MOUNTAIN VILLAGE – A headline on the cover of the October Powder magazine reads, “O.B. at Colorado’s Baddest Resort.” Flip to page 80, and find the predictable ski mag photo: A skier, waist-deep in the white stuff, spitting up a plume of snow in his wake as he points it down a perfectly untouched line.
It’s the kind of photo that makes you wish you were there. But wait: You have been there. The name of your home resort is splashed across the opposite page, announcing it as “America’s greatest backcountry resort.”
Telluride (or T-Ride, as the article’s headline reads) was the feature story in this month’s edition of this nationally circulated ski magazine, touted as a rising giant in the contemporary “side-country” skiing revolution. “One thing is for certain,” author Porter Fox writes. “The Telluride of 2010 is skiing like the biggest of America’s big mountains. And if things go according to plan, it may soon be the greatest backcountry ski resort in the country.”
It’s an impressive 12-page spread, complete with a montage of classic powder shots featuring local skiers you have probably said “hey” to in the lift line, as well as badass photographs of routes that a few of us can point out from atop Lift 14 and even fewer of us will ever ski. (We know, after all, that lines like San Joaquin chute and Heaven’s 11 Couloir are reserved for the local ski realm’s notorious, like Josh Geeter and the Russell brothers, and not us mere mortals.)
Throughout the piece, Fox paints Telluride as a community in a tug-of-war with its past and future, at once a “Gatsby-esque” town on the verge of a total sell-out, shedding its rough-around-the-edges mystique in its quest to gain entry into the resort world’s aristocracy. He mentions “hot beds” as the local buzzword, and writes of Mountain Village’s ongoing battle to achieve that hazy goal of vibrancy as the resort’s Achilles’ Heel.
But it’s also a place where snowboarders drink PBRs while hiking to some of the resort’s recently opened extreme terrain on Gold Hill Ridge; a place where locals ski dodgy lines in lift-accessed backcountry in the mornings and sell real estate in the afternoons; and a place where there might still be one lone ski bum living in a derelict mining shack in the woods near the bottom of a popular backcountry ski tour.
Telluride is also a place where, at least from the Powder perspective, the mantra of skiing for skiing’s sake is making a comeback. With the last three years of expansions into rougher and more extreme terrain like Palmyra Peak and Gold Hill Ridge, the new Revelation Lift that serves up even easier access to the iconic Bear Creek backcountry, as well as the based-in-reality buzz that more expansions could be on Telluride’s horizon, the Powder piece builds a solid case for Telluride being a resort on the most adventuresome end of the ski industry’s cutting edge.
The man portrayed as leading the charge for this local adventure-skiing revolution is Telluride Ski and Golf Co. CEO Dave Riley, who gets his fair share of the spotlight in the “Rising T-Ride” piece. Described as a mustachioed, soul patch-wearing visionary in microfiber who’s bent on bringing more powder to the people, Fox writes of Riley: “He may well have stumbled across a formula to get the West’s ski resorts back on their feet. Rule one: Turning a ski area into a real estate brokerage works great until you run out of real estate to sell. And two: To keep people coming to your resort – you need to teach them to love to ski.”
I sat down with Riley this week to ask him what he thought of the Powder piece, and whether calling Telluride “America’s greatest backcountry resort” was on par with the resort’s plans for its future. He reiterated that the Resort is still in the “listening phase,” as he calls it, in relation to its creation of a new Master Plan (which has been requested by the Forest Service, and could include, among other things, expansion of the resort’s boundaries into Bear Creek.)
Results from a communitywide survey Telski sent to the public this spring brought back a few surprises, he said, but also affirmed that the ski resort is heading in the right direction in other aspects of its planning process. There wasn’t much support for night skiing, although Riley received a big nod of approval from Telluride Middle and High School students when he talked to them about the night skiing idea last school year, and some of the survey’s big-ticket ideas (like building a tram to the top of Palmyra Peak, or erecting ski lifts from here to Silverton) elicited concern about the economic feasibility of large-scale projects. Riley noted, however, that since a Master Plan typically spans a time frame of many decades, financial aspects of the plan shouldn’t necessarily filter out aspirations for the future of the ski resort.
“This is the time when you’re supposed to really dream; that’s where the plan is now. You worry about how things get phased and paid for later,” he said of the Ski Area’s ongoing task to create a Master Plan.
Concepts that did garner sweeping approval were plans for more glading (already underway) as well as the idea that Telluride should strive to build smaller, European-style restaurants rather than larger, more traditional cafeteria-style dining establishments on the mountain.
Perhaps the most contested idea that has developed under the Master Plan process is to build a chairlift in Delta Bowl, which Riley reports won a “slight majority” in favor among the survey’s participants.
He noted that the Ski Company will not release any definitive Master Plan strategies until the Mountain Village completes its Comprehensive Plan process, which began two years ago and is slated to wrap up, with Town Council approval, in the first quarter of 2011.
Major ski area expansions and Master Planning processes aside, Riley said the Powder article did hit on something the ski resort has been trying to promote since he took the helm in 2007: That Telluride is the place to come to, if you’re looking for adventure.
“I’ve learned that people want adventure in their vacation. A lot of ski resorts don’t have much adventure, but we’re fortunate because we have the ability to provide that – and that’s a really different experience,” he says. Being able to provide that kind of “adventure,” by making terrain like Gold Hill Chute No. 9 safe as well as accessible to intermediate-level skiers, is a “good business model” in the ski industry, Riley says.
But Riley also counters that steep, adventuresome terrain isn’t the resort’s only selling point right now. “It’s the whole package,” he says, noting the ski area’s recent push to emulate a more European ski experience – with small, boutique-style dining like at Alpino Vino – along with its location amid peaks reminiscent of the Alps and between two towns connected by a gondola, make for an experience visitors won’t find anywhere else on this continent. “All of a sudden, you’ve got a complete experience that blows away the normal North American ski vacation,” he says.
Whether or not Powder contributor Fox was blown away by the gondola ride into Telluride, or the heated deck at Alpino Vino, wasn’t revealed in his “Rising T-Ride” piece; Powder isn’t, after all, the kind of publication that usually prints stories about a ski area’s sightseeing or dining.
What did seem to blow the author away was simple: Telluride’s skiing. After his first trip down Gold Hill 9 with Telski public relations man Tom Watkinson, Fox writes: “Forget the marketing hype. Forget the acreage. The hallmark of a good resort is the ability to birddog powder, weeks after a storm. And the hallmark of a good person is someone who appreciates powder. So bring on the Fortune 500, introduce them to the white room and show them – firsthand – what we’re all so crazed about. God knows we’ll all be better off for it.”