The mountains are stunning. Some of the best lines in all of the world are right in front of Seth Morrison. He’s sitting on a bench on a Victorian-house lined street, a cup of coffee in his hand and one of the locals sitting beside him.
They’re discussing safety, a popular topic of discussion around these parts. While they talk in subtle tones, Morrison’s gaze is set upward at those snow-capped peaks, likely visualizing what’s to come. Early morning wake-up calls and countless hours of hiking; world-class couloirs and some of the most spectacular high alpine scenery in the country.
He’ll be trusting the judgment and advice of men he only recently met and then staring down the kind of lines that make even him, a man considered one of the premiere big mountain skiers in the world, take pause. But he trusts these newfound friends; he has no choice – they know this place, it’s good sides and its bad sides, better than anyone.
For now, he’s safe, on this park bench in a town known as much for its mining history as its mountain terrain. It’s not the type of place to garner travel features in magazines or long chair lift lines, but that’s mainly because it’s not a place for everyone. The majority of the ski community couldn’t survive the backcountry terrain this area has to offer. But for those who can handle the steep lines and some of the most dangerous snowpack in the country, it’s a place that rivals the most renowned mountains in the world – and it’s just 200 miles from Denver as the crow flies.
Welcome to Telluride, Colorado.
The minerals were valuable long before the terrain. Surrounded by the San Juan Mountains, Telluride’s terrain, early on, was more of a detriment to the young town’s appeal than it was a benefit.
These days, Telluride’s scenic appeal (and the film festival) is known to attract a range of celebrities, but its first celebrity wasn’t so welcome. Due to the town’s wealth in those early years, it attracted a bank robber in 1889 who stole almost $24,000 in mining payroll from the San Miguel National Bank. His name was Butch Cassidy and it was his first bank robbery.
When a prospector discovered gold in 1875, the town followed soon after (originally founded as Columbia). Getting in and out, however, was no easy feat. Still, the lure of riches and the establishment of a railroad enticed nearly 5,000 people to make the town their home in those early years.
A combination of happenings changed the town’s fortunes. Silver prices dropped and then the price of gold was fixed during World War I, bringing a close to the town’s mining boom. It sustained due to the presence of copper, lead and zinc, which was useful during World War II, but by that time, most of the men in the mines were forced to consider new lines of work; many joined the armed forces or moved on to war-related industries.
With the mountain’s reservoirs of precious metals sapped and less valuable, most of the families packed up and headed elsewhere. By the 1960s, the thriving mining town transformed into a ghost town as the population shrunk to almost 600 residents.
Telluride’s renaissance would come in the 1970s when a group of residents and entrepreneurs recognized that the once problematic terrain was potentially Telluride’s greatest asset. The Telluride Ski Resort was established in 1971 and the first chair lifts were installed. The ski junkies moved in and the town has held steady at more than 2,000 people for the past decade.
A couloir, is a narrow gully with a steep gradient in a mountainous terrain. A couloir may be a seam, scar, or fissure, or vertical crevasse in an otherwise solid mountain mass.
The steep lines in the Telluride backcountry will challenge a skier; the terrain might take their life. But when the conditions come together and a rider is flying through the chute on the Hairy Banana or executing a flawless hard-rail turn on the San Joaquin couloir, there are few more fulfilling moments in a big mountain skiers’ lifetime.
Avalanches aren’t an everyday happening in the Telluride backcountry (which spans 2,000-plus acres), but they’re a very real threat to anyone who tempts the terrain, regardless of experience or knowledge. Thank the surrounding deserts and the resulting temperamental snowpack. The combination of early-season snowfall, high altitude, low humidity, steep terrain and shallow snowpack make for precarious conditions: mainly, what’s called Depth Hoar .
Low-density snow falling at high altitude creates faceted snow crystals, which never bond. Essentially, it’s snowpack situated on ball-bearings, ready and able to come crashing downhill – from the top layer through to the dirt – at any given moment. “It’s like skiing with dynamite on your feet out there,” explained Constantine Papanicolaou, a renowned ski filmer who was on the trip.
Morrison, traveling with a small, but accomplished crew on his first trip to Telluride in several years was accompanied by Jacob Wester, a long-haired 26-year-old Swede with a knack for huge technical aerial maneuvers. For Jacob (pronounced Ya-cob), this adventure would be his first major backcountry expedition, but with a long history in competitive skiing, his talent was certainly up to task – his conditioning however, was another matter.
Skinning enables skiers (and some snowboarders) to travel through the mountains in deep snow. Historically made of seal skin, the modern version is constructed of a one-way carpet-like plush that allows traction in one direction and glide in the other. Affixed to the bottom of skis using a combination of tacky glue and tip and/or tail clips, they allow backcountry travelers to break trail in deep snow and to ascend steep slopes. Prior to descending, they are removed from the bottom of skis.
“I came into the trip with the single goal of trying to keep up with Seth; basically, don’t chicken-out on top of sketchy runs,” Wester admitted. “I was also a bit worried about the trip being too physically challenging with all that skinning every day at such elevation.”
“[My goal on this trip] was to not get killed,” Morrison admitted. “There are just so many situations you can get yourself into out there.”
With most peaks clearing 13,000 feet, hikes from the lift drop-offs to the various lines ranged from 45 minutes to three hours. Every morning would prove a new adventure, with acute attention paid to the previous nights’ weather: heavy, dry winds translated to slabs and increased avalanche activity; heavy snowfall meant the chance for powder runs and pristine photo conditions.
