As I pull of I-70 to find my hotel, I begin to suffer from cognitive disconnect. Just outside Grand Junction, the town of Palisade, Colorado is beautiful, but not in a typical ski-town type of way. And from the looks of things, skiing isn't the biggest game in town. Red sandstone bluffs frame a valley blanketed with vineyards. The hotel where I'm staying is called the Wine Country Inn. I'm told when at check in that my room has a vineyard view. Don't get me wrong, I love a glass of wine now and then, but I thought I was here to ski...
Long story short, the skiing at Powderhorn is as excellent as the grapes in Palisade are plentiful. I manage to arrive on the tail end of a storm that's dropped nearly 20 inches on Powderhorn's slopes. Eager to check out the hill, I meet up with Tricia, my tour guide, and head out for some warm-up laps on some of the groomed runs. Tricia shares that the grooming is a point of pride at Powderhorn and I have to hand it to her - the quality of the corduroy is immaculate and the terrain varies from steep to rolling. There are great options for beginners and racer-types alike.
The mountain is deceptively vast. From the bottom, it looks like a diminutive local ski area; a few groomers, some glades - fun, but not impressive. Well, don't judge a gem by its, er, cover. What you can't see from the parking lot is that just about all of Powderhorn's trees are skiable. Once you hop on the chairlift, the area begins to reveal its secrets. I drool over little powder stashes as I ascend, and make two full laps before I see another soul.
Tricia seems to sense that the powder junkie beside her on the chairlift is eager for someone to enable a relapse. She makes a couple calls, and soon I'm joined by a few Powderhorn locals, who also happen to work here. Excusing herself from our group, she makes a remark that catches me off guard as she heads for her office.
"Try and keep up." she says slyly.
I hop a chair (okay, two chairs) with Dave, Gordy, Sam and Adam. They're a friendly, unassuming bunch who clearly have their priorities straight - one phone call requesting ski buddies for the visiting Mountain Correspondent, and presto! An insta-team! The group has deep roots at Powderhorn. Sam and Gordy have been skiing here since the 1970's. They've grown up skiing here they tell me, but it's clear they have no intention of acting like grown-ups on a powder day.
In today's world, it seems that frequently the employees and management of many ski resorts don't actually ski - they might dabble in the sport, but to many of them a job is a job, and theirs just so happens to be at a ski area. That's not the case at Powderhorn. The management here doesn't ski, it rips.
Our little posse knocks out lap after lap. We never see another skier in the trees. It's as if we have the whole mountain to ourselves. I'm lucky to have seasoned locals to chase around, and they don't disappoint. We work the mountain from one side to the other, making sure to hit all the top-secret spots along the way. I feel welcome with this group, and sink in to the camaraderie as we war-whoop our way through the trees.
Powderhorn is a little different than many other Colorado Ski Areas. For one thing, it's much further west than most of the state's resorts. Grand Junction is the nearest population center, and while it's not a town one might consider a 'ski town', the Grand Junction locals have it good. The geography of Powderhorn's location is another interesting factor that sets it apart. The ski area is carved in to the side of Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in Colorado, and instead of pine forests and alpine peaks, the views are of red sandstone mesas in the vast high desert. The views are unlike any other resort in the state.
Eventually the real world catches up to my riding partners - Sam has to deal with a transportation issue, Dave is needed for some maintenance task, Adam has a snowboard lesson and Gordy left us in the dust long ago (he's one of the few telemarkers who skis faster than his alpine counterparts). I say my goodbyes and thank them all for showing me such a great day.
As I pull my boots off in the parking lot, I gaze up at the runs snaking down the side of the Grand Mesa. Just a few hours ago I had imagined the highlight of the day would be the glass of local pinot noir I'd have aprs ski. Now I look at the endless possibilities hidden in plain sight. Like the new ski buddies with whom I just spent the day, it was my job that first brought me to Powderhorn, but it's the skiing that will bring me back.
-John Trousdale, Mountain Correspondent, Colorado Ski Country USA