Adventure Travel from Telluride
By Deb Dion
Telluride may be a remote travel destination in itself, but for some tour operators, it’s also home base. Peter Walker of Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures, Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel & Tours, and Greg and Cari Malver of NatureQuest all run their businesses from Telluride. Is it hard to operate so far from a real travel hub? You bet. But they wouldn’t trade the locale for anywhere else in the world.
Peter Walker started guiding alpine treks in Europe when he was a kid, working for a friend of his father’s who ran hiking tours. After college, he moved to Zermatt, Switzerland, and apprenticed as a hiking guide. While in Europe, he was also climbing class V ice and free soloing 5.11 rock routes throughout the Alps.
In 1984, he capitalized on his intimacy with the Alps and started a venture of his own with climbing buddy John Ryder; the next summer, Ryder was killed in a climbing accident in Chamonix, but Walker still honors him by keeping the company’s name.
Initially, says Walker, the company found its niche with basic treks. “We started out doing hiking tours, for the most part getting wealthy people to the top of easy summits in the Alps,” says Walker. In 1989, Walker and his wife, Karen, embarked on a different trip, traveling around the southwestern U.S. on spring break. When a realtor friend showed them a house at the base of the Ice Hose, a challenging ice climb in Ames (a small community just outside of Telluride), they knew they’d found their home. “I was spending most of my time in Europe, but my offices were in New York and Massachusetts,” recalls Walker. “My wife and I figured that if the bulk of our income was coming from the mountains, then we should live there.” He spent summers in Europe and winters here, working for the Telluride Ski Resort. An expert skier and snowboarder, he taught lessons, managed the race department, developed the first terrain parks and introduced snowboard competitions to the region.
The couple still lives in Ames, and from these mountain headquarters, he has grown his business. Now Ryder-Walker also operates Telluride Mountain Guides, which offers specialized mountaineering, climbing and ice climbing adventures around the Four Corners region. The company diversified further to offer Alpenglow Ski Safaris, taking clients on European ski tours from tiny Alpine hamlet to tiny Alpine hamlet, crossing the country borders high in the snowy mountains. “That’s all off-piste, backcountry skiing in Europe,” Walker says. “You have no idea where you’re going because there is no treeline, no ropes and no boundaries, and there are glaciers and crevasses.” They help tourists navigate not just the vast and intimidating terrain, but also the language barriers, travel and reservations along the way.
Now that he has a family, Walker does less of the guiding himself and employs 16 guides, who also help with the administration of the business. He is still lean and fit and has the healthy look of someone who spends most of his time outdoors. His guides are learning what drew him to his line of work: special moments, such as waking up at midnight in a hut to start climbing under a star-studded night sky, waiting for the sun to spill over the mountains. He likes helping people extend their own horizons. “Our clients are totally out of their depth experientially and culturally,” he says. “A group was going to climb a 4,000-meter peak covered in ice, and in the morning, they came out to meet me in a beautiful hotel lobby in Zermatt, one with a nice rug. They were already wearing their crampons.”
Last year, National Geographic Adventure magazine named Ryder-Walker “One of the Top 10 Best Hiking and Trekking Outfitters on the Planet,” but Walker doesn’t do it for the accolades. He likes to help people, and he likes to share the outdoor experiences about which he is so passionate. In college, he wanted to find a way to give something back, to do his civic duty. He contemplated being a paramedic until some of his clients gave him the start-up money for his company. “I thought, ‘Well, here’s the answer,’” he says. “I just can’t imagine doing anything else.”
It was Nancy Craft’s sense of adventure that first brought her to Telluride in the ’70s as a college student. She was exploring the wilderness areas around Lizard Head and Sneffels, in support of legislation that would eventually preserve them, and was entranced enough to make this her home. In the ’80s, she resisted graduate school to study art and, instead, spent seven years living in Japan and learning about dyeing, weaving, papermaking and more. While she was there, she also acquainted herself with the rest of Asia: She traveled extensively to places such as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Bhutan, and fell in love with them. When she returned to Telluride in 1993, she gave up the easy access to travel and thought her days of jaunting around the world might be over. She was wrong. Craft’s adventures abroad equipped her for a new career in the travel industry, and now she’s still adding extra pages to her passport to accommodate the foreign stamps that fill up too fast for the 10-year expiration of the document.
