Around these parts, working in the field of winter recreation can feel almost agricultural.
Our fears, hopes and dreams are governed by what falls from the sky. There is a diehard dependence on the weather and extreme vulnerability to disastrous conditions. When they’re being self-deprecating, ski area managers like to say, “We’re all just snow farmers in this business.”
Like farmers, mountain towns seek out the National Weather Service, Farmer’s Almanac and other clairvoyants. Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties have just survived winter’s version of a Dust Bowl-with-locusts-type of harvest. So the early snowfall and strong chance of an El Niño thrill us to no end.
Here’s the Watch’s winter preview. As you’ll soon find, everyone round these parts is ready for a rebound season. Go ahead, Ullr, god of Snow, and precipitate your butt off. Bring it on, Old Man Winter. We’ve missed you guys.
AND NOW FOR THE WEATHER
Weather watchers can scope Telluride on an almost bewildering number of climatological maps. Pessimists and doomsayers might get a kick out of the United States Drought Monitor map, which sadly still colors the Telluride region in the ruddy brown that signifies “exceptional drought.”
A much more promising map is found at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center. Its three-month precipitation outlook diagram paints Telluride in light green, representing a 40 percent chance of above average precipitation between now and February’s end.
The map accompanied NOAA’s October press release that stated there’s a 70 to 75 percent chance of an El Niño developing.
“We expect El Niño to be in place in late fall to early winter,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, in the release. “Although a weak El Niño is expected, it may still influence the winter season by bringing wetter conditions across the southern United States, and warmer, drier conditions to parts of the north,”
The Old Farmer’s Almanac map, meanwhile, forecasts either a “warm wet” or “cold wet” winter for Telluride. This is not to be confused with the Farmer’s Almanac map, which is somewhat unrealistic, as it shows weather patterns failing to cross state lines. Ergo, Telluride is lumped in with Montana (which tends to be dry during an El Niño). This prognostication calls for “teeth-chattering cold” and “plentiful snow” this winter. New Mexico, whose weather tends to be much more similar to southern Colorado, is predicted by the almanac to have “stinging cold” and “average precipitation.”
As meteorologist Sam Collentine at the well-regarded online weather forecasting website, OpenSnow, pointed out, “Long-range forecasts are rarely accurate. These forecasts cover multiple months, but we know that skiing quality improves and degrades with storm cycles that last a few days to a week. Paying attention to a 1-10 day forecast is the way that you’ll find powder and give you the best information for your weekend trip or destination ski vacation.”
At any rate, “average precipitation” would be more than welcome here after the drought winter of 2017-18.
TELLURIDE SKI RESORT
Back in February at a Telluride Town Council meeting, Telluride Ski & Golf officials told the public that the resort was pushing back the traditional Thanksgiving start of this winter to Dec. 1. No one could really criticize Telski’s decision, as the resort was then in the doldrums of a truly lousy ski season and had been forced to postpone opening day in three of the previous four winters.
Nonetheless, meetings with businesses and the lodging community persuaded Telski to reverse course in March and aim for a Thanksgiving opening after all. But Matt Windt, vice president of sales and marketing for Telski, did throw out this caveat: “Thanksgiving 2018 is Nov. 22, which is as early as the holiday ever falls on the calendar. As always, and even more so for such an early date, opening on schedule will require a mix of great snowmaking conditions and significant help from Mother Nature.”
Flash forward to this autumn, when the ski mountain has already enjoyed 42 inches of natural snowfall, as well as sufficiently cold temperatures to fire up the guns and make abundant man-made snow. According to Windt, “We have pumped approximately 31 million gallons of water so far this season. We have run most nights since the beginning of November. Crews have been taking advantage of cold temps during the evenings and have been able to continue to run in some areas during the day. Our new automation upgrades have also performed exceptionally well thus far, allowing us to make a great deal more snow with less operational input.”
As a result, the resort confirmed Monday that it will definitely open to all passholders on Thanksgiving, after a soft opening Wednesday for Donation Day, in which all proceeds from ticket sales are donated to the Telluride Ski & Snowboard Club.
Telski will formally announce Monday its Donation Day and opening day plans.
But Scott Pittenger, director of mountain operations, told the Watch, “On opening day we plan to open Village Bypass to Lower Boomerang, Upper Misty Headwall, Meadows, the Meadows Carpet, the new North Meadows Carpet (built last December) and the Vista Carpet (near the Gondola and Base of 4). Lower Misty Headwall, a hike-to terrain park below Gorrono, and Upper Boomerang are still too close to call, but will be coming around very soon. For now, our focus is getting our main priority runs with snowmaking complete lower on the mountain while the temperatures remain favorable. As these runs are completed, we will start working on our snowmaking connections to Lift 5, Lift 6 and Lift 9, so when Mother Nature starts back up again we will be able to open up more terrain on natural snow.”
