Powder Prospectors – In Search of White Gold in Colorado

From Whitelines Issue 101 - February 2012

Colorado has a pretty sterling reputation amongst snowboarders. A hundred years after the gold rush ended, Whitelines decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

The air is remarkably still. The angry clattering of our snowmobile engines has long-since been silenced. An occasional flurry of spindrift spirals down from low-hanging pine branches, sparkling in the light as it falls, but even this doesn’t seem to disturb the stillness of the scene.

I’m standing on a frozen lake, squinting through my camera at a the entrance to a disused mine shaft – a 40-foot-high jumble of weather-worn logs and rusty nails that looks like it hasn’t been touched for 100 years. But looks are deceiving. This pile of planks has been disturbed, and recently. Moments ago, the silhouette of Angus Leith appeared on top of it, smoothing the run-in and peering gingerly over the edge.

A muffled shout goes up, and suddenly, Angus is there, hurtling into the shot, snatching at a grab before wheeling his arms around and plopping unceremoniously into the snow below in a cloud of powder. A head pops up from the pit: “Oh my days!” says Angus, his casual choice of words failing to hide his shock at just how far he’s fallen. An answer comes from the clump of trees to his right, where photographer Dan Milner has been crouching. “Bigger than it looks then Angus?” he chuckles…

We’d been eyeing up this enormous obstacle since we first arrived in Telluride, Southern Colorado, two evenings before. Our mission was to explore the less well-trodden trails of the state. We’re after the American snowboard dream, looking for the kind of wide open backcountry spaces that you won’t find anywhere near your average French alpine village.

We’ve tried to get away from the world-famous mega resorts, the Vails and Aspens (with their Art of Flight­-style super-parks and well-ridden back bowls) and we’re heading out into the hills in search of as yet untapped sources of fluffy white gold.

I like to imagine, looking at the wreckage of the old mine in front of me, that we’re almost following in the footsteps of the men who built it – the pioneers and prospectors who first settled these mountains in the mid 1800s.

The shot of Angus seems like the perfect start. On our first day we’d seen the massive mineshaft from the slopes, far off in the distance. That evening, sitting around with pizza and pitchers, we’d seen it up close on the cover of Telluride Magazine, a glossy periodical filled with adverts for plush furniture and expensive estate agents.

It was exactly the kind of thing we were looking for, and as snow had been falling pretty heavily, we hatched a plan to hit it the following morning. Between us we had three sleds. Nate Kern, the most Americanised of the British riders who base themselves in Breckenridge, had towed his snowmobile down behind his truck on the eight hour drive south. He’d come down with Jenny Jones, fresh off the back of winning a fourth X Games medal (as you do), and Angus.

Meanwhile, Hana Beaman, a friend of Jenny’s and a seasoned backcountry campaigner, had dragged no fewer than two powerful machines up from Utah – one for her, and one for Steven Kilzer, the understated American filmer who was following her around for a season, producing podcasts for her sponsors Ride.

The next morning sees us pull up at the trailhead in two huge Toyota Tundras. The sleds roar into life, beeping backwards off the trailers, and the smell of two-stroke engines fills the air. “Yes,” I think to myself  “This is the American way right here.

We’re living the Standard Films dream. The big cars, the snowmobiles, the untracked backcountry bowls, the open spaces and fluffy pow.” Someone points out that the peak behind us is the one they use on the Coors Light logo, and I feel like I can almost hear John Denver warbling “Colorado Rocky Mountains hiiiiiigh…”

I’m rudely awakened from my star-spangled daydreaming by the ride up. I’ve doubled up on snowmobiles before – clinging onto the loop between the handlebars with one-hand and holding my board with the other as someone else drives the beast. But I’ve only ever done it for short laps to the top of run-ins, and I’ve never doubled with Hana Beaman.

Hana is pretty much as tall as I am and built like an Olympic athlete. She rides a Harley in her spare time, and handles a sled like she was born on one. As we hammer it up the track, I become aware that my right arm is being steadily ripped out of its socket. I seriously begin to consider which would be worse – allowing my arm to be torn off at the shoulder, or simply letting go and getting chewed up by the whirring caterpillar track spinning at a million rpm beneath me.

Arriving at the top feeling sore and suitably emasculated, I see that Dan is already snow-shoeing up to find a good angle on Angus’ obstacle. Although he’s more accustomed to sled riding than I am, Dan isn’t a fan of the machines.

A confirmed vegan with an anti-corporate, hippy-ish attitude, he has lived for years in the freeride Mecca of Chamonix. He prefers Patagonia to Protest, Ian Dury to Duran Duran and unsurprisingly would rather be hiking than driving gas-guzzling monsters. “I’m not naive enough to think I can get away with not using them at all, I’d just rather not unless I have to” he explains.

But even Dan has to accept that this kind of American backcountry is best ridden with the aid of the internal combustion engine. We use them for everything, from scouting spots to towing each other when run-ins prove too slow. Also, the sheer size of the zone makes them essential.

