Open season
Ski areas make most of sparse conditions to fire up the lifts

Open season

The base of Purgatory may be high and dry, but the resort has been busy blowing snow under Lift 2./photo by Jennaye Derge

Tracy Chamberlin - 11/16/2017

Believe or not, it’s that time again. Time to pull out the gear, tune the skis and hit the slopes. It might be warm in Durango – some would even say unseasonably warm – but farther up the road, snow has started to fall.

Back in September, employees at Silverton Mountain actually took the first runs of the season following a storm that left several inches in the high country.

Wolf Creek Ski Area, which has a base elevation of 10,300 feet, has already netted more than 2 feet for the season. They were able to fire up the lifts for a Nov. 12 opening.

Rosanne Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales for Wolf Creek, said the conditions are a bit thin and there are some early season obstacles, but it’s also fun just to get out there.

Purgatory Resort, which is 8,793 feet at the base, is scheduled to open this Sat., Nov. 18.

Although the resort hasn’t had much help from Mother Nature, it’s been able to make enough snow to offer a unique experience – skiing and mountain biking in the same day.

Purg plans to offer skiing under Lift 2 and mountain biking from Lift 4, both on the frontside of the mountain. Skiers and snowboarders will upload and download from Lift 1 (the Six Pack), then shuffle over to Lift 2 where they can ski and ride. At the base area, Lift 4 will take bikers to the top of the Divinity Flow and Diggler trails.

Once Purgatory opens Nov. 18, the resort plans to stay open seven days a week throughout the season. Wolf Creek, on the other hand, will open for the weekend, Nov. 18-19, close the following Monday and Tuesday, then re-open Wed., Nov. 22, and stay open for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Pitcher said they’ll reevaluate after that, depending on what Mother Nature has in store. 

Most resorts are looking at opening by Thanksgiving, like Taos Ski Valley, while the smaller ones, including Hesperus, Chapman Hill and Silverton Mountain, are eyeing mid-December.

Telluride Ski Resort recently announced it plans to delay opening day until Dec. 2 because of the unusually warm, dry weather.

Everyone, though, is ready to open if Mother Nature offers up some help, which, it turns out, she just might do in the coming week. A storm is expected to come through the area starting late Thursday and lasting until early Saturday morning.

According to Durango Snow Lovers – the go-to Facebook page for local weather – it might just bring welcome snowfall for Purgatory’s opening day. Jeff Givens, the amateur meteorologist behind the page, stated on the site that 5-8 inches “is starting to look pretty good for Purgatory.”

The National Weather Service, on the other hand, is more conservative in its predication with a 50-70 percent chance of snowfall and less than an inch of accumulation.

Two smoking barrels

Two of the top stories coming out of the off-season, though, weren’t at all about snow. They were all about land. 

The Nordic Center, which sits off Highway 550 across from Purgatory, almost lost some of its most popular trails, and Silverton Mountain’s controversial request to expand its heli-skiing terrain was approved.

First off, in March, word came out that developers were looking to build a luxury motorcoach village just north of the Nordic Center on part of the beloved North Loop, which crosses private lands.

Just as the public backlash began to intensify, the Katz family stepped in.

Local philanthropists Jane and Marc Katz, under their company JM Boyce Lake Land Holdings LLC, purchased 190 acres in the area with the goal of preserving – and even improving – the Nordic trail system.
The Durango Nordic Ski Club has been introducing people to the sport for more than 60 years, even raising future Olympians. With the Katz family’s contribution, the club will be able to keep doing that for years to come.

This season, the Nordic Center has a few new offerings, including a race team for Fort Lewis College and a Southwest Nordic race series. Although the Nordic Center is waiting on snow to determine opening day, it’s got plenty of events on the calendar. Race events and clinics are slated to start in December, and the discounted season pass sale ends Nov. 25.

Farther up the highway and over the passes, Silverton had its own controversy in the offseason.

It began in 2015, when Silverton Mountain and its heli-skiing operation, Silverton Guides, put in a request to the Bureau of Land Management to expand heli-skiing terrain. Many took issue with the request because it included some popular spots for backcountry enthusiasts. Others felt it would bring a much-needed economic boost to the area, and Silverton Mountain representatives said it was a matter of safety.

In the end, the BLM’s Gunnison Field Manager gave the go-ahead.

Shortly after the decision was released in May, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental advocacy group, filed an appeal, citing concerns with the process and its lack of transparency.

It’s uncertain if the appeal delays the decision, or whether Silverton Mountain is looking to use those expanded lands this winter. BLM officials were unable to verify the impact of the appeal, and – as of press time – Silverton Mountain did not respond to requests for comment.

Purg: new ups & downs

All the resorts and ski areas in the Southwest have been busy during the off-season with new facilities, equipment upgrades, operational changes, new lifts and more.

At Purgatory, the big talking point is the mountain coaster. It’s sort of a cross between a roller coaster and an alpine slide. Just like the alpine slide Purgatory runs in the summer, the coaster is gravity-driven. Unlike the slide, however, it rides on rails like a roller coaster and is operational year round. It’s not meant to replace the alpine slide, but add to the resort’s offerings.

Construction on the coaster is already under way, and Purgatory officials expect it to be completed sometime in the coming year. Once it’s finished, the coaster will have nine switchbacks and one loop, cover about three-quarters of a mile and descend 300 vertical feet.

Another future plan for Purgatory is a new Gelande lift for the frontside of the mountain. The lift would take skiers and snowboarders from the Gelande overflow parking lot to the top of Styx.

This would require a 23-acre adjustment of the resort’s Special Use Permit boundary, among other changes, all of which have triggered an environmental review from the Forest Service. Purgatory started the process in October with a public outreach event and hopes to begin installation next summer.

New for this year, Purgatory has added some new runs on both the front and back sides, and a midway-loading station on Lift 6, which runs parallel to Lift 1 on the front side. Another lift, which is likely to be up and running by Christmas, is a magic carpet in the Columbine beginner area.

The resort has also improved snowmaking infrastructure, added snowmaking guns and upgraded grooming equipment, which will help out in these dry, early days.

Wolf Creek goes green

Wolf Creek has also improved snowmaking and grooming, but the big change at the ski area to the east has nothing to do with the mountain. It’s about the sun.

This summer a solar project in the San Luis Valley was completed, and Wolf Creek is now getting 100 percent of its daytime power from the farm. The ski area has also been getting wind power for nighttime use for more than a decade, meaning it is getting about 98 percent of its power from renewable sources, according to Pitcher.

Along with investments in renewable energy, the ski area has invested in several infrastructure projects.

Wolf Creek has installed a new ticketing and point-of-sale system, going from handwritten notes and stamped lift tickets to digital inventory and barcodes. This new system is expected to make things much easier for employees and guests. The big roll out happens this Sat., Nov. 18.

Also new at Wolf Creek is a hub for beginner skiers and snowboarders. A new building, dubbed the Interpretive Center, and a new conveyer lift, called the Lynx 

Lift, allows ski school students to go from getting their tickets and equipment to walking right up to their instructors. If there’s any wait time, there will be videos in the Interpretive Center on skier safety, prepping beginners for what’s ahead.

There’s still a little bit of work to do on the Lynx Lift, but Pitcher said it should be completed by Christmas.

Open season

On Opening Day, this Sat., Nov. 18, Purg will offer the two-sport option: skiing off Lift 2 and mountain biking from Lift 4./photo courtesy Purgatory Resort