Firsthand Report: Altitude Skiing with no Attitude at Telluride 2
Author thumbnail By Lou Botta, DCSki Columnist

In mid-March, we spent four amazingly wonderful days in Telluride, Colorado. After skiing many locations in four continents, Telluride is now one of my very favorite locations. The combination of the ambience, the skiing, the location, the people and the amenities are virtually unmatched.

Getting to Telluride is no picnic. And yet, that’s one of its main attractions. Far, far away from the Interstate Highway System. Driving there is fortunately, a hassle. Three hours from the closest point to I-70 in Grand Junction. Seven hours from Denver. Six hours from I-25 in Pueblo, CO. Six hours from I-40 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Its airport is one of the most potentially hazardous in the US given its 9,000-foot altitude which makes it the highest commercial airport in North America. What it does have is people who really want to get there. A laid-back atmosphere where everyone is comfortable, polite and dedicated to skiing and boarding. No bumptious college crowds. No obnoxious party gangs. In other words, an awesome experience.

Telluride town from atop St. Sophia, with the precipitous Coonskin Trail below. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

We arrived at Telluride through Montrose airport, about an hour-and-a-half away, a mere 5,700-foot mean sea level and the gateway to Southwestern Colorado. Montrose is an easy, congenial and smaller regional airport where everyone, even TSA agents, smile at you and wish you a good ski vacation. Almost made me forget the security gauntlet at the airport, the crowded airports and even with upgraded airport lounge access and upgraded seats, the stress of the modern day air transport service. We traveled through Houston as we were concerned about weather in the Northern tier airports such as Denver, Chicago or Cincinnati. However, we landed late in Houston due to fog and severe rain, and took off an hour late due to the same conditions. Arrival at Montrose was a delight.

From Montrose, we had friends waiting for us in an SUV, which is highly recommended for the one-and-a-half hour travel to Telluride (or an All-Wheel Drive). As we ascended the 4,000 feet on the way to the Telluride Mountain Village, the snow amounts on the side of the road increased from a couple of inches to a couple of feet with giant drifts lining the road. The scenery changed from a high arid plain featuring shrubs in Montrose, to juniper-covered foothills, to magnificent, snow-covered mountains lined with aspens, douglas firs and ponderosa pines, and in the distance, the bare tree line just above Telluride. We traveled by the parking area where the gondola begins its upward trek, traveling another half a mile to get to our hotel, The Madeline.

The Madeline Hotel in Telluride in the heart of the Mountain Village. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

This very upscale hostelry stands in the middle of the Telluride Mountain Village, a “Disneyfied” recreation of a town about a thousand feet over the town of Telluride and connected to it via a complimentary gondola. I had shipped my skis via UPS and they were ready at the front desk for me. After opening the Ski Tube and making sure that they had arrived undamaged, the hotel staff took my skis and boots and placed them in the custody of the ski valet to await my arrival next morning. The ski valet staff also arranged to have my skis tuned and waxed prior to the next morning.

Partial view of the Telluride base area on our first snowy day. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

We spent the rest of the day walking around the Mountain Village, becoming acquainted with the shops, the transportation system, our wonderful hotel, and the lift system. Telluride is blessed with having a free gondola that travels between the lower parking area and the Mountain Village, with a second gondola only feet away from the offloading point at the Mountain Village, that connects the Mountain Village with St. Sophia point, 1,000 feet above the Mountain Village, and then dropping 2,000 feet to the town of Telluride, for a 13-minute, spectacular commute. This publicly funded transit system serves both skiers and locals and serves as the main commuting transit between the four areas, thereby avoiding needless automobile traffic. It is also the first and only public transportation system of its kind in the United States, and its electric power is primarily wind-driven.

Telluride is also fortunate in having one of the oldest and still operating hydroelectric facilities in the US that power 25% of the town’s electric generation needs. On the far end of the gondola, co-located with the general parking, there is a large, upscale grocery store that features fine wines and gourmet cheeses. We stocked up for our stay before returning via the gondola to the hotel.

After taking in the sights in the Mountain Village, we decided it was time for a leisurely dinner at a fine restaurant. Our concierge made reservations for us at a unique mountain restaurant, Allreds, normally part of an exclusive private club that allows a limited number of dinner reservations to visitors. The prime location of this restaurant is unique, similar to the Cliff House Restaurant at Stowe. During the day, patrons can also ski into the lobby where they change their boots for restaurant-provided sheepskin slippers to enjoy while dining. Allreds is located within the gondola complex at St. Sophia peak, 2,000 feet above the town of Telluride and featuring monumental views and outstanding faire, as well as a superb wine list. One of their specialties is elk tenderloin, exquisitely cooked. After a memorable first dinner at this wonderful restaurant, we descended back into town to prepare for the next morning’s outing.

