Finding the Line

cartoon character of a man skiing

Meet the iconic artist, skier, and craftsman Yukon Steel

By Emily Shoff

Let’s start with the name: Yukon Steel. A name not given at birth but instead forged from his dominant passions: art, skiing, and metal work. In the beginning he was merely Yukon, a moniker given to the man who stitched his own leather clothing, his original name still fluttering behind him like a scarf. Later, he became Yukon Steel, a skier who pulled off legendary feats like fifty-one Allais Alley laps on Lift 6 in a single day and made a living by welding together half the town of Telluride. Today, he is Yukon Steel, the storyteller. A man who still skis a hundred days a season, crafts sculptures for friends and clients alike, and dispenses stories of skiing in and around Telluride the way winter dispenses snow: flake by flake, layer by layer, slowly transforming a mountain into an experience.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We can’t know the Yukon today without first scratching out the base layer, unearthing the roots. Born in Vermont to a family of ski patrollers, he learned to ski at age 3, chasing his dad around the mountain. He got really good at navigating ice and going fast, both of which informed the ski racing he did as a kid at Jay’s Peak and Thunder Mountain and in his next iteration as a renegade bump skier traveling on the pro mogul tour.

On a lark, he came out to Telluride in 1975 with a friend who’d heard there was good snow here. By that point, Steel had skied a handful of times in Colorado—in Steamboat and A-Basin—but never something like Telluride, with its feet of fresh powder, steep slopes, and Wild West vibe. “There were still miners working out at the mill, grabbing drinks in the bar at night,” says Steel. “At one point, I saw a woman walking a donkey down the middle of the street. It was an ‘anything goes’ kind of place.”

Steel stayed through the winter, living at the New Sheridan, where a room with breakfast was only $65 a month, and then renting a house with friends. At one point, he started looking around for a place to buy but bumped into the perennial challenge everyone who falls under Telluride’s spell faces: The cost of housing was beyond what he could afford.

He gave up on Telluride, and went to Sand Point, Idaho, to see if the mountain there might fill him in the same way Telluride had. Almost as soon as he’d landed, though, a realtor friend called him. He’d come upon an old house in Ophir. The place needed work but there was room to build a welding studio, room to build a life. Steel returned to Telluride immediately; he’s never left since. Indeed, he has had a season pass here every year since that first winter of ’75.

This is the part of his story where the “Yukon” gets attached to the “Steel.” Where he ignites a life here as both a legendary athlete and artist. Soon after he moved here full time, Steel realized that no one really skied like he did. His years skiing in Vermont had taught him that the best way down was the fastest. While facing Telluride’s bumps, he applied the same technique, floating over the bumps, rather than muscling through them. “I saw a line through the moguls,” he says, “and just pointed it. I didn’t overthink it. The skis told me where to go.”

While such an approach felt intuitive to Steel, it was anything but that at the time. People saw his distinctive style of skimming over the tops of the moguls as revolutionary. Impressed by his speed, Telluride ski patrollers challenged him in the aforementioned Allais Alley contest. In the past, a man had set a record for skiing that run thirty-six times in a single day; patrollers wanted to see if Yukon could beat that record by skiing forty times. He ended up skiing it forty-one times, hiking up to start at six in the morning, so he could fit it all in. The next year, patrol offered to start the lift earlier and to extend the afternoon until 3:30 rather than 3. Steel shattered his previous record, skiing the run fifty-one times in a single day. “There’s always been this thing in me that wants to see how far I can push it, how fast I can go,” he says. “But that day nearly did me in. I felt like I had skied two days in one. Could barely peel my head off the bar at the Roma after a single beer.”

Locals weren’t the only ones who were impressed by Steel’s technique. After winning races around Colorado and appearing in the opening shot of the Warren Miller film, White Magic, skiing through powder with the wolf dog Zutnik, he found himself on the pro mogul tour, which back then wasn’t nearly as polished as it is today. Moguls weren’t manufactured ahead of time, or built by hand; courses were formed naturally, from people skiing a slope. Once on the tour, coaches were stunned to discover Steel had mastered a technique they’d been working to refine for years. Steel laughs: “They were like, where are you from? How did you learn this? But for me, it was the only way to go down, by finding the through-line.”

Steel approaches his art in the same way, by allowing the materials to guide him. “I never have a sketched-out plan,” Steel says of his metal sculptures, showing us a piece that is reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s mobiles with its sense of balance and proportion. “I let the metal tell me where it wants to go.”

A lifelong craftsman, who first got introduced to art through painting as a child, Steel has done it all: drawing and painting, sewing, leatherwork, welding, building houses, and now sculptures. “I used to reupholster cars,” he recalls. “I had the sewing skills, the ability to work with thick materials.”

These days, Steel primarily does work on commission, when he’s not out hunting elk or skiing. But you won’t find his work on a website. He doesn’t have any of “that stuff.” Photos are stored in albums and crevices in his workshop, alongside an elk that’s being cured and a life’s worth of tools. He talks to people on his landline, or, better yet, the way we conducted our interview, in person on his patio in Ophir.

But he’s not a total luddite. He’s thrilled about the new upgrades to Lift 9. “It’s about time,” he says, happy that the lift lines are shorter and skiers are more spread out. Nowadays, his perfect ski day is one that starts around noon and is filled with laps on Bushwacker and Gold Hill. “I’m not much for powder. Too many people.”

Steel has been known to extend the ski season by rigging up his own impromptu rope-tow, something he’s done a dozen times in Savage Basin, piecing together a motorcycle and a rototiller to serve as a lift. “I’m not much for hiking up hill,” he says. “Too much work for one run.”

Although Telluride’s changed a lot since he first started skiing it in the 70s, he’s not planning on giving it up anytime soon. “Skiing keeps you healthy. It’s good for your head, good for your soul. You eat well when you ski; you take care of your body when you ski. Every time I start the season, I always think: This is the year I’ll finally find the sport to be a waste of time. Then I fall in love with it all over again.” His pace has changed though over the years. “Bumps are silly to me now. I like the precision of carving a turn on a groomed run. And I’ve slowed way down.”

Yet his approach is still the same: finding the line and just feeling it. “It’s how I do everything,” he reflects.  “Life is art. It’s my whole life. And skiing is a part of that.”