We’re in a huge steep-sided bowl covered in fresh snow. It’s a beautiful, bluebird day and there are lines and kicker spots seemingly everywhere. If we were in backcountry this close to a resort anywhere in Europe, we’d surely be sharing our bowl with a whole bunch of bearded Swedish skiers, fighting for every line of fresh. But here we have it all to ourselves.

We spend the whole afternoon of that second day building a kicker without seeing another soul. Like everything else here, our booter is big – a proper Mack Dawg-style construction of snow blocks that launches the riders into a steep powdery landing. The sun is setting by the time we finish the build, but the following day Hana and Jenny will slay it with back threes and fives, while Nate – veteran of the Colorado backcountry that he is – will stomp an enormous cab 9.

Afterwards, as we wind our way down through the pine trees, we pass the picturesque remains of crumbling wooden shacks. These are the famous Ghost Towns, abandoned by miners when Colorado’s gold started to run out in the early 20th century. The state is littered with the skeletal remains of the industry, and it makes for an awesome photo backdrop.

With everyone’s spirits soaring after a successful kicker session, the girls decide to spice up the shots of Angus and Nate gapping a ghost house by adding some very real arses to the picture. Four of us decide to ride the last bits back to the trucks, using the sleds to tow us over any flat bits.

As we go, our GoPros capture the low-hanging sun winking through the trees and the massive grins on our faces. It’s certainly different from your average day in Val d’Isere.

Like our time up the mountain, our accommodation bears little resemblance to most European resorts. We’re staying in Mountain Village, a collection of new-build luxury hotels nestled halfway up the hill, and connected by a gondola to the main town of Telluride below.

Telluride itself is by no means poor, but you can still meet your classic dreadlocked ski-bums living out of vans and selling weed. Up here however, it’s a different story – all valet parking and high-end restaurants.

Our rooms in the Hotel Madeleine are like nothing I’ve seen before. I know space isn’t a problem in a country the size of the US (and I am constantly reminded by the scale of the cars and the size of food portions that big is deemed to be better) but even by American standards, these are ridiculous.

The toilet in my palatial suite has a telephone in it (to call for help perhaps?) and an armchair in the corner. I struggle to imagine a situation where you’d actually want an armchair in your toilet – maybe it’s for chilling, post-defecation? Or perhaps so an audience can watch you work? Either way, it’s pretty weird…

And then there’s the bedroom. When the bellhop (yes, they have bellhops) first shows me and Dan in, we assume we’re sharing. Surely this can’t be a single room? But the porter says to Dan “No Mr Milner sir, your room is upstairs I believe.” Then somewhat hesitantly adds “Unless of course you two want to share this double?” It’s not until later that I get his drift, when I remember the banner we saw on the way in to Mountain Village. “Telluride Welcomes Gay Ski Week!”

Once we’ve assured our man that we’re happy with heterosexual sleeping arrangements we settle into the hotel quite quickly, though there is definitely still something strange about this level of luxury.

Shred trips for me usually mean sleeping on sagging sofas surrounded by smelly snowboard boots. And after one night in his super-extra-double-large-king-sized bed Dan (hippy that he is) announces that he’d probably be more comfortable on a camp bed on the floor. But the Colorado tourist board have pulled a few strings to make sure we’re treated right, so – despite the fact that I never quite get used to not having to park my own car or carry my own bags – we decide we may as well enjoy it.

On the night of our kicker build, we’re treated by the resort to a five-course dinner that kicks off with aperitifs alongside a shot of soup that’s described as a “mushroom and truffle cappuccino”. As we sit down for the main course, I can’t help feeling like a bit of a fraud. We’re just a bunch of sun-burnt snowboarders after all.

Luckily Angus feels no such awkwardness, and breaks the ice by demanding of the bow-tied waiter “What’s the biggest, bloodiest, moistest bit of meat on your menu?!” Thankfully, far from cringing, our hosts love it. It turns out they’re totally down to earth, and the talk soon turns to shared shred experiences. As chat and wine flows freely I wonder whether the unease with luxury is perhaps just a cultural thing? After all, this is a country where everybody smiles all the time, and the mantra that the customer is always right seems encoded in people’s DNA. Perhaps in a service-mad culture like the US, being treated like royalty is par for the course.

Or perhaps not. From where I’m standing, the second half of our American road-trip, taking in nearby Silverton, does not appear to be going so well. This is the resort where Red Bull built Shaun White’s private pipe, flying him in by helicopter to session the perfectly sculpted walls, before presumably taking him back to five-star accommodation of the kind we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy… until now. Because at this moment we’re freezing our arses off in a cold carpark at the end of a long, icy dirt track, and plush surroundings like those couldn’t seem further away. We’re trying to use a radio left out in a knackered cloth bag to contact the hotel which we know is somewhere ahead of us in the darkness, but so far, there’s been no response.

In fact, things have not really gone right since we left Telluride. Arriving in the lobby to check out that morning, I’d found Jenny sitting down shakily, her face white as a sheet.

My first thought – like hers – was that she had perhaps hit the bottle a little too hard the night before. We’d been on a high after the kicker session and she and Hana had invented a new cocktail (christened the Bellatini) to celebrate. But I shake the thought straight away – Jenny isn’t some teenaged newb, she’s a Bristolian badass who can take her booze as well as the next Brit.

