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Unforgettable: Telluride makes changes to make sure guests have enjoyable time

Saturday, November 28, 2009

TELLURIDE — While the talk around the elbow-polished bar at the Sheridan Hotel late Wednesday centered on the first days of the 2009/2010 ski season, most of the attention was focused outside, where a predicted snowstorm was yet to begin.

Under generally clear skies, this ski resort changed into winter mode Thursday, opening four lifts, including the chondola, and a handful of runs covered mostly with snow from hoses, not from heaven.

Despite the current lack of magazine-cover face shots and the sight and sounds of skiers and boarders jumping into the steep chutes off Gold Hill, there is a sense of eager anticipation around the ski resort.

After more than 30 inches of snow fell two weeks ago, third-year CEO Dave Riley, taking this sign from the heavens as a good omen, put it this way: “We’re in better shape now than we were at this time last year.

“We’re actually looking good and better than we were last year, both in natural and man-made snow.”

Last year, if you remember, was a banner year for Telluride, its final day punctuated by a major winter storm that brought endless first tracks on deep powder runs.

It might not be quite that good this early in the season, but if you work someplace where your future depends on the whims of Mother Nature, you can’t help but be an optimist.

“I’m confident we’re going to have a great year this year,” said Riley, living up to his role of optimist-in-residence.

Among the changes visitors will see at Telluride this year include some revolutionary ideas Riley picked up on his travels to Europe. This includes some unique and tantalizing Alpine-style access to Chute Nine on Gold Hill, long a temptation to skiers because of its runout into the deep powder of Palmyra Basin.

However, the run also is considered figuratively out-of-bounds because of the protective cliff band near its entrance, making access difficult at best.

But those rock bands proved no match this summer for a little ingenuity, some high explosives and a talented welder or two.

“We’re building a 30-foot bridge and a 100-foot stairway to allow access to Chute Nine,” Riley said. “It’s like something you might see at Chamonix or Verbier, where they have installed steel stairs to access incredible terrain in these mind-blowing locations.”

The stairs will be flown in by helicopter and the pieces dropped in place in time for a Christmas opening, Riley said.

“Chute Nine is considered the easiest and most approachable of the Gold Hill chutes, but it’s almost never skied because it hard to get to,” Riley said. “But we fixed that.”

Riley also said Gold Hill chutes Two through Five will open this year.

“This means for the first time in history all 10 Gold Hill Chutes will be available for the public to enjoy,” he said.

That new terrain comes on top of the 400 or so acres of terrain the resort has opened over the past few seasons, including Revelation Bowl, Black Iron Bowl and Palmyra Peak.

Consider the ambitious changes elsewhere on the mountain, including the Austrian-style outdoor heating at the popular Hop Garden restaurant in the Mountain Village, and you understand why Riley is excited about the resort’s future.

Although it wouldn’t surprise a casual onlooker to see ski resorts scale back their plans until the economy improves, Riley said the management at Telluride realizes it can’t afford to wait.

“We have a very long-term view at Telluride,” he said. “Although the economy is tough right now, we’re trying our best to create an experience that’s unforgettable.”