesperus and Wolf Creek.

It was an interesting excursion. Wolf Creek Pass didn't reopen until Wednesday afternoon, after being closed since Sunday. We'd originally planned to take the northern route through Gunnison and makea loop out of it, but Red Mountain Pass didn't open until Thursday night.

We arrived at Silverton at about 3:30 p.m., just enough time for my wife to catch a few runs at Kendall Mountain. It's Silverton's local hill - about 200 vertical feet, $15 lift tickets and one, newly installed chairlift. With just a few school kids on the hill, Carrie caught some powder turns and said there were some fun little tree shots.

Friday we were skiing Silverton Mountain, the all-expert, double-diamond-only backcountry legend. The only thing legendary about our day there was how bad the weather was. The area didn't open until 11 a.m. - at one point, they called all the ski patrollers together to hold a vote on whether they'd open at all. We only got three runs in, two of which were nothing special. The last, down the Stooges, was knee-deep powder. So the potential was certainly there.

Probably the worst thing was listening to people who had skied on Thursday say "Yesterday, this was all powder" as we skied across bullet-proof wind-blown crust. Our guide, John, had to stop us a couple times because the wind and cold were causing white spots on our faces - incipient frostbite.

Silverton's a great town, though. I've never been in a place so quiet. At one point we saw a coyote running down main street.

Saturday we hit Purgatory, or, as it's called these days "Durango Mountain Resort." Purgatory is a way cooler name. For a resort that aspires to be a Breckenridge or a Copper, DMR was nothing special. If you've skied the blues at Breck, you won't find anything very interesting at Purgatory. The place was pretty well skied out, too. We found a trace of powder in some of the trees. Pretty scenery, though.

We got bored with Purgatory around lunch time and headed to Hesperus. A lot of people haven't heard of this place. It's Durango's local area - one lift and a couple hundred acres of converted cow pasture 20 minutes outside of town. I kid you not: the boundary rope was barb wire fence. The "slow" sign at the base of the lift was borrowed from a construction site.

Don't let any of this deter you: Hesperus rocked. The only people there were kids and dudes in camo or coveralls. And, god bless them, they stayed on the kiddie hill. With maybe 500 feet of vertical, Hesperus had some steep sections and, a week after the big dump, those steeps were still covered in powder. There were even some miniature cliff shots.

I'm not kidding: We found better powder at Hesperus than at Purgatory (and we both took harder crashes at Hesperus than we did at Silverton). We had a lot of fun spending an afternoon there. I'm not saying it would be worth a 300-mile drive, but if you're in the area, it's sure as heck worth $32.

Finally, we stopped at Wolf Creek on Sunday. We'd debated blowing off Wolf to save some cash and get home a little earlier. We actually stopped at a gas station in Pagosa Springs just to ask somebody with skis on their car what the conditions were. They advised us to stick around and that was sound, sound advice. We got up there at 9 a.m. and were one of the first cars in the lot. All day long, we were skiing runs without seeing another soul.

First run, we hiked up Alberta Peak. It was pretty wind-blown and cold up there, but two turns on the crust and it was powder the rest of the way down. It looked skied out, but it was actually really, really good. The entire rest of the day, we did laps on the Alberta Lift (which, despite the name, doesn't go back up the peak). It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, a week after the last storm, and we were skiing shin-deep powder. It was amazing. Just fantastic, fantastic conditions.

Mostly, we were dropping down off the Coyote Loop cat track -the further back we went, the better the powder got. We stared down our vertigo for one run off the Knife Ridge. That traverse is just plain scary, but the powder provided soft landings off the ridge line.

We skied until 2:30, didn't have a bad run and were back in the Springs four hours later.
Anyway, I hope to do a story about the southwestern ski areas at some point (got the headline already: "Western Slopes"), but I wanted to throw this out there for anyone planning a trip this winter.


Dave Philipps said...

Your trip is not yet complete. You must go back for Lake City Municipal Skin Knoll.

AndyW said...

It's worse than that, even. There's a rope tow in Durango called "Chapman Hill."

And can someone give me a ruling on Howelson Hill? Is that really a ski area, or just a ski jumping site?

John said...

Howelson Hill has a jump site on one side of the hill and on the other is the ski area. We raced there in college, otherwise I likely would never have skied there. It's mostly a stick chaser hill as it's only long enough for a slalom, maybe a medium to short GS.

AndyW said...

Thanks for the info. My wife has skied every ski area in the state except Sol Vista, Powderhorn - and, depending on your interpretation, Lake City, Chapman Hill and Howelson. She'd like to hit them all, but none of this stuff is a hop, skip and a jump, you know?