“We were lucky because things were safe while the guys were here, but the majority of the year it’s definitely not a situation where you see a line and just go get it. You’ve got to understand what’s going on,” explained Greg Hope, a local skier who helped support and navigate the crew around the area. “The movies and the magazines like to glamorize backcountry skiing, but you’ve got to remember that it’s pretty powerful out there and you can quickly get yourself lost or in a really bad situation. You’ve got to pay your dues.”
Greg Hope – toe-headed and grisly-bearded while still only 20 years of age – has lived in Telluride all his life. His experience, knowledge and guidance were vital to the crew’s success all week long. That’s the nature of the ski community in these parts.
Whereas some mountains are afflicted with a sense of localism and a desire to keep certain cherished runs as unadulterated as possible, in Telluride, questions that were asked were answered. Advice was passed around like water, shared with anyone willing to venture into the tough terrain.
Nearly everyone in town is a skier and those who live there and ski the backcountry year after year, they’re survivors. They understand the terrain and what’s required of them. They also recognize the appeal. As Hope said, backcountry skiing has been glamorized. It’s visually stunning and away from the densely populated runs. It’s challenging and fulfilling. But it comes with a toll.
“Sadly, we have a history of some deaths, of some locals dying. This place is no joke. When avis happen, they’re brutal,” he said. “When people die here, it’s not from suffocation; it’s from trauma, of just being beaten. There are stories of packs being ripped off, of people coming out without their jackets or their snow pants. It’s serious stuff.”
Those who’ve come to Telluride and managed to harness what its backcountry has to offer have often done so by gleaning insights from those who know it best. Making friends with the locals was key, even for the likes of Morrison and Wester. “They were pretty open for not knowing us,” Morrison said. “Almost every day we were meeting new people who lived in town and learning something new about the mountains and the terrain or just some grain of knowledge.”
The hospitality is slightly misunderstood. As one local puts it, “we’re not nice, we’re just lonely.” That loneliness served Morrison and Wester well because it was the sage advice of the locals, from ski patrol to the bus driver, that clued the crew into what they needed to be aware of in order to stay alive and score the best lines.
“In most small ski towns, a skinny, blond, Swedish city boy like myself stands out like a sore thumb, but in Telluride, I felt like I was right at home,” Wester said. “We were hanging out [with the locals] after skiing, drinking beers, telling stories and talking about the different runs. Everyone had this great easy-going, hippie kind of vibe.”
“You have to be focused at every moment. I was always thinking about my form because sloppiness leads to mistakes, which leads to a fall, which could mean…”
Morrison didn’t need to finish the thought. Considering the consequences is always possible on the mountain, but rarely productive.
Between the snowpack and the complexity of the various lines, it’s necessary for skiers to be hyper-aware while on the mountain. At times, that mental discipline could prove as taxing on the body as any physical element of the daily adventures.
When the crew communicated its wish list of lines, the guides were skeptical. Nearly a dozen classic, challenging lines were identified, a list that would typically take an entire season – or for some, a lifetime – to accomplish.
Day after day, new challenges arose for the crew. Palmayra Peak into the town of Ophir; lots of turns on big, open faces. A two-hour skin to the Plumdrop couloir; the Why couloir, which leads directly into large, unwelcoming cliffs.
Every rider had his own standout moments. The runs they’ll remember forever; the incidents they’d soon rather forget.
For Morrison, who’d been to Telluride for a ski race as a teen and for a wake in his early 20s, it was an opportunity for him to test himself on terrain he’d only seen in photos and videos.
“The terrain is the real deal; you walk to ski, you put in the work before you ever even get to test yourself going downhill,” he said. “It’s a pretty large collection of lines in the area, so they’re not going to be crowded, which is nice. But you always need more time.
“For me, the Hairy Banana stood out,” he continued. “It looks so thin from afar. It really helps give you some perspective when you get in there. Once you were in there, or in any of the couloirs, you really had to focus at every moment, making shifts in speed. Anything could cause you to lose an edge and most of those runs were no-fall zones. Over-confidence can easily get the better of anyone out there, so, we were fortunate we all got out of there safe.”
For Wester, hitting an old mining trestle, which served as a perfect kicker for backflips and other high-flying antics was a shining moment. Hope, the guide, shared that spotlight, showcasing his own style and skill on the more park-centric feature. But the line Wester will best remember is San Joaquin, the crown jewel couloir of the mountain.
“It wasn’t particularly scary, or difficult, it’s a pretty mellow run by comparison to the others. It’s just such a landmark,” Wester said. “It stares you right in your face from the opposite side of the valley, then you’re on top if it an hour later, staring down into it.”
Telluride and the mountains that define it are there, available to any and all comers. But not everyone is willing to take their skills and their life to the extreme limit that Telluride’s backcountry and the San Juan’s demand.
Those who know, know. It isn’t a place for just any skier and it never will be. Most of the people who venture into the backcountry, they know what they’re risking; they know they need to respect the place and the people who live there because, at times, that’s what can be the difference between life and death. Telluride is never going to be a major mountain resort like Aspen or Breckenridge or Vail – and for those who appreciate what Telluride represents and has to offer, that’s good news. It will always serve as a benchmark; a place talked about with a certain air of awe and inspiration, even for those who will never know the feeling of successfully navigating and conquering The Wire, The Elevens or The Grandfather.
Telluride is and will remain a place for only those who are willing and able to risk it all.