Added Pittenger, “Ski patrol has been out all week packing down the Lift 6 area, Lift 9 area and doing some work on Gold Hill, as well as getting everything primed and ready for that next big snowfall.”
Interestingly, Telski is bringing environmental awareness to its trail maps this season. On its website, the resort notes, “This year, winter trail maps are printed on paper made from stone, NOT trees. … Our Stone Paper trail maps are made from 85 percent calcium carbonate (CaCO3), recycled concrete, and a non-toxic, recyclable, photodegradable HDPE resin (15 percent) — and are waterproof, tear- and fire-resistant. Telluride is very proud to provide trail maps which required NO TREES or WATER. Importantly, the production of Stone Paper creates zero air or water pollution, and requires no harmful acids, dyes and bleaches.”
OURAY ICE PARK
The world famous ice-climbing Mecca doesn’t need snow so much as cold temperatures to freeze its routes. So it didn’t suffer nearly as much as ski resorts did in last winter’s drought. Indeed, Ralph Tingey, a member of the Ouray Ice Park’s board of directors, said 2018’s edition of the Ouray Ice Festival, which is held in late January, had the highest attendance of any to date.
And why not? According to National Geographic Travel magazine, “Ouray Ice Park has blossomed into an ice climber’s dream-come-true, where ice farmers carefully tend hoses and showerheads to cultivate a mile-long network of magical ice.”
According to the Ouray Ice Park’s website (ourayicepark.com), the target date for opening the 2018-19 season is Dec. 15. As always, the park will host clinics for beginners, provide guiding services and rent gear for those who want to get up-close and personal with frozen waterfalls.
During daily vendor exhibitions festival attendees have the opportunity to demo the latest ice tools, apparel and gear from leading retailers. Attendees can take part in more than 100 interactive and educational climbing clinics put on by San Juan Mountain Guides to accommodate every skill level. Check mtnguide.net/trips/ouray-ice-climbing/ouray-ice-festival-clinics for more information.
Hundreds of spectators will line the top of the Gorge on Saturday and Sunday to watch the world’s best ice- and mixed-climbing talent battle for prizes. The difficult climbs mean that not every competitor will top out, but those who do are gifted a shot of tequila. Per tradition, competitors down the shot while dangling from the finishing hold.
There is no registration needed to attend the Ice Fest. You are welcome to climb with your buddies in the park, watch the competitions and visit the vendors for free as usual. The things that do cost money are the nightly events and the clinics. Check ourayicepark.com throughout December to get prices on all-access passes and competition rules and regulations.
Mike Doherty of Telluride Outfitters would prefer to forget 2017-18.
“It was not a generous winter but we were still able to get through it,” Doherty said, mentioning that his fleet of sleds went through countless steering skis after many were damaged while navigating dirt and rocks.
Those beat-up parts were “sacrificed to the snow gods,” Doherty said Tuesday, adding, “I couldn’t be more excited for this winter. Right now, we have as much snow as we had in mid-January last year, so it’s looking like a great opening. We’re cautiously optimistic.”
Telluride Outfitters runs three main tours that benefit from their relatively high elevation, even in bad years. “Alta Lakes Ghost Town is the go-to,” said Doherty, because its trailhead is only five minutes from the company’s Mountain Village office, allowing 2-hour long tours in the morning, afternoon and evening. If necessary, Alta Lakes tours can reroute to Magic Meadows’ singletracks that offer incredible, wide-open views of Wilson Peak and Sunshine Mountain.
Then there are backcountry tours to Dunton Hot Springs and along Barlow Creek south of Telluride; those tours run all day and will commence in mid-January, Doherty said. The Dunton trip includes a sit-down gourmet lunch at the Dunton Hot Springs resort and a soak in the natural springs.
The Barlow Creek trip, meanwhile, is aimed at more proficient slednecks. It navigates ungroomed terrain and has numerous alpine meadows that “allow for free play and hill climbing opportunities.” Check tellurideoutfitters.com for pricing and availability.
The similarly named guiding company Telluride Outside, on the other hand, runs multiple tours west of town. Telluride Outside offers half-day, advanced half-day and full-day snowmobile tours in the magnificent Beaver Park area between the Wilson and Dolores mountain ranges.
Just 30 minutes from Telluride, the company’s Fall Creek snow base is, in its words, “the gateway to seldom traveled backcountry with unmatched riding opportunities and scenery.
“On most tours, we stop several times to take photos, discuss ecology, observe occasional wildlife and prepare for challenging sections of trail.”
Telluride Outside claims its tours boast amazing scenery, “with soaring views of the Wilson Range, Dolores Peak, Little Cone, Lone Cone, the Sneffels Range and the La Sal Mountains of eastern Utah.”
For nature enthusiasts who don’t wish to twist a throttle, Telluride Outside also offers photography expeditions into the stunning San Juan Mountians. Check tellurideoutside.com for more information.