Spectacular views from Allred’s Club and Restaurant at St. Sophia Peak. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Our first day of skiing featured limited visibility due to a snow storm that deposited well over 12 inches at the base and well above that on the high peaks surrounding Telluride. Despite the limited visibility, we were able to traverse much of the resort except the above-tree line heights that were closed due to avalanche danger and wind that kept the high-speed detachable quads immobilized. Still, we were able to enjoy the Village Express, numerous blues and double blues (yes, double-blues), and the endless Telluride Trail off the Village gondola.

Telluride has a unique rating system, where there are greens, double-greens, blues and double-blues in addition to the several nomenclatures to the black diamond runs. Double blues range in difficulty to groomed steeps to not-so-steep mogul runs, and so on from there until the basic greens which are “bunny slopes”… The other item about Telluride is that in many of the runs, “you can’t get there from here,” as the resort’s runs are laid out across the width of a range, necessitating several lifts to get to a favorite spot. To get to the Revelation back bowl, for example, it requires three lifts from the Village or the town. Although the terrain was limited due to weather and access, we nonetheless enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

Telluride Village and the airport from See Forever Run. The awesome sights extend over a hundred miles to Utah’s La Sal Mountain Range. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Dinner that night was at the condo, equipped with a gourmet Viking kitchen that allowed us to concoct the most complicated meals. It is worth mentioning that the grocery store at the foot of the gondola is a complete, superb grocery store with fresh vegetables, upscale dry goods, a complete cheese section, superb meats, and a truly outstanding wine cellar.

A particular feature of Telluride is that due to the 9,500-foot base altitude and 13,300-foot peak altitude, oxygen deprivation and mild hypoxia may be experienced by many people. For about $20, the traveler can purchase a small canister of 90% oxygen at many ski shops and hotels to energize the body during exercise.

Mogul-filled glades and Blue runs on the upper reaches of Telluride. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Our second day at the resort started with a little snow that quickly transitioned to a severe clear, bluebird day, the type that makes the hotel concierge remind the guests to take sun screen to avoid sun poisoning, which can be a problem at these altitudes where ultra violet radiation is intense.

The Madeline has a superb ski valet system that pampers the guests by taking care of the skis, warming up ski boots, tending to the guests to ensure the proper donning of equipment, and sends the guests on their way. On our second day, we explored the fresh snow pounding from the previous day, in both groomed and ungroomed runs. On this gorgeous day, we explored the Polar Queen Express that takes fun seekers to an intermediate area of blues and double-blues, all including groomed, mogul-filled and tree-filled runs, afterwards taking both the Gold Hill Express and the Apex Lift to the ridgeline to enjoy both breath taking views at 12,000 altitude, and both black diamonds, glade runs and challenging blue runs.

A salient part of the Telluride terrain is that groups of skiers with differing skill levels at the intermediate level and above can still be relatively together since double-black diamond glades, steeps, and blues end up close to each other, as long as they agree on which lift to rendezvous. If not, they can end up several miles apart.

View of the top of Revelation High-speed lift from atop the Gold Hill Express, Revelation Bowl is to the left, Gold Hill bowl to the right. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

On this particular day, we decided to explore the superb terrain in the back bowl, aptly named Revelation Bowl and totally above tree line. Amidst spectacular scenery, the advanced to expert terrain featured both freshies, mogul fields and a wide, groomed steep carved in the middle of the bowl that increased to two groomed steeps before our departure. After descending to the bottom of the runs, the Revelation high-speed quad whisks the fun seekers to 12,570 feet. At this point, one can walk about a half a mile Soutbound to Palmyra Peak at 13,320 feet to enjoy unspoiled terrain, chutes and additional runs; continue on the Revelation Bowl for more fun runs on either moguls or groomed runs, or take the See Forever run to the North along the ridge for at least a mile, tying the terrain of the upper express chairs Gold Hill, Apex and Plunge together, descending to below tree line, and being the source of some wonderful glades and chutes, as well as more incredible views that on this day, extended well over a hundred miles to the La Sal Mountain Range in Utah, close to both Moab and the Escalante National Monument. As well, the skier or boarder has a choice to descend to the town of Telluride or the Telluride Mountain Village.

Along the See Forever ridge run, Telluride has built an enviable infrastructure network that includes Ski Patrol facilities, communications stations, and several restaurants, some of which have garnered international fame. It is also worth noting, that this trail is about the only Telluride trail that gets fairly crowded due to its location. Throughout our time in the resort, we never experienced crowding at the lifts and frequently we experienced the eerie feeling of being the only people on a particular trail.

