Wolf Creek Ski Area, seen here last week, is already 100 percent open with a 78-inch base thanks to some early season snowstorms./Photo by Scott Wachob

Giving thanks

Local ski areas open mazes and fire up lifts in time for holiday

by Tracy Chamberlin


With the flakes falling, locals have begun breaking out the skis and snowboards. And while the effects of the Godzilla El Niño remain to be seen, local skiers can at least expect a few things this season, from digital upgrades to a brand new lift and a golden anniversary.

First up is the one place in Southwest Colorado that’s already 100 percent open – Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Snow report

For the latest snow reports on Colorado ski areas and resorts,
visit Colorado Ski Country USA at: www.coloradoski.com.

With its long-term development plans approved a few years ago, Wolf Creek has slowly been checking off the to-do list. Last year, the owners introduced the Elma Lift at the bottom of the Waterfall Area, helping skiers and riders avoid the long slog back to the base.

This year, though, one of the biggest changes at Wolf Creek has nothing to do with terrain. After years of processing rentals and ski lessons by hand, the ski area is going digital.

“I just think it’s kind of time to start,” said Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales.

Pitcher explained the ski area’s demo ski fleet will be available for folks to peruse and select online. “You can select the one that would work best for your style of skiing and pay for it,” she said.

The site is expected to be up and running by Thanksgiving, and if things work  out, plans call for putting the entire rental fleet online next season.

The other department with online access will be ski school. Guests won’t be able to pay online for lessons yet, but they will be able to start tackling the pile of paperwork instead of using valuable time that could be spent on the slopes.

Wolf Creek has also finished upgrades to its Race Hutch, near the base area. The building was completed last year but stayed empty until a power line, in-floor heating and other amenities could be installed. The first race of the season is Dec. 12.

“We do take a few years to do projects cause we do everything ourselves,” Pitcher explained.

Ready, set, snow: Ski season opens across Southwest Colorado

Wolf Creek Ski Area
- Opening: Open daily
- Lift Ticket: $65, passes and Locals Days available
- Terrain: 7 lifts on 1,600 skiable acres and 100 percent open
- More: www.wolfcreekski.com

Silverton Mountain
- Opening: First unguided skiing days Dec. 19-20, other unguided days and guided skiing available
- Lift Ticket: Unguided starts at $49, guided skiing starts at $99; heli-skiing is $179 for a single drop and goes up from there.
- Terrain: One lift with 1,819 skiable acres and 22,000 accessible via hiking and helicopter
- More: silvertonmountain.com

Purgatory Resort
- Opening: Sat., Nov. 21
- Lift ticket: $85, Locals Days and Power Pass options available
- Terrain: 10 lifts and 91 runs
- More info.: www.skipurg.com

Telluride Ski Resort
- Opening: Nov. 25
- Lift Ticket: Prices vary – starting with $25 for Donation Day, Wed., Nov. 25, and $81 for the first week, Nov. 26-Dec. 4; after that between $98-$122 depending on the dates
- Terrain: 18 lifts and 127 runs
- More: tellurideskiresort.com

Chapman Hill
- Opening: Mid-December
- Lift Ticket: $12
- More: www.durangogov.org
Although the city has snowmaking equipment, the local hill doesn’t typically open until mid-December. Once open, regular hours are 3-7 p.m., Monday thru Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on the weekends.

Hesperus Ski Area
- Opening: December
- Lift Ticket: $41
- Terrain: One lift, one rope tow and 13 runs
- More: www.ski-hesperus.com
The small family-owned area west of Durango is well-known for its night skiing, where working stiffs can still catch fresh turns after a storm.

Something else they’re doing themselves is dealing with the aftermath of the area’s spruce beetle infestation. The entire pass has taken a hit from the pest, but the ski area owners are only allowed to deal with hazard trees on their permitted lands. It’s a delicate process, Pitcher explained.

Much of the mitigation is done in the spring, when snow still covers the area and trees can slide along the snow. In the fall, the ski area uses helicopters to take out the hazardous trees. Smaller, healthy trees and saplings have also been planted.

Pitcher said typically the trees put out a sap to expel the beetles, but ongoing drought compromised the trees’ immune system. They couldn’t dispel the bugs.

“The infestation was beyond anything anybody would really believe,” she said.

Pitcher’s hopeful the wet summer and a normal winter will help the new trees shake off any beetles that are still hanging around.

Meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been trumpeting the coming of El Niño since the spring. They say conditions are still right for the weather phenomena, which is likely to bring plenty of moisture to this part of the country.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the precipitation prognosticators have predicted a favorable El Niño – only to see it fizzle. So, many ski areas are cautiously optimistic.

“We are hopeful that we are going to have a good, strong snow year,” Pitcher said.

Next up is Purgatory Resort, which opens this Sat., Nov. 21. With snowmaking crews working around the clock and some help from Mother Nature, the resort plans to have both Lifts 4 and 1 running for opening day.

It’s the first time in years the resort will have the Six Pack in action for the first day of the season, which comes a week earlier than in years past.

“We’re excited to kick off the 50th anniversary season by opening earlier this year to start the celebration,” James Coleman, who bought Purgatory last year, said in a statement.

Purgatory officially opened in 1965, and many of those early pioneers have been invited back for the season-long celebration.

The most anticipated change, though, is the new Lift 8.

The announcement that the 30-year-old Legends Lift on the backside would be replaced by a high-speed detachable quad came at the end of last season. The resort hosted a retirement party on the last day and began construction this summer.

But, with the wet spring and summer, there’s still work to be done before the new lift is up and running. Its official opening is scheduled for Sat., Dec. 19.

The resort also added some new runs to the backside – two off Ray’s Ridge as well as a skier bypass to the bottom of the lift. There will no longer be midway loading.

One final big change can be seen before visitors even get to the resort. The Colorado Department of Transportation made some changes to Highway 550 just outside the resort’s entrance, trimming it to one lane and extending the turn lanes on the right and left.

CDOT also improved the chain-up and chain-down stations past Purgatory’s entrance, making the process easier for vehicles heading north toward Silverton.

Speaking of Durango’s neighbor to the north, in the offseason, Silverton Mountain was the talk around town when its owners asked for a change of venue.

Aaron and Jenn Brill, co-owners of Silverton Mountain and its accompanying heli-skiing operation Silverton Guides, asked the Bureau of Land Management to switch out some of its higher-elevation ski pods for others at lower elevation. The number one reason the owners cited was safety, but opponents feared the trade would limit public access to some popular backcountry spots.

In the end, the BLM decided to perform an environmental review on the proposed pod swap, making it an issue the community will revisit next year.

Another Southwest Colorado resort got much bigger in the offseason. Not the terrain, but the accommodations.

Last year, Telluride Ski Resort took over operations of the Peaks Resort and Spa, now the largest spa in Colorado at 42,000 square feet.

Shannon Gibbs, communications manager for Telluride Ski Resort, said the ski-in, ski-out hotel in the Mountain Village is a positive addition to the resort.

Next Wednesday, Nov. 25, will be Telluride’s Donation Day, with proceeds from $25 lift tickets going to the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club. Thanksgiving will be the resort’s official opening.

Gibbs said the resort has been making snow and also had some early season storms. Opening day plans call for the Lift 4 Village Express to be open, with the potential for more.

“As far as early-season preparations go, we are in great shape for opening day,” Jeff Proteau, Telluride’s vice president of mountain operations, said in a statement. “Thankfully the temperatures have remained steadily cold at night … that, combined with the natural snow we’ve been getting, has allowed our grooming team to be out night and day.”