Stepping into bindings for the first time in eight months, getting the first scan of a new season pass and the comfortable feeling of loading the chair lift and being carried high up a mountain side. Those sweet turns that follow and the free feeling of sliding down a snow-covered slope. It’s all back, and not a moment too soon.
It is opening day at Purgatory Resort north of Durango. It is a day to celebrate in most years, but especially so with the arrival of the 2020-21 season. It comes after last year’s ski season was cut short with a sudden closure in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Purgatory and many of its faithful held out hope for a closing weekend reopening, it never came.
Eight months later, here we are, back on the lift but still dealing with the coronavirus as it spikes at an alarming rate. The world around us is still as uncertain as it was in March, but at least we have this feeling again.
During the blur of most ski and snowboard seasons, there are always a few days one remembers above others. The yearly holiday trip with family or old friends, the best bluebird powder day or the ones spent in blizzard conditions as the snow piles up. Undoubtedly, closing day and opening day are among those often most easy to remember.
Friday, Purgatory Resort had a special early opening day for season pass holders. An email went out Thursday afternoon offering a lottery for pass holders to get their chance at the first runs of the year before the general public opening day Saturday with snow expected to fly all weekend.
The opening Friday was a gift from Purgatory to its local pass buyers and was framed as a “thank you” to customers for their understanding and patience after they had to close early last season. It was the kind of move I have come to appreciate from Purgatory since 2015 when James Coleman purchased the mountain and started making more local-friendly moves such as discounted passes for young adults like me.
After never getting proper closure to last year’s season, I wasn’t going to miss my chance to get out Friday at the first chance to return to Purgatory’s slopes. In a way, it felt like the beginning of a new chapter. In others, it felt like I was finally getting back to a book I had set down in March and put out of my mind. In a world filled with so much noise right now, all felt right as I sat back on the chair, closed my eyes, felt the cool air flow past my face and soaked in sweet mountain silence.
It was an average opening day at Purgatory. A mostly man-made 16-inch base, only a few exposed rocks and a ripping fun time with top-to-bottom riding and some fun terrain park features near the base. Remembering back to 2017 when opening weekend consisted of top to mid-lift skiing and having to take the six-pack chairlift ride back to the base area, it now feels good anytime you can make turns all the way down to the base in November.
This wasn’t my first day of the season, though. I’ve been lucky enough to escape east to Wolf Creek Ski Area for two days already. Sadly, after hitting a deer on a drive back from a Bayfield football game in late October, I didn’t have a car to make it to Wolf Creek’s opening day on Oct. 28. With my car back from the body shop, I was able to start my season Nov. 9 during a massive storm that made for one of the best opening days of my life. I went back two days later for my first bluebird powder day. With the mountain 94% open thanks to more than a 50-inch base with 80 inches of snowfall already this year, I was hooting and hollering while zipping through stacks of snow through the trees of the “Numbered Chutes.” It was the best feeling I have had since the pandemic started.
March 16 was the last time I had felt it. My best friend and I decided to head to Brian Head in Utah where I could take advantage of my Purgatory pass to ride a mountain I had never visited. High school basketball state tournaments had been canceled the weekend I departed on that trip, and spring sports had been suspended for high schools and colleges as COVID-19 began to spread through the U.S.
Upon our arrival at Brian Head, social media posts kept popping up with one ski area after the next shutting down because of the virus. We crossed our fingers that Brian Head would hold out through our weekend trip. It did.
But the first day we were supposed to ride, we hunkered inside our Airbnb rental instead of hitting the slopes. Winds were howling, it was bitter cold, and we were both weary of hopping into lift lines with other spring breakers from Arizona and California. But we had traveled a long way, so we reluctantly went out the next day for what turned out to be our final day of winter.
Upon arriving back in Durango, I learned Purgatory Resort had shut down in the middle of the height of spring break tourism. Season over.
It was a long spring, summer and fall because of the pandemic. Every small problem that popped up felt worse than it normally would. Summer camping season was more difficult with travel restrictions and forest closures, we haven’t been able to fly fish the San Juan River in New Mexico, and rafting permits became even more difficult to obtain than they already are.
Folks from out of state flocked to our corner of Colorado to escape restrictions in their own larger cities. Vallecito was as busy as I’ve seen it, even on normally calmer weekdays. When Durango locals wanted to escape in their own backyard, our places of refuge were full of others looking for the same.
But now at our ski areas, everyone is smiling again. The stoke is high for a new season with hopes of big storms and powder days ahead.
So please, let’s not ruin it. Let’s wear masks, avoid that gathering outside the Bear Bar on the beach and only share lifts with those we live with. And skip even a powder day if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.
I am beyond thankful for the opportunity to return to the sport I love and am filled with cautious optimism we might be able to keep our mountains open this winter without another shutdown.
The preparation of the staffs at Purgatory and Wolf Creek has been impressive. They are going to remind you to put your mask up over your nose and demand people to stay six feet apart. There’s no need to squabble with their requests. Please, just do it. Whether it is in the parking lot, base area, ticket and lift lines or at unloading zones, there are no excuses or reasons to chirp back at the employees doing everything they can to keep the mountain open so we can all have some much-needed fun.
If you’re anything like me, you need these ski areas right now. It would be a long, miserable winter without them.