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Silverton delivers big mountain terrain, with no coddling; Photo courtesy Silverton Mountain.

Skiing Southern Colorado’s Powder Highway

The world is a swirling snow globe as I drive over Red Mountain Pass en route from Silverton to Telluride on day three of the Southern Colorado Powder Highway. Hands gripped to the steering wheel, I lean forward and squint, struggling to discern where the snow-coated hairpins blur to sheer drops. White-knuckled driving is a given when chasing storms on a powder tour. The trouble is my adrenalin reserves are empty after skiing Silverton Mountain all day.

I’d hatched the idea for this 1,000-mile road trip from Boulder when I heard El Niño was going to hit the Southern Rockies with a roar. My goal: to loop around southern Colorado, seeking freshies and steeps at six ski areas—Wolf Creek, Purgatory, Silverton, Telluride, Crested Butte, and Monarch. British Columbia touts its own Powder Highway. I wanted to see if in an arm wrestle, Colorado could press Canada’s forearm close to the snow. (It could.)

My third stop, Silverton, delivers an ass-kicking. This legendary all advanced and expert mountain has just one lift, which deposits you within hiking distance of nothing but gnarly terrain. (Heli-skiing is also an option if your wallet is fat.) This is where you come to push your limits. I hate to admit it, but Silverton pulled my ski pants into a wedgie, swung me around, and deposited me in a quivering mess on the ground. I blame the Michigan guy who chatted me up in the yurt at 8:00 am: “On the first day I was a little disappointed because I signed up for a slower group. The pace was a little too slow,” he said.

“Hmmmm,” I think. “I’m a Colorado skier chick. I can hold my own. I’ll sign up for a fast group.”

Five minutes into my first hike from the top of the lift, at 12,300 feet, I start wondering if I’ve made a horrible mistake. I’m the only girl in a guided group of eight guys, and I’m lagging. As I trudge up the boot pack, each breath is a sharp stab to my chest. My legs burn, like every cell is swelling with lactic acid and might burst. Lugging my skis up the Grand Teton was easier than this. The steep ridge in front of me disappears into a sea of clouds. An unfamiliar feeling of intimidation and fear churns in my gut.

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Silverton can be daunting when you can’t see; Photograph by Avery Stonich.

I think back to Purgatory yesterday. Why did I ski all those bumps? The whole day I had grinned like a giddy kid—especially on the last run, Styx, which twists and rolls over willy-inducing changes in pitch. Now I wish I could take every turn and put it back in my energy bank. Note to self: when planning a Southern Colorado Powder Highway tour, take a rest day before Silverton.

My muscles are also weary from shredding Wolf Creek. Like an eager schoolgirl, I’d shown up before the lifts started rolling, delighted to snag a third-row parking spot. The relaxed vibe is worlds away from the frenetic I-70 corridor west of Denver, where throngs of skiers sharpen their elbows for powder days. At Wolf Creek, I skate straight to the lift with no wait and ask my guide what to expect. “Powder. Lots of powder,” he says.

We hike up to Wolf Creek’s high point, Alberta Peak, taking in sweeping views of the San Juan Mountains from the Continental Divide at 11,900 feet. Below us an untracked slope beckons. I drop in, making fast, sweeping turns that carve through the buttery snow like a knife, stirring up a giddy flutter of butterflies in my heart. “This is what the Southern Colorado Powder Highway is all about,” I think. We make virgin turns all day, with barely another soul in sight.

Bluebird days at Wolf Creek and Purgatory leave me ill prepared for pea soup at Silverton, where thick clouds hang heavy, masking big mountain views. Standing on top of a cornice on a run called Mandatory Air, I can’t tell if the drop is two or 12 feet. “Trust your legs,” rattles the pep talk in my head. This is Type 2 Fun—the kind of fun that you appreciate more after it’s done.

After surviving Silverton and Red Mountain Pass, I roll into Telluride rattled and in need of redemption. It has dumped 14 inches, and the sun sparkles on a glimmering coat of pristine white. I look up warily at lofty, ragged peaks, which tower over Telluride’s infamous extreme hike-to terrain.