Ten years ago, she joined forces with Esprit Travel & Tours. There she found her niche as a Japan specialist—Condé Nast named her the Top Travel Specialist in that region for five years in a row—and she creates special itineraries to help clients explore the arts and culture of Asian countries. “For the first few years, I was mostly leading treks in Nepal and hiking trips in Japan, but when I started working for Esprit, they specifically asked me to develop custom trips for travelers who wanted to experience the arts and culture,” says Craft.
Between trips and working at her offices in Telluride and Japan, she hones her own talents. Her latest creative projects are hand-stitching embroidery on cashmere and patching materials together. “I like hand sewing and small pieces, it’s kind of meditative,” says Craft. “And now you can take scissors on an airplane again, so that’s good.”
Craft was able to weave together her passion for textile arts with her travel career by exposing her clients to the artisans who inspired her in Asia. The current trend in the travel industry is to share your expertise by creating custom trips for independent travelers, but Craft still leads two or three special trips each year. This spring, she took a group of return clients to study the textiles in Kyoto. “Seeing art in different cultures and countries is an incredible inspiration for me. When you go to a really remote village on the Mekong by boat and see women on looms creating these colorful and elaborately patterned silk textiles…or in Japan, there’s a fourth generation of a family weaving silk chords, and for hundreds of years they’ve been creating things in the same spirit of artisanship, carrying on ancient traditions. It’s just amazing,” says Craft, wearing her ardor for fabric arts on her sleeve.
In the Internet age, running her business from Telluride is easy enough; it’s traveling to these exotic places that’s the challenge. But she enjoys the contrast of her small-town home versus the hectic cities in Asia. “It takes just as long to get to the West Coast from Telluride as it does to get to Japan from the West Coast. But it’s worth it,” she says. “I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love the small town-ness of Telluride.”
For Walker, his mountaineering background brought him to his career in travel; for Craft, it was her love of Asia and cultural arts. But for Greg and Cari Malver of NatureQuest, it was just the opposite: Their travel business birthed an interest in horseback riding. The Malvers plan adventure trips for clients in exotic locations all over the world. Their NatureQuest travelers kayak next to migrating whales, skimming so close they can look into the eyes of creatures such as the California gray whales off Mexico’s Baja coast, humpbacks in Alaskan waters or orcas in the Pacific Northwest. They trek through Nepal, staying in lodges built by Gurkas. They also adventure on horseback in Ecuador, Argentina, Spain and Uruguay, and safari on horseback in Botswana.
It was horseback safaris in Africa that spurred the Malvers to learn how to ride. Most riding trips cater to any level of experience, but safaris are more dangerous, and travelers need equestrian savvy. The Malvers had none. So they saddled up, learned some skills and went on safari. “The guides were gracious to take us at a time when we didn’t have as much experience as they might have required,” says Greg Malver. “There was an elephant trumpeting, and horses can spook. You have to stay in the saddle, and it can be a challenge.”
The Malvers create trips for a clientele that is as intrepid and adventurous as they are—booking with indigenous guides not just to funnel money into the economies of their eco-travel destinations, but also because the local outfitters and professional naturalists have a more intimate knowledge of the culture and environment. Their trips are designed for travelers who want a deeper experience. “We don’t do shopping trips; we don’t do bus tours. We specialize in getting people experiences that are not traditional or mainstream,” says Cari Malver. “Most of our business is repeat business or comes by word of mouth. Some clients are on their sixth, seventh or eighth trip with us, and we do a lot of custom tours.” NatureQuest afforded the Malvers the opportunity to explore the world’s out-ofthe- way, exotic places. It also allowed them to develop their new equine interest: Now the Malvers own their own animals and are avid equestrians, wintering their horses in Norwood and riding on Wilson Mesa in the summer.
They wouldn’t have had that same opportunity in Laguna Beach, California, where they started the business in 1992. They had been on a camping trip to Telluride 10 years before and wanted to come back to escape the crowded coast, now that they had the flexibility of a business that operates mostly on the Internet and the phone. “It took us a long time to get back,” says Cari Malver. “I fell in love with Telluride the first time I drove into town—the beauty, the serenity and the smallness of it. I like a small town. I always tell people that I have never been any place in the world that’s more beautiful.” Telluride has long lured the adventuresome, so it’s no surprise that a few of the country’s most respected and unique travel companies operate out of its Shangri-la setting. This secluded, idyllic spot in the San Juan Mountains attracts travelers seeking extraordinary experiences—people like Walker, Craft and the Malvers. “I think when you travel, you realize what a small place the world is,” says Cari Malver, “what we have in common and what we share, as well as the diversity of it. I’m just a travel junkie.”