TELLURIDE — Precisely 12 hours before Telluride Ski Resort opened for the record-setting 2018-19 winter, I stepped awkwardly off an indoor staircase and ruptured my right quadricep tendon.
Even orthopedic surgeons consider the injury gruesome, as the quad muscle rolls up the leg like a window shade. Meanwhile, the tendon keeping the patella in place is severed, so the lower patellar tendon gets greedy in the tug-of-war and yanks the kneecap halfway down the shin. Crumpled there on the floor, I reached to assess the damage and discovered only the U-shaped channel of bone in which the kneecap normally hovers.
Twelve hours before Telluride’s chairlifts began spinning, my ski season had hit the chicane.
Here’s how your correspondent experienced last winter’s ensuing 320-inch accumulation (including a whopping 99-inch March): Limping on crutches through vast swaths of precipitation, straining to keep useless right leg from catching on snowfall that suddenly, for the first time, was no longer beautiful.
Following surgery, during which holes were power-drilled into bones, I drove four blocks to Telluride Liquors for something to wash down the Vicodin. The store’s parking lot had never before presented a challenge, but new seracs and drifts of blue ice developed in Nutsy ’19, one of which tore a $500 hole into the exhaust system of my VW Passat.
I missed the second-most fluffy winter Telski ever recorded. The last time I goose-egged an entire ski season, Nixon was still in office.
Ergo, gleeful anticipation accompanied this autumn’s approach to Telluride’s traditional Thanksgiving opening day. Nov. 28, 2019, fell 363 days after surgeons sliced me at Black Canyon Surgical Center in Montrose. Though not the best rehabber, I’ve done enough hiking, mountain biking and hot yoga in the last year to feel confident entering the holiday. Also on my side: one size large DonJoy Performance Bionic Knee brace, complete with ergonomic carbon supports.
Though November bless Telluride with more snow than previous autumns, the main benefit to this point is the purty appearance of surrounding peaks. The resort wasn’t able to open any more terrain than normal, which is fine. Give us 1,244 feet of vertical on groomed intermediates before December and we’re perfectly happy, so long as the skiable acreage increases notably by the next round of holidays — MLK Day at the latest.
I hosted a tryptophan feast on Thursday, and kitchen prep kept me from the gondola till 12:30 p.m. I boarded with an infamous Tellurider: Ben, the headphone guy, who usually goes hatless to show off his silver fox mane. I’d met Ben 11 years ago, at the wake for a bipolar mountaineer, but he didn’t remember me.
One of the worst things about last winter was crutching every day to the eastbound Galloping Goose shuttle bus that delivers skiers to Chair 8 and the gondola every hour. Last year, I stayed behind on the bus as most of the humanity and all the joy departed. I’d watch people with two healthy legs smile as they lurched off in that Frankensteinian way people walk in ski boots, and wish I still belonged to their tribe.
But that was then. At the apex of Upper Misty Maiden Thursday, I felt — for the first time since April 8, 2018 — the cathartic click of high-tech polyurethane ski boot into high-tech aluminum Austrian-engineered ski binding. Oh, yeah. I pressed my shins against the tongues of my 2007 Lange Freeride boots, which I only wore cuz I couldn’t find my 2017 versions. My time on the sidelines had extended so pathetically long, I’d completely forgotten what I’d done with my favorite boots. Sweet Jesus.
From the apex of Misty Maiden, the tips of my Wagner skis angled downward. Slowly, I gained speed. The boards — 184cm models with Deadhead skeleton graphics — hung tight to the inside line where Maiden switchbacks hard to the west. “Ohmigod, this is awesome,” I thought, devouring the primal rush of rocketing down a fall line again. Skiing is, by far, my favorite participatory sport. I love that it’s a gravity sport that can be mastered even by the huskiest of skiers, like yours truly, who insist the arctic climes of 8,750 feet above sea level demand that mountain dwellers fatten like geese.
I love that I’m better at skiing than I am at any other sport. Sure, I’ve thrown clinics on Telluride mountain bike trails, Frisbee fields and sweaty dance floors. But I feel most at home, athletically speaking, on 6-foot-long fiberglass sticks.
It’s as if I’m an insect that’s hopelessly dependent on the virtual antennae attached to my Langes. For me to navigate mountains, skis searching out ahead are required. I trust the reaching tentacles to tell me how to proceed. With each giddily weightless turn, the skis and the gods and the America we all love told me to go faster, to devour great gobs of the San Juan Mountains.
On Thursday, tourists and locals lapped the same combinations of Misty Maiden-Boomerang-Village Bypass in hazardous clusters. One of my four descents encountered a slope booby-trapped with camouflage hunting-wear and gross incompetence.
I caught up to some teenage flatlanders. Subconsciously, my internal computer processed rental skis, spanking new jackets, and the way their lift tickets repeatedly slapped their cheeks, owing to their unfathomable, kooky attachment at the neck.
Together, we curved onto a bottle-necking pathway. Sensing danger, I scanned for data with Terminator urgency. While there’s no predicting the random vectors and sudden tangents flatlanders take, a decades-old ski brain somehow calibrates That Which Cannot be Calibrated.
Sure enough, a dude in an orange jacket lurched, out of control, across the track into my line. Having intuited his approach angle, though, I floated safely around the chaos on the wings of a barely conscious check-turn.
I guess I’m a skier again. It’s good to be back.
Of course, I find it perfectly appropriate that my wintersports comeback occurred on Thanksgiving Day. I expressed deep, serious gratitude for my ability to experience the delirious, gravity-fed bliss that is Skiing — capital S intended. Every skier among us should be so grateful, every slope, every day.
Adventure journalist Rob Story has lived in Telluride for more than 25 years, writing for Skiing, Powder, Outside, Esquire and more.
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