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Herb Manning making his way into T-ride's backcountry.
Herb Manning making his way into T-ride's backcountry.
Dan Davis
Into the great white open
A powder tale from one of T-ride's great seasons
By Tom Boyd

March 9, 2007 — Bound to terra firma and enslaved to the almighty dollar, ski bums of my sort don’t really have the option to whisk up to Valdez and spend 14 days waiting in a yurt for moody Mother Earth to deliver her perfect storm, on the perfect slopes, on the perfect day. But for Colorado lifers there is compensation – there are the San Juan Mountains of the mighty southwest, and storms that, once every five years or so, pound our work-a-day blues into oblivion.

One of my favorites ever was in February of ’04 – or rather, it began in February of ’04 and continued well into March. The first news of a hurricane-sized storm came to me in the week beforehand, pushing itself through the internet in ever-growing waves. Emails were piling up. Calls were coming from farther and farther away, and, to put it bluntly, the great ski-bum phone tree that connects Colorado’s mountain towns was lighting up faster than Cyprus Hill on a set break.

All the phone messages were a variation on the same theme: "T-ride is getting pounded. Get your sorry ass away from your word processor, quit your job if you have to, and come pick us up."

And most of the messages came with a pleading postscript: "One more thing," they said. "We need a ride to Telluride."

Or Silverton. Or Durango. Or whatever, as long as it was somewhere in southwest Colorado and it the car made it over the passes before avalanche debris blocked the way – which, eventually, it did, but not until phase two of a two-part blizzard paraded through the state, leaving a four-foot deep trail of iced confetti in its wake.

In the meantime the better part of our posse was caught in a logistical scramble, unifying schedules and trying our hardest to get fired from our jobs as quickly as possible. Slabbed layers of bosses and supervisors broke and slid, sending avalanches of the verbal kind in our general direction, but, unfortunately, no one actually managed to lose their job in time to celebrate the first chapter of a new life down in the San Juans.

Still, we came close.

After all, the pressure from our southerly counterparts was too much to bear. Telluride locals were swapping tales of face shots and pillow drops like teenagers in a face-sucking contest. Caring people as they are, a few of them took time at the end of the day to ring us up, maximize their gloat factor, then return to staring out the window and the warp-speed snow stars flying past their window.

Herb Manning eats up the powder in T-ride's backcountry.
Herb Manning eats up the powder in T-ride's backcountry.
Dan Davis

We probably deserved it.

It had been us beltway boys that had the last laugh in ’02-’03, when the better part of nearly every storm missed southern Colorado and landed right on I-70, where the main string of McSki Resorts populates Colorado’s central core. Those of us with the misguided notion that a healthy skiing lifestyle must be supplemented by some kind of “job” or even “career” end up licking boots along the I-70 corridor, smirking to ourselves as we sneak up a chairlift during a weekday and patting ourselves on the back when sick days turn to powder daze.

When the informal phone tree sparked up in ’05-’06, we were the ones gloating – tossing our high-and-dry buddies in T-ride a few memories of experimental bombing raids off The Nose, or Miller Cliffs, or some other semi-secret backcountry destination. They were the ones scrambling to find adequate transportation (although, funny thing, I don’t remember any of them actually mentioning problems with a “job” or a “career” as such…)

And they arrived, in their time, and kind of had good days, they said, and there wasn’t much of a stir when they packed up and went back to the San Juans.

And that, as we all knew, is because everyone in the state was secretly wishing that the whimsy of Mother Earth had deposited her sweet smorgasbord of snow a bit farther south, where the feasting – without a doubt – is far more fulfilling.

Radar and beacon

When heavy moisture from the Southwest meets with cold air from the north, big things are bound to happen in Colorado. The supplications to the Weather Channel gods begin around October, when we begin asking to see this magic North/Southwest combination.

Sometimes the storms fizzle out before delivering substantial goods. Other times, like Feb. 29 in Telluride, the storms delivered more than anyone ever hoped for. Nearly three feet fell in the course of the late-February storm cycle, dropping a fluggy layer of fresh on top of the crystallized, ball-bearing snow left over from January and early February.

And so we heard slides – and saw them – almost everywhere we went. Slides plummeted down waterfall chutes, draping the skyline with a fine layer of snowsmoke, which then drifted over Telluride and covered the town in a fine mist.

In the San Juans, the most avalanche-prone area on the entire planet, everyone knew that three feet of new snow meant two things: great skiing and absolutely massive avalanches.

Sure enough, a Jumbo-sized avalanche wiped out two power towers in Ophir, a small town near Telluride, forcing the ski area to operate on diesel motors and generators for the better part of a week. Some lifts were closed all together.

Complicating problems for the clean-up crews was the weather, which continued to produce inch after inch of snow. Small pockets of blue sky allowed helicopters (borrowed from Telluride Helitrax) to fly over mountain passes and bomb avalanche courses that had buried critical byways.

By then, fortunately, we had made it to the promised land. Or, at least, that’s what we thought.

Our group had actually fractured in two – part of us heading to the already-legendary Silverton nearby. The rest of us headed to T-ride with the intention of poaching the backside of Prospect Bowl – a Silverton-style experience with twice the freedom from guides and, consequently, twice as dangerous.

It turned out to be a good call. Our decision had become final when the avalanches blocked escape routes and left us cut off from Silverton. The Silverton crew was made to wait while guides managed safety. And we made ourselves wait, too, but at least we had the century-old saloons of Telluride to keep us warm while we did.

For the rest of the world it was chaos: Roads were closed and business shut down (partly because some workers were trapped on the other sides of the pass, and partly because all the employees would rather be skiing anyway).

But our timing had been just right. Everything went according to plan, all the right people came together on the right day, and we were in for one of the best weekends of skiing in recent memory – especially when confined to the boundaries of Colorado.



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