Sport: San Juan for All
Loaded down with layers of alpine apparel, avalanche transceivers, and backpacks outfitted to carry skis, our group embarks from ski patrol headquarters at the top of Telluride’s Prospect Bowl. We proceed in single file along a spiny ridgeline, planting the toes of our ski boots into the snow pack and using our poles to keep steady. A stiff wind makes communication nearly impossible, and although tempted to crane my neck to view the knife-edged peaks of southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I instead remain focused on the climb for fear that one careless move could send me tumbling down the rocky backside of Palmyra Peak.
Our 45-minute hike ends at a face of steep rock, just beneath Palmyra’s 13,320-foot summit. Below our assemblage of skiers, chutes and bowls filled with untracked snow drop 1,100 vertical feet. The first run, Mountain Quail, a 35-degree chute in the shadow of Palmyra, appears ominous, especially as our guide reminds us that the area is prone to avalanches. One turn in the knee-deep powder, however, transforms gloom into glee.
After skiing down Mountain Quail, we carve the sunny slopes of Jello’s Bowl, glide past an old silver-mining cabin in a wooded stretch, and then take a jaunt through a meadow of pristine powder before hitting the cat track that leads us back inbounds. On the slopes of Telluride, we mingle again with other skiers, only this time we savor the knowledge that we have gone where others have not tread—and that our adventures will continue tomorrow.
Our descent of Palmyra Peak—one of several summits above 13,000 feet in this 12,000-square-mile section of the Southern Rockies—is part of the new hike-in skiing program at Telluride Ski Resort. Available to advanced skiers as an add-on to a standard lift ticket, the guided tours are among the many backcountry ski adventures open to San Juan–area visitors. Telluride Helitrax, Colorado’s only heli-skiing outfit, offers a package that combines three of the more extreme excursions, plus a day at Silverton Mountain, the region’s most challenging resort.
Helitrax’s Ultimate San Juan Ski package begins with three nights in Telluride, where you spend a day skiing the resort (including the hike-in trip to Mountain Quail) and another heli-skiing thousands of vertical feet in a remote region of the San Juans. On the third day, you drive an hour south to Silverton, Colo. Here, guides from the San Juan Ski Co. escort you in heated snow-cats to a series of backcountry bowls, ridges, chutes, and glades within the 35,000-acre San Juan National Forest.
On the final day, a no-frills, non-express double chairlift transports you to the top of Silverton Mountain. Reserved for expert skiers, this resort limits its daily visitors to 80, each of whom must ski with a guided group. Silverton’s steepest slopes dip at a chilling 55-degree pitch, and the resort features 2,000 vertical feet of terrain. If your legs can handle it, you can increase the length of your ride down by another 1,000 feet simply by taking a hike.