Deep Thoughts on Purgatory

A weekend of ski racing just so happened to coincide with February’s Snowmaggedon.

This was our car, buried after two days at Purgatory.

The snowfall report was 24 inches in 24 hours. An epic tally like that promises the kind of over-the-head blower powder shots that you’ll be telling your grandkids about. But there I was in a car with another mom driving away from Purgatory. We were like fish swimming upstream against the traffic of rabid powderhounds heading to the resort. What were we thinking?

I had come to Purgatory to watch my 18-year-old son race in the high school State Championships. Everybody loves powder except for ski racers on race day. New snow is a nuisance that means the course crew has to work extra hard to slip the fluff off the racecourse. Slip it, shovel it, and otherwise eradicate it from the race line. Powder is a liability.

In fact, there was so much snow predicted for Purgatory on the day of the slalom race that the event was moved to Chapman Hill, the rope-tow slope that’s situated inside Durango’s city limits. This explains why I was driving toward Durango and away from a ski mountain that was covered in 2 feet of freshies.

It broke my powderhound heart.

I had moments when I seriously considered bailing on the race. I was staying in a slopeside condo with five other parents of ski racers. The night before the race, one of the racers texted, “Dad, you should totally go ski powder tomorrow! Don’t even think about coming and watching our stupid ski race and NOT skiing powder!!”

Naturally, I texted my son: “Wow, this ski race is really going to get in the way of my powder day.”  [Hint, hint.]  

I waited. He did not text back that I should not go to the race. That’s a double negative that means: “Be a good mom and go watch your kid race slalom.”

Well, if I was skiing 24 inches of fresh snow at Purgatory, I wouldn’t have had this mother-son moment with my ski racer.

All Was Not Lost

Now here’s the good news: The day before the cursed slalom race, there were 17 inches of new snow at Purgatory and the day after the race, there would be another 7 inches. People were calling it Snowmaggedon. Despite my kvetching about missing The Big Day, I got my fair share of powder over the course of the weekend.

On the 17-inch day, I got plenty of whoop-worthy turns. On the first run down, I was positively giddy. I got to the bottom of Pandemonium, a steep pitch of snow-covered bumps.

Woo-hoo!!!! I yelped.

Then I looked uphill, and I saw my friend Nicole twisted like a pretzel in the deep snow. Uh-oh.

She picked her way down to me, traversing slowly across the hill on one ski. “I heard a pop,” she said. Turns out she broke her leg and pulled ligaments in her knee. Big, fat, massive bummer. That left me, literally, with no friends on a powder day. Nicole made her way to the bottom, and I felt I had little choice but to ski enough powder for the both of us. (Is it Hell you go to after Purgatory?)

The Snow Must Go On

On the recommendation of a fellow lift rider, I headed for Lift 8 on Purgatory’s backside. Thing is, I’ve never skied Purgatory before, and it’s a little unsettling to be diving into powder shots in somewhat low visibility conditions when you don’t know a mountain. On my first chair ride up Lift 8, a friendly local named John offered to give me a tour.

My new BFF at Purgatory gave me a quick tour before he went off to find his real friends at the bar.

I was in the throes of a gnarly case of bronchitis, but untracked snow has the rejuvenating power to overcome sickness. It could probably cure cancer. I knew I’d pay for it later, but I charged hard anyway.

“You’re skiing pretty good for feeling like half a person,” said John.

We dropped into the trees in Paul’s Park and skied powder-choked steeps through towering pines covered in Old Man’s Beard (aka, Usnea, a light green-gray arboreal hair lichen that drapes over the branches of conifer trees). We exited the glade onto Blackburn’s Bash and continued nearly 1,500 vertical feet on a consistent steep pitch to the bottom. On the next run, my new friend took me to Elliot’s, a steep bumped-up pitch blanketed in fresh snow.

John then said his goodbyes. He needed catch up with his real friends at Dante’s for a cocktail. It was 11 a.m. Far as I could tell, there were still five more hours of hunting down freshies before Happy Hour. After a few more laps on Chair 8 and a few on Chair 3, I made my way back to the frontside for a run in the trees off Styx. I followed a small cat-track to the resort’s boundary.

I was glad someone else broke trail in the woods. It made for a peaceful trek through the pine trees.

Shuffling through the woods alone and surrounded by all that new snow was magical. On the descent, groves of pine gave way to sky-scratching aspens and untracked turns. By the time I got to the bottom, my legs had turned to soft rubber.

Purgatory has some seriously tall Aspen trees, but more important on a powder day is the perfect spaces between them.

The next day, I stood at the finish corral at Chapman Hill as fat flakes fell from the heavens.

There’s skiing in powder and then there’s powder that piles up on your hood as you stand in the finish corral.

Post-Race Freshies

And the day after that, 7 more inches piled up. We were back at Purgatory for freeskiing. I followed fellow ski-racing parents into McCormack’s Maze, where we continued to find fresh lines. The ski team was also having a free-ski day, and we watched them from the chair as they launched off jumps, landing in the soft stuff and cheering for one another.

Watching my son skiing the steeps beneath my ski tips was one of those moments when your heart bubbles up. All those days logged on the bunny slope and the frozen toes and the dragging of kids out of bed in the morning and a decade of traveling around the state to ski races were all worth it to see him ripping like that at Purgatory.

These four racers missed the team van and had to stay at Purgatory
and ski powder. No tears were shed.

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