Secrets of the steep, dispatches from the deep
TellurideAll’s fair in love, war and Prospect BowlHerb Manning is using a gloved finger to point toward several 13,000 and 14,000-foot peaks surrounding the town of Telluride. These are the San Juans, steep and jagged, younger than the familiar mountains of Vail and more menacing. In a word: beautiful.This is what I’ve come to find, and so far it’s what I’ve been given: steep mountains and incredible vistas. For 40 years, Vail has dominated the bowl market with its legendary Back Bowls. Telluride joined the game with the opening of Prospect Bowl last year, and now I’ve finally made the 5-hour drive from Vail to come see exactly what the term “bowl” means in San Juan country.On our way to Prospect Bowl, Manning and I have a perfect view of Telluride’s off-piste backcountry terrain from our seats on the gondola. I search for lines of descent, places of minimized avalanche danger where a skier or rider might make a way down the face without getting stuck atop an impassable cliff band or bare spot.Half in jest, I ask Manning if he’s skied some of the more intimidating peaks around us. Manning seems small, almost frail from behind his bug-eyed goggles, but the answer is yes, all of them, multiple times, through zig-zag chutes and hair-raising transitions above and below treeline.His answers make my head a little light. Along with snowboarder Ramona Bruland (also a Telluride local), Manning is taking myself and Vail Trail photographer Dan Davis for a tour of Prospect a new expansion that added 733 acres to Telluride’s 1,000 original acres. At this point I haven’t seen Prospect Bowl, but I’ve seen the pictures and one particular poster: a shadowy figure with his skis over his shoulder, walking a ridgeline with the monolithic face of Palmyra Peak so near in the background that it appears within arm’s reach. Every image I’ve seen of Prospect Bowl screams big-mountain, and with a skier like Manning in the lead I intend to scare myself today. Geared up for a day on the steeps, the only thing I’m wishing is that I had made time for that badly-needed tele tune-up that would give me the extra edge on Telluride’s snow, which happened to be sun-baked and demanding on that day.I knew there would be hiking involved, and I knew there would be steeps. But I didn’t know how short the hiking would be nor how short the steeps. I learn later that Telluride locals call this part of the Bowl “Three Turn Ridge,” but I also learn that, before Prospect Basin became Prospect Bowl (complete with two quads), people like Manning used to hike all day to get a face shot at Three Turn Ridge.And there’s little doubt why.Even without the ski/ride factor, there’s a damn good reason to go to this place. It is one of those spots in Colorado that give me a slight buzz in my head, a surreal sense of clarity, and a calm confidence about the definition of beauty. Even Manning and Bruland, who see this view on an almost daily basis, take a few minutes to look around, eyes glazed, at the in-your-face views of Palmyra Peak and the famed Lizard Head rock formation on the horizon. And although our run is short-lived, so is our ride back up the hill. A good day on this side of Prospect is easily summed up by one word: laps.Prospect Bowl is and always will be a haven for those who seek the steep and deep, the cliffs and drops that stop the heart for a silent second in the air. But there’s a kind of egalitarian spirit to this section of the mountain; experts and beginners all find what they need here.Case in point: when we reach the bottom of the Gold Hill lift I am shocked to find a group of little girls, no older than 6 or 7, boarding the lift alongside Bruland and me. On the way up the lift, Bruland talks to me over the head of the little girls we are accompanying to the top. Below us is acre after acre of blue-and-green runs, with less-experienced skiers making their winding way through. Prospect gives beginning and intermediate riders the kind of sensational views that are usually reserved for those who climb and hike though miles of backcountry. It is a big-mountain-for-all experience, available only in the San Juans, where young-mountain geology allows steeps to be side-by-side of green groomers.And for the experts, there is always the gate-accessed backcountry. But that’s not all rosy, either. San Juan snow is some of the most avalanche-prone snow in the world, and the Telluride ski company has been careful about where they allow skiers and riders to drop into San Juan wilderness.”The expansion was actually a contraction,” says Manning, who used to ski in areas of Prospect Bowl that are now closed to those who use the lift for access. Big-mountain skiers such as himself (Manning used to compete in big mountain and extreme skiing competitions, and is currently on tour in Europe shooting with Expedia.com) may have lost a bit of freedom with the expansion, he says, but he’s also gained some incredible, lift-accessed backcountry skiing off the back of Gold Hill.Conditions were not right for a foray into that area during the time we visited (not one track marred the pristine but deadly slope), But Manning assured us that there were still plenty of options for avy-savvy locals who wanted a quick way to the backcountry.Later, when I am talking in-depth with Manning, he says that the people of Telluride “all have strong opinions,” and that those opinions often collide, especially about resort-expansion and real estate issues. Like most changes in Telluride, the Prospect Bowl expansion drew heavy fire from vociferous naysayers. Several of the people I talked to didn’t want to go on record about their strong anti-expansion principles, and I met one who refused to ski the expansion as a sort of protest.But despite the problems, the expansion seems to be a political success, if there’s such a thing in Telluride. In the end, Manning says, “We all know each other and we’re pretty like-minded individuals.”That like-mindedness seems to fit with the surrounding landscape: rugged, unforgiving, quiet and lovely. On our way out of town we don’t see a stoplight for 45 miles. We see very few other cars, a scattering of mountain cabins, and more signs of wildlife than human life. A bald eagle, by way of farewell, takes a moment to look up at us from a trout feast atop a ponderosa pine on the banks of the San Miguel just outside of town. And then we drive a long, long, long way before we hit I-70 and the familiar highway corridor that leads home to Gypsum, Eagle, Edwards, Avon and Vail. It seems like a metropolis. But up there we know: our bowls are waiting.