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Snowmageddon in Purgatory

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Photo Credit: Helen Olsson

Here was the devastating part of my recent trip to Purgatory. The snowfall report was 24 inches in 24 hours. A tally like that promises the kind of over-the-head blower powder shots that you’ll be telling your grandkids about. But I was in a car with another mom driving away from a ski-in-ski-out condo at the base of Purgatory towards the town of Durango. We were like fish swimming upstream against the traffic of rabid powderhounds heading to the resort. What gives, you ask?

I had come to Purgatory to watch my 18-year-old son race in the high school State Championships. Everybody loves powder except for ski racers and ski race officials on race day. New snow is a nuisance that requires racers and course crews to slip the fluff off the racecourse. In fact, there was so much snow at Purgatory that the race was moved to Chapman Hill, the single rope-tow slope that’s situated in right in the city of Durango. Which explains why I was driving away from a ski mountain that was covered in 2 feet of freshies.

I had moments when I seriously considered bailing on the race. I was staying in a condo with five other parents of ski racers. One of the racers texted, “Dad, you should totally go ski powder! Don’t even think about coming and watching our stupid ski race and NOT skiing powder!!”

I texted my son: “Wow, this ski race is really getting in the way of my powder day.”  [Hint, hint.]  

I waited. And waited. He never once texted that I should not go to the race. So, I did the good mother thing and drove to Chapman to watch him race slalom.

Now here’s the good news: The day before the 24 inches (and the cursed slalom race), there were 17 inches of new snow and the day after the race, there would be another 7 inches. People were calling it Snowmaggedon. Despite my kvetching about missing the big day, I got my fair share of powder.

On the 17-inch day, I headed out and got whoop-worthy turns on the front side on Upper Hades and Pandemonium. On the recommendation of a fellow lift rider, I headed for Lift 8 on the backside. Thing is, I’ve never skied Purgatory before, and it’s a little unsettling to be diving into powder shots in somewhat low visibility conditions when you don’t know a mountain. On my first chair ride up Lift 8, a friendly local named John offered to give me a tour. (He’d lost touch with his own friends: “No friends on a powder day, he said… and no friends at your funeral.” I’m not sure what that second part means.

I assumed if I didn’t slow him down, he’d let me tag along. I was getting over a gnarly case of bronchitis, but untracked snow has the rejuvenating power to overcome a sickness. It could probably cure cancer. I knew I’d pay for it later, but I charged hard anyway.

“You’re pretty good for feeling like half a person,” said John.

We dropped into the trees in Paul’s Park and skied powder-choked steeps through towering pines covered in Old Man’s Beard (aka, Usnea, a light green-gray arboreal hair lichen that drapes over the branches of conifer trees). We exited the glade onto Blackburn’s Bash and continued nearly 1,500 vertical feet on a consistent steep pitch to the bottom. On the next run, my new friend took me to Elliot’s, which had bumps blanketed in fresh snow. Those are the only kind of bumps I like. Hero bumps.

John then said his goodbyes. He needed to reconvene with his regular friends at Dante’s for a cocktail. It was 11 a.m., so far as I could tell there were still five more hours of hunting down freshies before Happy Hour. After a few more laps on Chair 8, I took a run on the frontside in the trees off Styx. I followed a small cat-track to the resort’s boundary. Shuffling through the woods alone, surrounded by all that new snow was magical. On the descent, groves of pine gave way to sky-scratching aspens and untracked turns. By the time I got to the bottom, my legs had turned to soft rubber. In retrospect, it was probably best that I would spectate at the race the next day. I’m not sure I could have handled another big pow day.

After the slalom, another mom and I snuck in a few runs at the tail end of that 24-inch day. The next morning, with 7 more inches piled up, I followed fellow ski-racing parents into McCormack’s Maze, where we continued to find fresh lines. Below us, the ski team was having a free-ski day. Launching off jumps and landing in the soft stuff. I may have enjoyed seeing my own son playing with his buddies in the powder than watching that slalom race at Chapman.

If Purgatory is the place souls go to suffer and atone for their sins before gaining entrance to Heaven, Heaven must really be something.


Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. She blogs about outdoor adventures with kids at Read more of Helen’s stories here