Introducing a Revelation in Ski Terrain
By Matthew Beaudin
The snowmobile came and went through the moving white curtain of ice that blew sideways, each gust twisting daggers into our cheeks. As the flag on the back of the sled arched in the wind, the ski patroller surrendered a grin and disappeared ahead of the procession of bootpackers that measured their progress up the peak in inches.
Telluride Ski Resort opened a passel of new terrain last winter with two common themes: extreme (hey-brah!-You-Tube-this!) skiing and hard (haul-your-ass-up-the-mountain) work. It presents quite the paradox: To get the goods, one has to suffer the bad. The hike can be miserable. Whether you’re in blood-doping good shape or not, you can sink to your thigh with a tiny misstep, or your boot-shod feet may sail off rocks like drunken ships. Even for fast hikers, it’s an honest hour of sweating. Flatlanders gasped their way to just below the top of 13,000-foot Palmyra Peak. Each step notched a small victory.
The climb was hard on nearly everyone. Ski patrollers went sherpa: They carried packs and bombs up the knife ridge before and after hours. “It was tough on folks,” said Pat Ahern, Telluride Ski Patrol director. Patrollers were worn out from the constant hiking and worrying. “Nobody [on staff] ever said that they were losing weight, but I betcha they ate a lot more bacon last year,” Ahern said.
In the fall of 2007, new Telluride Ski & Golf CEO Dave Riley announced that Palmyra Peak, the matriarch of the ski area, would doff her coat and allow suitors to scramble up her shoulder. From the top, skiable highways trickle down in silver lines under the sun. When the sky is clear blue, the mountains in Bear Creek beam like alabaster light bulbs. But the experience is more than just the views: It’s stream-of-conscience skiing—on Palmyra with good conditions, skiers can link untracked turns until their legs fail.
Enter Black Iron Bowl, terrain similar to its neighbors down the ridge, La Rosa and Genevieve, save one thing: It’s substantially longer. As good as the lower Prospect terrain is, there’s no arguing that it’s too short—as in it’s over in six-or-so turns. Runs such as Dihedral and Mountain Quail, which opened sporadically two seasons ago, were skiable much of last season. And Gold Hill 6 through 10 opened—the first time the cobweb of chutes have been legal since the ski area’s inception. These drops cut floss-thin gaps through the cliffs and drain into Prospect Basin. To get there, skiers leave the area via the Bear Creek access gate before diving back inbounds again through open ropes.
“People sat and dreamed about this for 30 years, and this year, we got the go-ahead,” Ahern said. “It’s definitely been good for us. We had people from Jackson and Snowbird going home and telling their buddies how good Telluride is skiing now. So it’s put us on the forefront.” That forefront, though, has a price for the ski area’s patrol. It’s paid in man-hours, cracked hands, early mornings and potential falls over cheese-grater cliff bands. To open Palmyra alone requires enough manpower, explosives and time to keep a small—OK, tiny—country’s national guard busy. Usually four to six patrollers work to open the peak, but they have to open all the terrain beneath it as they go, in case hikers choose to dip early.
It’s no coincidence that Dave Riley showed up and the “Closed” signs disappeared. “Having been in the ski business for over two decades, it was really obvious and apparent how special that terrain is,” Riley said. And the Telluride Ski Patrol is where Riley’s vision meets reality. “We dig a lot of holes and do constant evaluations,” Ahern said. “We have one of the toughest snowpacks out there.” Predicting avalanche trends is as stable as Little Rose after 75 mile-per-hour winds and six inches of fresh. “That’s a numbers game,” Ahern said, pointing out that last winter—though plentiful—was a safer snowpack in the San Juans than normal because of the sustained snows and scarcity of the customary severe temperature oscillations.
Skier compaction is the best tool in Ahern’s box, though nothing is certain. “No, nothing’s 100 percent. Snow science—it’s inexact because there’s so many variables. That’s why you always err on the side of caution. Maybe you need more explosives, maybe you need to let it sit,” said Ahern.
On mornings with fresh snow, someone’s already made charges the night before, and patrollers are shuffling along in the dark at 5:30 a.m. “We worry about all of it,” Ahern said. “Working on patrol, it’s a trust factor. You have trust for the people you work with because they could be digging you up, saving your life. You never want to put that at risk. Everyone up there has a say, and we listen and you make the best decisions you can. But even after all that…you can still take a ride.”
Yet no one did. No patrollers were buried in slides last year in the new terrain. There were more staff injuries two years ago. “There were a few people who took some falls just working in the tough terrain,” Ahern said. “There are certain dangers within the job, regardless, and that’s why we try to take as many precautions as possible.”
Telluride Helitrax helped bomb terrain six times last winter, and other times the helicopter came to set gear, hauling 600-pound boxes of rescue toboggans, oxygen, medical supplies and explosives that the patrol couldn’t have schlepped themselves. Crews put in a huge cannon—redcoats call it an “avalauncher”—on Gold Hill 5 to blast the new terrain for safety. “A lot of it is redundancy,” Ahern said. “The toughest thing is, it’s a labor-intensive piece of property.”
Patrollers cover every inch of the new territory at least twice in one day, once in the morning to open and again in the afternoon to sweep stragglers from the terrain. At a mountain like Aspen, where everything drains down into town, sweeps are easier. But here, where ice and rock chutes choke into drainage after drainage, it’s a chore.
Though Telski added chute upon bowl upon cliff band of skiing last year, the expansion continues. This season, riders can try a new lift serving Revelation Bowl, the open pitch off the back of Gold Hill that hangs into Bear Creek and looks as if it were carved with a spoon into Cool Whip. Revelation adds 50 acres of terrain and another 315 vertical feet to the ski resort, plopping the highest lift-served point at 12,570 feet. As of press time, it was slated to cost $2.2 million.
Apparently, it’s known as Revelation Bowl because skiing it in the past prompted an unfortunate revelation—as in you were hosed, cliffed out, and would to have hike back up just to make it down for a beer—that or base jump or rappel. Both of the latter options are unsavory to anyone with a complete working brain. “One of the things I like back there is that it’s stunning,” Ahern said. “You get the Bear Creek experience, but not all people are suited to go into Bear Creek.”
The new lift has raised concerns about its proximity to the backcountry access gate, all but escorting skiers to the low shoulder of Nellie, a lusty pitch of deep snow with huge avalanche risks. “People will see it more and be enticed for sure,” Ahern said. “We’re operating within our permit area, and it is a free world.”
When that new terrain is open, when it’s skiing well, when it’s clear enough for skiers to scrape the incandescent blue ceiling, it’s hard to think that there’s better anywhere in the country, that these hills weren’t dropped here for this reason. “We’re clearly in the top tier,” Riley said. “Some people would say it’s the best…. There isn’t, quite frankly, anything inbounds at Jackson Hole that rivals Palmyra Peak. People like to point to Corbett’s, but that’s one little drop. Well, not little…but that’s one couloir.”
One thing’s for sure: This winter, the ski patrol will probably need more bombs—and bacon.