There are literally millions of potential ski lines in the San Juans, from Telluride and Ophir at the western edge of the range to Red Mountain and Wolf Creek passes, to Chama (New Mexico), south and east.
Whatever your free-heel choice – alpine touring, telemarking – these mountains, with their year-round high passes and ski lifts providing easy access to uncontrolled alpine terrain, are increasingly sought out by hard-core aficionados.
I don’t use “hard-core” as flippant cool. There’s a reason the gurus of the sport are grizzled and gray. It takes study, a cautious nature and years of experience to get even a partial handle on the steep terrain and famously weak snowpack here.
So before you take off on your own for a hut trip to one of Joe Ryan’s San Juan Huts (five huts, 60 miles of trail linking them, on the north slope of the Sneffels Range; SanJuanHuts.com; 970/903-7039), do yourself and everyone else in your posse a favor and sign up for a three-day course with the Silverton Avalanche School (Level 1 or Level 2, eight courses throughout the winter; firstname.lastname@example.org; 970/903-7039).
There are other schools, too. San Juan Mountain Guides, in Ouray and Durango (970/325-4925), offers avy courses throughout the winter. They also operate the newly opened and fully catered OPUS Hut (it means Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski experience), from which high-perch powder lines radiate like ridge-and-couloir dreams.
Or sign up for a half- or full-day tour with Telluride Adventures/San Juan Outdoor School (tellurideadventures.om; 970/728-4101). Their outings are designed to teach the basics of safe travel in the backcountry: gear, route finding, group protocol in avalanche country and so on.
The message comes across quickly that it’s not just about powder skiing (though it is about that, of course). Over time, it’s more about weather – a winter’s history, written in snow layers – and about self-sufficiency, self-rescue, good equipment, good judgment and good, trustworthy ski partners.
All Colorado backcountry sliders, at least the ones who hope to reach grizzled and gray, tune in daily to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us). They put out the best weather and snow-stability forecasts around, region-by-region, across the state.
And, as CAIC pioneer Knox Williams used to say every morning on the radio: “As always, be careful out there.”