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Falling (Hard) For Telluride

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

When it comes to my ski trip in Telluride, everything has to be divided into two categories: Before the Fall and After the Fall.

BTF, I was in a state of innocence, an unspoiled Adam of the slopes, steadily sharpening my edge cuts and S-turns on Telluride's vast mileage of beginner and intermediate trails. On every day of a five-day visit last March, I morphed a little more from tentative green run novice to cocky blue run demon. I started out trembling on the lift, terrified it would spit me out like a hairball in front of Telluride's expert clientele. But by Day Three, I was basking my face in chili bowl steam at the slopeside Gorrono restaurant, lying about my mogul skills, being reckless with the Tabasco and coveting this one dude's totally sick Zeal Detonator goggles.

I would have swaggered, if ski boots didn't make me walk like a penguin with vertigo.

That was me Before the Fall. And after?

A jellyfish in a fleece cap.

Old West Goes Glam

Telluride, in southwest Colorado, is the perfect graduation from the crabbed, day-trip skiing of the mid-Atlantic to the see-forever views and ski-forever trails of the Rocky Mountain West. The town itself sits at the base of the steep slopes like a model train village, an impossibly quaint hamlet of Old West storefronts and gingerbread cottages. Higher in the hills -- a gondola ride away in a ritzy modern development called Mountain Village -- are all the overpriced boutiques, celebrity watering holes and Lincoln Log palaces that any glam magazine gawker or real estate fetishist could ever wish for. Oprah has a house here. So does Tom Cruise.

But Telluride thrives on a rep as a friendlier, lower-key resort than some of its Western fellows. Many of the free shuttle buses pump Marley tunes into the mountain air and are driven by tie-dyed slacker types. Lift line protocol is chatty and polite (to the extent there are any lines -- I never waited more than five minutes). The markets lean toward organic cheese and local bread, and the hot society ticket is an annual AIDS benefit fashion show that this year featured racy yoga babes.

While the town proper retains some of the crunchy, New Age sensibility from its 1970s heyday as a hippie hangout, there's no shortage of that particular CEO ski species that haunts Aspen and Beaver Creek. Almost every lodge and cafe features at least one table headed by a forceful, red-faced man with leonine hair brushed back by wind and gel, surrounded by the jaded, text-messaging offspring of at least two marriages and an impeccably toned "mother," fitter and prettier -- and often younger -- than any of the children. Nothing says trophy wife like ermine-trimmed spandex.

But best of all for us mortals, the 1,700-acre Telluride Ski Resort recently opened a huge new basin of moderate-but-gorgeous trails, giving fledglings some world-class terrain of our own on which to perfect our moves before merging into the hot dog traffic of the main runs. Thanks to the high-speed quad lifts, I got more snow time in one morning on a green called Galloping Goose (nearly five miles from top to bottom) than an entire weekend at Canaan Valley, W.Va.

"What's really remarkable is how much easy stuff we have," says Michael Saftler, a sometime rabbi and part-time ski instructor who's lived in Telluride since 1974. Out of 84 trails, the resort ranks 62 percent of them as suitable for beginners and intermediates. "To have that much terrain that is blue or double green is almost unheard of."

Of course, the rest are advanced or expert runs, killer-steep black diamonds I would have no business getting near. No business at all. Nope, nope, nope.

From Miners to Margaritas

Saftler is also a Realtor. In Telluride, almost everyone is "also a Realtor." Real estate agents take up five of the town's 102 Yellow Pages. Your waiter isn't an aspiring actor -- he's working on his broker's license. With strict historic preservation laws protecting the picturesque HO-gauge of the place and limited room for sprawl, Telluride's booming popularity has produced a real estate bubble that makes Washington listings read like factory housing. There is not a bungalow in town that would go for less than seven figures.

"It's changed remarkably since I got here, but it's still a small town," says Saftler. "It's still surrounded by big mountains and there's still the same energy in this valley that supersedes all the petty stuff, all the development and greed mongering."

He's right. It just feels nice to be in Telluride on a clear, cold day. It's more remote -- and less crowded -- then other major ski burgs. The town sits Shangri-La-like in an 8,700-foot fold of the San Juan Mountains, an hour by turboprop from Denver. Pilots need special training to dive over the ridge and make the short runway on a narrow bench above town. (A final approach that feels more like a strafing run and the airport's frequent weather closings are two reasons some people prefer to fly a jet into Montrose, Colo., and then shuttle the hour to Telluride.)

Imagine, then, the old miners who humped their gear up here by muscle and mule -- more than 5,000 of them at the height of gold fever in the 1890s. Up alongside frozen waterfalls, their ruined tram wheels and shaft houses are visible from town. Telluride has a deep instinct for preservation; Butch Cassidy might well still recognize the main street where he pulled his first bank job in 1889.

The stores now are all margarita bars, trendy restaurants and custom boot shops. My favorite was Bounty Hunter, a great place to get carried away and buy a cowboy hat to put in the closet next to that aloha shirt you'll also never wear in Washington.

Not so, said owner Ann McClelland as she fit a handmade "Rico" on my skull (75 percent beaver felt, $640). "We sell to a lot of people from Washington, Wall Street, too. A lot of our hats were worn at the last inauguration."

I remembered. But the Rico made me look like a swizzle stick wearing a satellite dish, and I handed it back.

"If you're not a little impulsive, you'll never own a really good hat," McClelland said. That's true of really loud Hawaiian shirts, too.

Outside, still feeling the hug of a really good hat on my brow, danged if I didn't hear a nearly perfect "High Noon" soundtrack to go with it: The jingle-jangle spurs of an approaching gunslinger grew louder and louder on the hushed street. Finally a young ski bum stomped into view, heading for the lifts with his hair down and his boots unbuckled.

