Peter Strauss cannot stop smiling from beneath his snowy beard.
A week skiing in Telluride with longtime friends will do that to you, the veteran skier from Helena, Montana, remarked.
“We’ve been here before,” Strauss said of his ski club reunion in Telluride last week. “We love Telluride. It’s a great ski mountain. It’s got everything, right?”
Strauss first learned to ski as a youngster in the East, wearing leather, lace-up boots and spring-trap bindings. His father, just back from the Korean War, is the person responsible for starting the family’s lifelong love affair with the sport, according to Strauss.
“I still distinctly remember my first pair of skis with actual metal edges in the ’60s,” Strauss recalled, as he waited to board the Coonskin chairlift.
His gear now, as a long-tenured resident skier in the West, is 2020 modern — witness his helmet and Nordica Enforcer skis.
“We just have a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say we’re mature older adults. But immature older adults works,” Strauss added with a boom of a laugh, complementing his big smile.
A political-issue consultant as well as a ski patroller at the Great Divide Ski Area near Helena, Strauss started a ski club decades ago, when he was still a “broke college student” and discovered there were group discounts at many ski areas.
“So my buddies and I started (a club). We were hosting 45-50 people per year (on ski adventures) out West,” he said.
The club flourished even as Strauss and his family moved out West themselves, from the East Coast.
Eventually, the club grew to comprise “parents, grandparents, kids, coworkers … just everyone,” Strauss said. And club members skied everywhere, from Alta and Snowbird to Whistler and Mont Tremblant. They skied Park City, Crested Butte, Jackson Hole and Telluride.
“One of our members bought a condo here a few years ago, so some of us stay with them,” Strauss said. He and his other compatriots stay in condominiums, bed and breakfasts and Vrbos.
These days, “it’s the remnants of the club,” he said. “It’s my (ski) vacation, and if you want to come skiing with me, come on along.”
This season’s Telluride reunion included Polly Patterson of Boston, Jim Vance of Chicago, Todd Pisciotti of Tampa, Valerie Walling and Emma and Chris Figge of Littleton, along with Don Skaar and Pam and Mark Rabold of Helena.
Most of all, they appreciate the quality and the variety of the skiing in Telluride, he said. They also enjoy the town: the restaurants, the shops, the entertainment and the vibe.
The reunions are a combination of old and new: catching up with old friends, enjoying fresh powder, checking out new stores and different places to eat.
Certain practices, though, remain sacred.
“I do a traditional white clam sauce meal each year. That’s always a big event,” Strauss said. “And we have a chili dinner. It’s a lot of fun.”
The timing of their reunion this year was particularly rewarding, he said, recalling last Monday’s snowstorm.
“It was a bluebird day on Tuesday with fresh powder, and then great weather all week,” he said. “And we found Rockslide yesterday. What a blast. Holy cow. It takes some work to find it, but if you just keep exploring, it’s there.”
He referenced the nearly hidden double-black diamond run that drops into Prospect Creek from the Ute Park green run.
Discovering places like Rockslide is another reason these far-flung friends — who have dozens of resorts to choose from — elect to reconvene in Telluride again and again. An additional bonus, Strauss pointed out, is the fact that Telluride is actually quite easy to get to, not only by car but also, increasingly, by plane (to Montrose’s airport, or for that matter to Telluride’s airport). Despite the fact that Telluride is located in a seemingly remote spot of southwest Colorado, it’s no longer a chore — if it ever was — to get here. As Strauss put it, “It’s inaccessible but accessible.”
The trademark terrain is a big reason Don Marshall and his family, who reside along the Front Range, in Conifer, choose to visit Telluride.
The terrain is prestigious enough (and complex enough) to compel one of the Marshall family’s younger members to compete here — and aesthetic enough to inspire the rest of the family to make the trek along with him for a few days of skiing themselves.
“We came down here to see our nephew ski (in the junior Telluride Nationals of the Rocky Mountain Freeride Series),” Marshall said as he watched Saturday’s competition from the bottom of the Genevieve run below the ridge up into Black Iron Bowl.
Nephew Gage Robinson participated in the extreme skiing event representing the Winter Park Big Mountain Team.
“Getting back here is always fun,” said Marshall, a regular at Winter Park. “It’s the beauty, the steeps. You can’t beat it. It’s better than any other place.”
As a geologist he especially appreciates the extraordinary science under foot and on display at Telluride.
“This is one of my favorite places. I did my geology field camp (for Colorado State University) over on Molas Pass,” he said. “You can’t miss coming here because skiing Telluride is a gift from God.”
Along with diehard skiers like Marshall and Strauss, freestyle skiing legend (and television personality) Jonny Mosely also hit the Telluride steeps last week. Photos circulated on social media of the former Squaw Valley ski star hiking the Gold Hill Stairs and sampling the Gold Hill Chutes, among other spots on the mountain.
But the recent visiting crowd was not confined to black-diamond-loving skiers and snowboaders.
Once-a-season family skiers from Atlanta and New York also flocked to Telluride, along with winter sports fans from Arizona, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Georgia and beyond. Meanwhile, overseas guests arrived from Australia, Germany, Switzerland and even Hong Kong.
Telski CEO Bill Jensen attributed the vast array of visitors this season to a combination of targeted marketing, community support and air connection opportunities, along with timely snowfall that allowed Telluride to open the majority of terrain before Christmas.
“Our work … marketing to the high-end groups has been very successful,” Jensen said. Indeed, the resort’s commitment to — and investment in — such marketing efforts over the last few years is paying handsome dividends now.
Jensen specifically mentioned the targeting of high-end ski groups, corporate groups and high-profile organizations with young company presidents. The Telluride experience takes over from there.
“Groups are prone to return to a positive experience,” Jensen pointed out.
He also cited big name events like the Freeride Junior Tour Telluride Nationals, which increase Telluride’s exposure and encourage visitors to return.
“It’s consistent with what our community is passionate about,” he said.
Telluride hosted college ski races last weekend, attracting more serious young skiers to the resort.
Jensen said the Telluride Ski & Snowboard School also plays a vital role for visitors and returning visitors. The terrain-based teaching area, developed two years ago, was a “game changer” when it comes to instruction.
“It was a home run for our ski school,” he said of the teaching facility located below the Peaks and slightly above the Meadows within close distance to Mountain Village.
Telluride’s air service component is vital to the overall numbers and return business the resort is experiencing, according to Jensen and Matt Skinner.
Skinner, who has extensive experience in the ski business, is the COO of Colorado Flights Alliance, the public-private partnership designed to build air service and develop long-term relationships with airlines.
“Our flights are doing what they are supposed to do,” Skinner said, pointing to the popular direct flights to Montrose and Telluride from locations like Atlanta, as well as California and the New York area. “We’re seeing traction in these nonstop (flight) markets.”
The concerted group effort, both in terms of encouraging direct flights, as well as increasing the number of flights through hub airports, have bolstered Telluride’s accessibility.
“People have more options to get here,” Skinner said.
What’s more, the air partnership is constantly evaluating customer demand and potential new markets.
The results point to Telluride as the recent industry leader in air service growth (and the alliance is making a concerted effort to keep it that way in the future).
“It’s a combined effort. We’re one piece of the puzzle,” Skinner emphasized, citing Telluride’s high return guest rate.
And, Skinner said, that positive return rate is a reflection of the Telluride community and the Telluride experience.