Although, once, before we lost our innocence, it seemed that if anyplace could have it all, it might just be Telluride.
In modern Telluride’s founding myth, a group of town mothers and fathers went on a field trip to Zermatt in 1978 in search of inspiration. Like Telluride, Zermatt sits at the end of a narrow box canyon and boasts exceptional scenery. If Ajax Peak isn’t nearly as iconic as the Matterhorn, Telluride’s steeper terrain and more consistent snow quality make for better skiing.
Could we be the American Zermatt?
Thirty years ago it seemed possible. Back then almost anything seemed possible. Why not intercept all cars before they get to town and make Telluride a pedestrian village? If Zermatt could do it, why couldn’t we? Well, just because we’re American, apparently, and for the same reason that Geneva – where Carlos and Marta and I were stranded for extra days by the Icelandic volcano – has dozens of streetcar lines while Denver, a far bigger city, struggles to build just a few. That particular vision of a more perfect ski town in the form of a car-free Telluride seems all but impossible today.
Why do Europeans understand the virtue of dense urban areas and villages surrounded by farmland and open space and connected by public transit while we Americans insist on sprawl and highways?
And what gave the people of Zermatt the vision to preserve a large and diverse bedbase, which along with the pedestrian scale gives the town its vitality? Was it an ingrained Swiss-German culture of hospitality? A culturally inborn awareness that hosting visitors is an honorable profession and a viable basis of a sustainable economy? Like Telluride, Zermatters preserved their historic structures, but they also allowed density, to no apparent ill effect, which Telluride has resolutely shunned with one ill-conceived downzoning after another. In Zermatt, along with intercept parking, they built a train that operates with stereotypical Swiss efficiency to bring visitors to town. They have built a lift system of astounding breadth.
Well, in Telluride, at least we got one gondola that gets some of us out of our cars some of the time. In retrospect, having advanced no further toward pedestrianization, that seems like a huge accomplishment.
Meanwhile, over in Verbier, second homes and ski chalets sprawl American-style across the mesa. There isn’t a single two-star hotel in Verbier, and only one three-star hotel plus very costly four- and five-star hotels. We had to stay in a hovel down in Le Châble, and it wasn’t cheap. In Zermatt, there are hotels of every category and we were able to afford to stay right in town. We couldn’t afford to eat out in Verbier, either. In Zermatt, there were dozens of options within our budget. An ecosystem of small locally owned restaurants and retail businesses supported by visitors staying in hotels: What a concept!
But the lift-served skiing in Verbier was far more impressive, from what we saw on our brief stays in both places. Two cable cars access peaks that are almost entirely off-piste. In Zermatt, we found only one area of moderate steeps. It appeared that Zermatt supports a local community, to judge just from the owners of the hotel where we stayed. A middle-aged couple ran the place with their daughter. They welcomed us with exceptional warmth and affirmed that there are few black runs in Zermatt. It wasn’t our imagination.
We started our European tour in Chamonix. Les Grand Montets, the biggest ski area there, boasts an enormous vertical drop from the upper tram and plenty of black runs. In good snow, which we saw little of, it must be dazzling. But we got to ski a foot of fresh powder in the Vallee Blanche and onto the Mer de Glace. Now I get what Riley is up to with guided tours in Bear Creek. So the top of the Revelation Bowl isn’t quite the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, accessible by way of trams that carry skiers some 10,000 vertical feet above the town below. Bear Creek is not filled with (melting) glaciers and riddled with treacherous crevasses and seracs, but is perhaps even more exposed to avalanche chutes. Still, the appeal of lift served access to off-piste terrain is clear. That, more than what is available on-piste at Les Grand Montets, is what Chamonix is fundamentally about. It’s what local skiers love about Bear Creek and what they are passionate to protect.
But can Telluride really emulate Chamonix? Could there be a Tom Chapman in France? A property rights zealot who can single-handedly restrict access to the backcountry simply by acquiring an old mining claim and exploiting an obsolete law? Are the Europeans remotely as constrained as we Americans are by concerns about either liability or trespass?
We can be like Chamonix, with its deep, unfettered, professionalized mountaineering culture, no more easily, it seems, than we can truly emulate Zermatt, with its deeply ingrained culture of professionalized hospitality.
At all three European resorts where we skied, the vast majority of skiers were intermediate. They did not stray one single foot from the groomed pistes, even when there was untracked powder just a few feet away. We skied a lot of slopes that had barely been touched, but would have been entirely bumped up if they were in the U.S. Of course, we don’t have to worry about crevasses and seracs here or terrain so expansive and unpatrolled that one could easily get lost out there.
This likely varies from country to country, but where we skied it seemed there is a sharp distinction between recreational skiing – intermediate, stay on piste, enjoy a leisurely lunch, anyone can do it – and mountaineering, which is reserved for true experts. In America, we all imagine that we will not be intermediate for long and we will all someday stand on the summit. It takes five years of higher education to become a certified guide in Chamonix. Still, the unwary get in trouble all the time. Three skiers died in an avalanche off-piste at Les Grand Montets the day before we arrived. “It just means the snow is good,” the desk clerk at our hotel shrugged. Good off-piste, but not on-piste, and there’s the rub.
“There is nothing more beautiful than powder skiing,” our guide in the Vallee Blanche said, “and nothing more dangerous.”
Telluride has the essential ingredients for great on- and off-piste skiing that nature supplies: terrain and snow. It is our culture and our political system that, for better or worse, prevent us from offering what the best of the resorts in the Alps offer. In America, we allow a schmuck like Chapman to run amuck. By the opposite token, if Telluride were located in the Alps there would have been a tram from town up into Upper Bear Creek decades ago, and probably another accessing Ajax itself. We would be skiing to Silverton or Ouray from Telluride for lunch. We’d be off-piste in further reaches of the San Juans, as in Chamonix, where even the lesser ski areas provide lift access to great off-piste, according to our guide.
This is trash talk to our local environmentalist community, of course, which is up in arms over Telski’s modest plan for guided tours in Bear Creek, never mind any talk of future lifts there. Well, whatever it takes to protect our secret powder stashes, I suppose.
In the harsh aftermath of our great real estate bubble, there seems no doubt that Telluride has lost its innocence. And yet the die is not entirely cast, either. Though we have squandered far too many opportunities, there are great possibilities ahead. Unlike Chamonix or Verbier or Zermatt, we have not yet entirely fulfilled our destiny. We might still realize our potential to be something more, that rare place where the lift-served skiing is indeed great (like Verbier), the mountaineering is unfettered (like Chamonix), and, hardest of all given our all-American political and cultural biases and inhibitions and macroeconomic forces we can’t control, the community is intact (like Zermatt).
As we continue to dream of a more perfect ski town and strive to be worthy guardians of this place, both its exceptional environment and its endangered community, let us ponder the words of John Greenleaf Whittier: “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these: It might have been.”
Because someday, if we can’t figure out how to meet the challenges to our sustainability, we will run out of chances and it really will be too late.