I call a friend to ask if she wants to ski. “I can’t. My knee is hurt. But my friends will take you. Are you okay with a little hike—up Palmyra Peak?” she asks.

I look at the trail map and suck in a short breath. Palmyra Peak is 13,320 feet, a huge hike. Pushing down fear of a Silverton repeat, I timidly whisper yes, knowing I need to get back on the horse.

From the top of Telluride’s Lift 12, Palmyra Peak looms like an imposing sentinel, warning off anyone who hesitates. I try not to look at the craggy approach. Putting one foot in front of the other, I settle into a rhythm up the steep boot pack, pumping loud music into my ears to mask the sound of my laboring breath. Sweat trickles down my forehead, and my shoulders ache from hauling my skis.

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It’s a long way to the top of Telluride’s Palmyra Peak; Photograph by Avery Stonich

As I approach the crux of the route, one of my new friends is waiting to help me. “This section is called Doggy Style,” he says. I fight the impulse to drop to my knees, summoning courage to creep over the steep rock on two feet, using my poles for balance.

Two hours into the hike, I trudge the final steps to the top, beaming a wide smile and high-fiving the group. Peering down the narrow run that descends from the summit, I feel joy surge in my chest. We click into our skis and plunge down the couloir, making soft jump turns in fresh snow. My spirit soars. My mojo is restored.

With regained confidence, I continue to Crested Butte, where I charge hard down the resort’s revered steeps with Olympian Wendy Fisher as my guide. Just when I think life can’t get any better, clouds pinch out the sun and another storm rolls in. I head to the hot tub, watching fat flakes melt into the bubbling water as I soak my muscles and prepare for earning backcountry turns with Irwin Guides the next day.

It snows all night, pushing my mental avalanche meter into the red zone, so I check the Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC) website when I wake up. “Heavy snowfall on a weak snowpack has produced very dangerous avalanche conditions today. Avalanche danger will rise throughout the day.”

“I wish we were skiing inbounds,” I think.

Irwin’s lead guide, Steve Banks, puts me at ease. Projecting a map of Red Lady Glades on a big screen, he says we’ll stick to low angle trees. I know I’m in good hands. Banks is former executive director and forecaster for the CBAC; he could have written the avalanche forecast himself.

Snow pours down all day, collecting in my jacket folds and backpack straps. When we take off our skins after climbing 3,000 feet, my legs sink down to my knees. We float down through the trees, our soft bouncing turns as quiet as the whirring flap of bird wings, punctuated by our delighted shrieks of glee. I remember how much fun you can have below 25 degrees.

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Irwin Guides can show you the goods in the Crested Butte backcountry; Photograph by Terry Stonich

Back at the car I collapse into my seat, with heavy limbs. It’s still nuking, the snow raining down in thick sheets. I check the road forecast: Monarch Pass will close at 4:30 for avalanche control. It’s 2:30. I have to go. I’m skiing Monarch tomorrow, and I can’t be stuck on the wrong side of the pass on a powder day. My foot weighs heavy on the gas pedal to beat the closure. I squeak over the pass at 4:15, through a swirling sea of white, wondering what’s been more challenging—the driving or the skiing.

Monarch is the perfect capper to the Southern Colorado Powder Highway, reporting 20 inches in 48 hours. At first, I forget where I am and hustle to the lift to beat the rush. But there’s no line. “We don’t have to hurry,” my guide says. “We’ll be skiing powder all day.”

Monarch is Colorado’s best-kept secret, a small mountain with just enough epic terrain, deep powder, and no crowds. I spend the day in cold smoke, arcs of powder trailing over my head as I float through the Mirkwood trees. After eight days of nudging the edge of my comfort zone, I charge down steep slopes and through tight trees with ease, trusting where my legs will lead.

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Charging through cold smoke at Monarch; Photograph by Terry Stonich

I hit the Southern Colorado Powder Highway to have fun, find deep powder, and tackle challenging terrain. At the end of the road, I discovered newfound strength within me.

Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 45 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @averystonich.