Powder skiing

Photo credit: ZargonDesign. File photo. (iStock)

We all have our nemesis, our archenemy, our bete noire. 

For much of my life, The Plunge in Telluride was mine. It has loomed as the ultimate unmet terror for me for a good 30 years of living and skiing in Colorado.

Telluride’s signature ski run starts at 12,000 feet directly above the picturesque town and drops 3,155 vertical feet amid Volkswagen-sized moguls, one of the nation's steepest, deepest and most difficult runs.

For much of my life, I kept putting off this showdown — until I was a better skier, until I was in tip-top shape, until the snow conditions were ideal. Until, until. Like so many Coloradans, I worked on my turns, took bump lessons, upgraded skis, tried progressively nasty runs around the state all in anticipation of this final duel someday.

11 of Colorado’s hardest ski runs

A subjective list of Colorado’s most challenging and memorable ski runs. What would you add to the list?

Telluride: The Plunge

Crested Butte: Rambo, which at 55 degrees is the steepest cut run in North America.

Crested Butte: Body Bag

Mary Jane/Winter Park: Drunken Frenchman

Arapahoe Basin: Pallavicini

Aspen Highlands: Highland Bowl

Breckenridge: Lake Chutes

Loveland: Wild Child

Beaver Creek: Birds of Prey

Steamboat: Shadows

Vail: Riva Ridge

I admit: The Plunge isn’t even on some lists of Colorado’s hairiest runs. I’m talking wicked double blacks like Body Bag in Crested Butte, or its sister run Rambo, which at 55 degrees is the steepest cut run in North America.

Or Drunken Frenchman at Mary Jane/Winter Park, or Pallavicini at Arapahoe Basin, Highland Bowl in Aspen Highlands, Lake Chutes at Breck, Wild Child at Loveland, Birds of Prey in Beaver Creek, Shadows in Steamboat.

These are probably all more difficult runs, to be sure, but my obsession had settled in on The Plunge.

Over the years, I engaged happily in all the Colorado ski rituals as I steadfastly prepared for and avoided The Plunge.

Went to the new Warren Miller every year at the Paramount Theater to get the season kicked off. Used to take the ski train up to Winter Park for lessons when I couldn’t scrounge a ride.

Got my first pair of bright orange 206 cm Atomics in high school, with safety straps before the days of ski brakes, when you could lose a ski and not find it until you reached bottom. Traded those in for my Rossies in my 30s, and K2s in my 40s.

Always hunted deals at Sniagrab over Labor Day at the magical Gart Brother’s Sports Castle on Broadway, with its seven glorious floors of sports equipment.

Like many Coloradans, I found the Back Bowls of Vail in my twenties, and never wanted to go anywhere else for a while. Why couldn’t a person ski for a living, or live to ski, I remember wondering. What else is there really?

I‘ve spent some of the sunniest, best days of my life with friends and family on the slopes, always eager to catch the first lift up and the last one down, often with a bota bag of red wine under my fleece. 

To truly fall in love with skiing you have to have a hankering for infinity. You have to crave the freedom and speed a pair of skis gives you so much it becomes a way you stay sane. Motion therapy perhaps.

And for a big, gangly, awkward oaf like me, skiing was a way to experience grace for the first time, to know what it felt like to finally join the dance, the dance of the universe.

Like many Coloradans, I’ve always loved the beauty of outdoor places, the athletic challenge of testing a new mountain or run, the sheer play of jumps and slaloms and tricky glades to navigate. But for someone who never had a graceful moment in his childhood, finding that feeling of fluency you get when you’re vadeling down a perfect line in the powder, the end of one turn perfectly pushing you into the beginning of the next, well skiing is the bomb. For us awkward kids, skiing let’s us feel like we’ve fitted ourselves into a groove in gravity.

Nature truly does have its slipsteams, its songlines, its secret rhythms, and skiing is one of the best ways to find them.

“Dropping forever and forever in the quiet hiss of the fresh powder. It was better than flying or anything else,” is how Hemingway said it.

The Plunge only got worse over the years in my imagination as I got better at skiing.

I did make a couple reservations to go to Telluride but cancelled them upon further consideration. Why drive 8 hours simply to experience ultimate terror? (Because it’s there, says Westword).

Then one year, at the annual start-of-the-season Warren Miller movie at the Paramount, the maestro himself came on stage and said something that finally pushed me past my fears.

“If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do,” Miller said.

So I finally made a reservation and kept it and drove down with a friend to meet my nemesis.

The signs were immediately bad. My car slid off an icy road and flipped into a ditch on the way. But I immediately had it towed into a garage in Telluride determined to keep my date with destiny. An asthma attack triggered by the cold dry air nearly sent me to he hospital. The first run down I twisted my ankle in a particularly spectacular fall. But all these impediments just rage-stoked my resolve.

This was the year.

I finally got to the top of the mountain that afternoon and, my God, the view is enough to chase your terrors right into the clouds. I mean is there any prettier city in Colorado, all those Victorian houses and Old West saloons and shops tumbled down into the box canyon at your feet like colored marbles? And then there is that frozen waterfall at the back and the cobalt blue sky overhead. What do you want out of a ski run, c’mon?

And so, after 30 years of nightmaring about the thing, I tentatively sidled over to the top of The Plunge.

Oh the disappointment.

I’d gotten there too late. The Plunge had been tamed. The snowcats had groomed the damn thing overnight. The Plunge, groomed? Where was the wild, untamed river of bumps I had so dreaded for so many years? This ain’t going to be nothing, I told myself, both disappointed and relieved simultaneously, and down I went.

But The Plunge, like all truly evil things, suckers you in with a smile before it takes your soul. Halfway down you arrive at a sign that says “Lower Plunge” and that’s where the fun begins. Nobody had groomed Lower Plunge, and the moguls rose up higher than my head, ready to make mincemeat out of my knees. And of course, that’s exactly when the blinding snow began to fall and my goggles fogged up. 

I can’t say I actually skied the Lower Plunge that day, more like fell down the last 1,000 feet of it after a particularly nasty yard sale when I hit a patch of ice on the lee side of a bump.

I thought of Buzz Lightyear on my way down. “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style.”

But down I got. To the bottom.

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