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High Value, Low Glitz : COLORADO : The Snowy, Sunny Part

<i> Cohen is a Durango, Colo., free-lance writer. </i>

Why ski in southwestern Colorado instead of Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs and all the other great central and northern Colorado ski areas?

First and fore most would have to be snow. More of the natural stuff--not the man-made variety--falls in the southwestern corner than in most other parts of the state. Each year an average of 465 inches of snow blankets the Wolf Creek slopes.

Next comes sunshine 300 days a year, many of them in winter. It is not unusual to sleep through a night in which a couple feet of fresh snow falls, only to waken to a bright sunny day. By noon it’s possible to be skiing in knee-deep powder without your parka. Particularly in springtime, southwestern Colorado is one of the best places to work on a ski technique and a tan at the same time.

But, you say, there is snow and sun in trendy Aspen and Vail. Furthermore, there is glamour.

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Agreed, and that glamour is yet another reason for skiing the smaller, friendlier, less pricey slopes of southwestern Colorado.

Purgatory-Durango and Wolf Creek cater to families. Parents and kids can actually ski together on good intermediate ski terrain, and numerous discount packages are available to families. One program at Purgatory instructs parents in how to teach their children to ski.

Telluride’s a bit more wild West--Butch Cassidy once robbed a bank in town--and more upscale at the same time. Although it’s growing, it still is small enough to care about service to all skiers. The area has one of the best beginner’s programs, as well as some of the steepest expert runs, anywhere.

Of course, all is not sunshine and fluffy powder; southwestern Colorado is coming off last year’s rather dismal ski season in which too little snow fell to produce the best skiing.

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This year, the golden aspens are already gone from the hillsides, buried under this season’s early snow. Winter dropped in with a foot of snow just after Thanksgiving, boosting Wolf Creek’s early depth past 60 inches and allowing Purgatory and Telluride to open as well. Ski operators are ever optimistic and gearing up for what they hope will be a banner year at Purgatory-Durango, Telluride, Wolf Creek and cozy Ski Hesperus.

PURGATORY-DURANGO Due to a new marketing agreement between the Purgatory-Durango ski area and the Durango Area Chamber Resort Assn., the area is now called Purgatory-Durango Ski Resort. Resort officials hope to make people aware that when they come to this ski area they are not leaving town to travel 25 miles to ski, but rather that they are really coming to a resort that is 25 miles long.

Skiers can make one phone call for information and reservations for the full range of activities and accommodations available throughout the area; telephone (800) 525-0892.

Rather than being directed only to on-site or in-town facilities, skiers will now be provided with information regarding on- and off-slope accommodations, dining and non-ski activities.

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After holding back on lift ticket prices for a few seasons, Purgatory will raise its price this year. However, it will remain a relative bargain compared to the $40 a day at Aspen and Vail. Single-day lift tickets will cost $34. Reduced rates will be available to those who purchase season passes or multi-day packages. Such packages can bring the price of a lift ticket down to $25 a day, one of the lowest rates for a major Colorado resort.

Among the touted package deals available to skiers will be one called Big Three. It includes three days of ski rentals, lift tickets and three half-day lessons for $165.

Another deal, available only to beginners, is called Six Pack. It includes six days of ski rentals, lift tickets and six half-day lessons for $195, which translates to a day rate of less than the price of a standard lift ticket alone.

Also for beginners, the Start ‘Em Off Right program provides free lessons with the purchase of a lift ticket. Additional teaching programs include half- or full-day group sessions and private lessons for kids or adults. Also offered will be unusual combined classes for parents and children in which a child takes a private lesson and is then joined by a parent who learns from the instructor about the child’s strengths and weaknesses.

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Purgatory-Durango opened Nov. 30 with a 30-inch natural base.

TELLURIDE The Telluride Ski Resort completed $1 million in mountain improvements in time for the 1990-91 ski season, which opened Nov. 23.

On tap is new terrain for intermediate and advanced skiers, as well as 130 acres of snow-making capability, as insurance against another low-snow year like the last one.

Trail improvements will offer a new look to Telluride’s advanced/intermediate and expert front face runs. Bushwacker, a narrow tree run, will be widened to accommodate more skiers, and its length will almost double with an extension connecting it to the lower end of the Spiral Stairs and Mammoth runs.

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“What you are going to see is a completely new run, comparable in length and skiing experience to The Plunge,” said John Stevens, vice president of mountain operations.

A survey conducted last year added 10 feet to the total vertical drop here, increasing it to 3,522 feet, and redetermined that Telluride is now composed of 28% beginner slopes (“Ski Magazine” called the Meadows area the “best beginner area in the country”), 54% intermediate, 18% advanced/expert.

With a new total of 761 acres of skiing on three mountain faces, and 47 trails, including The Plunge and Spiral Stairs, two of the steepest runs in Colorado, Victorian Telluride’s niche as one of Colorado’s best ski areas is assured for another year.

WOLF CREEK Little Wolf Creek Ski Area, 80 miles east of Durango on Wolf Creek Pass, opened ahead of schedule this season and already has a 60-inch snow base.

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Wolf Creek has traditionally had more snow than any other Colorado ski resort. Spring skiing was reportedly good, with late snows making up for an earlier shortfall.

The Bonanza triple chairlift, built to eliminate lines in reaching a state-topping average of 465 inches of natural snow each winter, will increase uphill capacity by 72%.

Twenty acres of new trails were also added around the lift, including new expert and intermediate terrain. And while the triple lift services intermediate and expert skiers, providing access to new trails high up, the old double lift will now be used exclusively for beginners.

SKI HESPERUS Halfway between Mancos and Durango is another surprise: Ski Hesperus.

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Many people learn to ski at Hesperus, and the area’s small scale and unintimidating terrain offer a refreshing alternative to the mega-resorts--something akin to skiing your own private mountain.

Instead of a chilling 20-minute chairlift ride to the mountaintop, the Hesperus lift is closer to five minutes. This means more time to ski. There’s no glitz and little glamour here, no ski fashion show to which one feels compelled to conform, just surprisingly good and affordable skiing with a vertical drop of 700 feet.

And Hesperus has added a new expert run and a new rope tow to its double chair lift.

New prices have not yet been announced, but last year’s lift tickets were $15 daily for adults, $10 for children.

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Many skiers are pleasantly surprised by the varied terrain on nine runs and about six miles of cross country trails. Personal touches include a learn-to-ski guarantee. If you’re dissatisfied with a lesson, the next one’s free.

And should you work up an appetite on the slopes, Chips’ Place at the Canyon Motel, within sight of the Hesperus runs, has the best hamburgers in Durango.


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