Lunchtime at Alpino Vino at almost 12,000 feet, savoring European faire. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

One of the highlights of the day was lunch at the highest restaurant in North America, Alpino Vino, perched on the side of the See Forever run a modern recreation of a Chez Vrony of Swiss fame. The 11,966-foot altitude of the restaurant afforded us incredible views as well as unparalleled food in a genteel environment. Large electric infrared heaters provided comfort to the guests, and the unique menu included Alpine dishes with a distinct European flavor. Their exquisite breads are hand-kneaded and baked on the premises. And yes, it is outrageously expensive but well worth it if one is on a vacation.

After an exquisite daytime soiree at Alpino Vino, we continued our tour of the resort. The large and sprawling size of Telluride makes it difficult to go through every one of the 127 runs in one day, so we dedicated our afternoon to the runs between St. Sophia and the town of Telluride. This steep terrain is primarily advanced and expert, although a couple of seemingly interminable blue runs zig zag down the mountain. The Telluride mountain face has not undergone as much improvement as the rest of the resort; only the free commuter gondola is of a high-speed category. The other two chairlifts from town, Coonskin and the Oak Street Lift, are vintage slow double and triple chairs respectively, seemingly an anachronism compared with the rest of Telluride.

Our second night’s outing featured a visit to the Arroyo Wine Bar restaurant, located in the town of Telluride and a thirteen minute gondola ride from our hotel, a superb wine and fondue locale staffed by knowledgeable employees who delighted themselves in engaging customers in the intricacies of Oenology, some of them having been to both North American and overseas locations. I was pleasantly surprised to learn some of them had been to the same Chilean and Argentine vineyards I had visited. Arroyo also features both chocolate and cheese fondues, which we unfortunately avoided as we were still full from our lunchtime experience, although the aroma of fresh melted chocolate made it quite tempting.

Last day, Gold Lift Express in foreground with Prospect Lift terrain in rear. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Our third and last ski day was also an amazing experience. The bright sun shone through the windows in our suite early in the morning and we knew we were in for yet another wonderful day on the slopes, despite the temperature climbing above the freezing mark which made us think to climb in order to avoid an “Eastern” experience. After a leisurely breakfast at the condo, we set out for the ski valet to don our equipment and visit the unexplored areas from the two previous days.

After a journey of four high-speed lifts, we got to the Prospect Express territory, a kindler and gentler terrain of intermediate runs at the foot of the Palmyra Peak chutes, that nonetheless gave us even more spectacular views of the Telluride front faces and the Mountain Village complex. Once we conquered this terrain, we continued to the Gold Hill Express to revisit the Revelation Bowl and take advantage of the wonderful day. We skied the Revelation Bowl runs until our legs were tired, then set forth for the trek down See Forever to the St. Sophia Station and lunch at Allred’s. Although during lunchtime Allred’s is a private club, the establishment allows a limited number of reservations to the public. We were fortunate to have had our concierge secure openings for our party.

Revelation Bowl on our last day at Telluride. Not only one, but two groomers. Photo provided by Lou Botta.

Following another sumptuous lunch with spectacular views, our ski day continued with additional runs in the Coonskin and Plunge Lift areas to finish turning our quads into mush, then we were back at our hotel to pack and get ready for the next day’s departure.

Our last morning in Telluride included the only displeasurable event of our stay, when service at the hotel restaurant was undoubtedly below par and we waited almost an hour for a substandard breakfast, causing us to be late in departure from Telluride. On the way to Montrose Airport, the amazing scenery continued unabated. We arrived in Montrose only to be rerouted through Chicago as the plane to Houston had experienced mechanical difficulties. The rerouting caused us a four-hour delay in O’Hare, made bearable thanks to the United Club Lounge with complimentary wine and refreshments.

Our visit to Telluride was a most memorable experience. One item worth noting is that we had shipped our skis via UPS the week prior, allowing for our ski gear to be at the hotel awaiting our arrival, and the hotel took care of all the shipping arrangements back home. Virtually every facet of our visit was superb. The ski quality, the variety of terrain, the clientele and the amenities made this an occasion to be repeated. I loved Telluride.

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About Lou Botta

While actually born in the tropics (Cuba), Lou grew up in New England and went to College in Vermont, where he initially took up skiing. He then embarked on a twenty-two year Air Force piloting career that took him to over 50 countries. He has skied in Europe and America (both North and South). His second career as a senior officer with the Federal Government spanned thirteen years and in 2010, Lou retired to pursue a more leisurely life style.

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Reader Comments

April 2, 2013
Nice timing on snow and sun. Coincidentally, onthesnow published some recent photos of Telluride just one day after your report came out, including one from Allred's almost identical to yours. Telluride sure looks beautiful:
April 3, 2013
Thanks Jim. It is one of the most spectacular ski places I've ever seen. And as well, I look at both the skiing and the accouterments and creature comforts, and Telluride does quite well - better yet - extremely well, in both departments.

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