Just about every house, including the many condos and relatively few hotel rooms, are within walking distance of the lower lifts. The condo where I stayed, which belongs to my brother- and sister-in-law, was steps from Lift 10. The afternoon I arrived, after I'd dumped my bags and rented my skis, I stumped over to conduct an experiment. It was only an hour or so before the lifts closed, and I wouldn't have paid the $64 for a half-day pass just to catch the last run down. But an old Telluride hand had told me that some lift operators would let you on for free at the end of the day if you flashed an airline boarding pass that proved you had only just arrived. Sure enough, a friendly twentysomething girl surreptitiously waved me on, and I instantly began a delightful routine I repeated every day: ski the sun down, uncoil in the condo hot tub and sample Telluride's ample dining options each evening.

I progressed quickly. But it was when I called on Saftler -- as a ski instructor, not as a rabbi or Realtor -- that I vaulted to the next level. Standing on the wide slope of Lower Boomerang, he eyed my form, said a few words about my hips and my downhill foot, and voila ! He was like a faith healer, laying Gore-tex gloves upon me and curing demons I didn't know I had. By the end of the day I was chewing up the blues, catching a bit of air on my sharpest turns and even nibbling at the edge of the mogul field on Misty Maiden.

This, of course, was all Before the Fall.

The Fall

My new powers had me nearly euphoric by my last full day on the mountain. All morning, I had been shredding the hardest blues (or at least remaining upright). It was just before lunch when Saftler, my Yoda, spoke my fate aloud. "I think you're ready for an easy black," he said. He didn't actually address me as Grasshopper, but that was the general tone. "Let's go down Bushwacker."

And somewhere in the cosmos, a gavel slammed down and my name was entered in the Book of Doom.

Actually, it went swimmingly at first. Saftler was right, I was ready for the steep stuff. After a couple of extra gulps at the edge of the abyss, I schussed down the top stretch of Bushwacker with something like aplomb. I turned my hips just so and kept my weight on the downhill ski with iron discipline. I was loose and, remarkably, unafraid.

"Woohooo," I said, or words to that effect, as I pulled up beside Saftler about halfway down the run.

I was nearly at a full stop when some tiny misstep caused me to stumble and cross my skis for an instant. It wasn't a wipeout, more like a gentle lie-down. I was laughing at myself as I threw a ski over to dig the edge in and stand up, and was surprised to find myself picking up speed. Saftler shouted something, but he already seemed far away. I rolled again in a desperate attempt to plant a ski, but it was icy and the downward slope was as inexorable as a church steeple. Within seconds I was moving at double-digit mph.

My skis sprang free, followed by the poles. With all that out of the way, gravity spit on its hands and really went to work on me. I took off like a tumbling rag doll, completely out of control. After what seemed like a few hundred thousand rotations, I came to rest on my stomach, spinning like a propeller and still picking up speed. Panicking now, I dug my fingers in; I didn't slow, but I stopped spinning and my head was uphill.

I was still speeding out of control, but I was able to steer a bit by scratching deep with my gloved fingers and boot tips. I edged to the right, hoping a rank of mogul humps would slow me. Bad idea -- the instant I hit the first one I was airborne, pitching and yawing in several dimensions at once, like a gyroscope. I landed hard on my back and immediately hit another hump. This time I dug my fingers in and was able to pull away from the moguls, on my butt now, rocketing downhill. By this time, I'd slid a good half-mile. It felt like hours but was probably just under a minute.

Several hundred yards below, I could see a group of skiers pulled over, watching my appalling progress. If I hit them, they would scatter like bowling pins. To their side was a deep, tree-filled ravine. I knew what that ditch meant: the same bone-cracking end that waited for me if I drifted into the blur of evergreens closing in on the right.

Nothing worked. With a scream of effort I dug my heels even harder into the ice. A plume of freezing white smoke engulfed me, covering my goggles and filling my mouth with ice. I was suddenly blinded, but I could feel some slackening of that horrible speed. I dug deeper and pushed my hands down, careful not to leverage myself into another agony-of-defeat somersault. Slowly, slowly -- with my legs on fire and terrified I was heading toward the trees -- I squeezed a tiny modicum of control away from the mountain.

And finally, after more than a minute and almost a mile, I stopped. And froze. If I moved again, I knew I would start sliding again. It was like clinging with my fingernails to an icy roof.

Saftler came racing down with the skis, poles, scarf, hat I'd distributed along the trail. He pulled up in front of me, planting himself between me and that sickening downhill. He said I made a joke, although I don't remember it. That was my smart-aleck reptile brain taking over while my higher cortex whimpered in a dark corner, gasping for air.

Saftler told me later that day, when we were well away from any grade steeper than a wheelchair ramp, that he had been petrified.

"We call that the Slide for Life," he said. "Typically it gets reported in the paper as 'So-and-so died yesterday when he struck a tree at the edge of the trail.' Usually they're sliding like that when they hit."

I'm glad he didn't tell me that while I was still lying there, making lizard-brain wisecracks and hallucinating my wife's face. I still had to get up and ski down the rest of Bushwacker.

The only thing harder than stopping myself on that slope was starting down again. I got my skis on and stood up, but it took about 20 minutes of fierce internal psychotherapy before I could force my legs to move in even the most speculative, shallow line across the slope. My form suffered, I'm afraid.

And so began life After the Fall. Telluride didn't look so pretty that afternoon, even though the sun stayed out. I made a point of going back up the mountain, but I was noodle-legged, even on the weenie greens. The hot tub seemed to tire more than relax, and even the sublime ribs at Fat Alley lost some of their tang.

The next day, I had the whole morning before my flight, at least four hours until my rental skis were due back.

I turned them in early.

We'll see how it goes this year.

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