No, this is something more serious. The previous day she’d taken a nasty blow to the head off the kicker, and she’s worried it might have shaken something. Dan and I are even more scared. Even if it’s nothing long-term, we figure we may well have lost our star rider for the remainder of the trip. Thankfully a visit to a typically prescription-friendly private doctor sorts her out, but Jenny won’t be riding that day.

Walking out of the surgery where she’s waiting to be examined, the news gets worse. Nate had to change a tyre a few days back, but turns out there’s some lasting damage that need to be fixed. The others crack on ahead, while I wait for Jenny and follow along behind.

We cross the state at a sedate pace, and Jenny perks up, amused by details like the ranching-town petrol station we stop in, where the attendant stares in wonder at the Euros in her wallet, and the directions to the girls’ toilet include “turning right at John Wayne”. In fact, all is going well until we reach the tiny town of Ouray.

From here, the road turns into a series of stunning but seriously sketchy switchbacks that wind their way up to the Red Mountain pass. This stretch of Route 550 is known as the Million Dollar Highway – not only for the impressive scenery, but also for the wealth that was dug out of these hills during the gold rush. As in Telluride, the remains of miners’ shacks and mine-shafts are everywhere, and with the dramatic drops on either side of the road, it makes for a pretty stunning drive. At least I think it does, and spend my time peering out the windows. Jenny is less enamoured with the scenery. It started snowing as we set off up the pass, and earlier I’d made the mistake of admitting that I’d only passed my driving test six months ago. Jenny, a nervous passenger at the best of times, is having absolute kittens about my ability to get us there in one piece. “Watch the bloody road!” she yelps periodically. For some strange reason, my blind faith in my own abilities does nothing to allay her fears. So you can imagine how she feels when we meet the others in a bar in Silverton just as it begins to get dark, and are told that we’ll have to drive all the way back again…

It turns out the damage to Nate’s truck is worse than he thought, and he’s had to drive halfway back to Denver to get it fixed. He won’t be joining us tonight. Unfortunately, Jenny’s board, bags and outerwear are in the back and we’ve got our only day of shooting up on Silverton tomorrow. I’m not sure who’s more scared at the prospect of going back over the Million Dollar Pass in the dark, me or Jenny. Thankfully we never find out, as Hana heroically volunteers to drive. She knows the roads best, she argues. Having seen her handle petrol-powered vehicles, I have to agree that she’ll be a much safer bet.

Which is how myself, Dan, Steven and Angus find ourselves in such a sorry state in this carpark, not only cold and tired, but three riders down. One out of four is not a good ratio by anyone’s standards and it’s looking like the second part of our trip could be a washout. Of course, we do what snowboarders always do when something’s going seriously wrong – we film it.

In the end the radio crackles into life, and a young bloke called George arrives shortly afterwards by sled to take us to the hotel. There’s too much kit to get us all there in one run, so Angus and myself agree to walk behind. As soon as the snowmobile’s lights disappear round the corner and the sound of the engine recedes we realise just how alone we are. Like the old mineshaft at Telluride this spot feels seriously remote, with nothing for miles around but the shadowy forms of pine trees. But there it was daylight and bluebird; here the only light comes from the myriad of stars visible in the dark black sky. It’s beautiful, sure, but definitely a bit freaky.

The sight of the lodge does little to calm my nerves – its imposing four-storey bulk looms out of the darkness ahead of us like the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Mobile reception disappeared somewhere along the dirt track from town, and there’s no telephone wires for miles around. “Guarantee the others are already dead, and our snowboard kit’s already up on eBay” jokes Gus, “that is, if they’ve got eBay out here”.

As we creak up the wooden staircase towards what looks like the front door, a dog begins to bark, making me jump. This is definitely a little bit creepy. But when the door bursts open it’s not Jack Nicholson with an axe, it’s Dan: “You’ve got to come up here and see this, I think this has just become my new favourite hotel!”

Built in the first decade of the last century, the Eureka Lodge originally catered for gold miners, and the current owners, Bob and Terri, have done their best to restore it as it was. Looking around the living room, with its old rifles, piano, and proper cast-iron stove, you can almost see the prospectors sitting around on weekends spending their recently found fortunes on booze, cards, or syphilitic hookers.

This is not ‘gold mining chic’ as a modern affectation put on for tourists, this is as close as you get to the real deal. Heating comes from a thermal source in one of the 40-odd abandoned mine shafts that litter the area. They have a larder full of canned goods and enough fuel in the generator for six weeks in case they get snowed in. Two wolf-like dogs, Timber and Tundra, bounce around the place occasionally barking at shadows, but you can imagine the winters here getting long and lonely. Which is partly why, Terri says, she has George and his girlfriend Layla in to help out. For their part, the young couple seem content to have free accommodation for the season, and a chance to enjoy Terri’s extensive library largely undisturbed.

It’s these two who are up with us the next morning, showing us where we can find our tin mugs, and pointing us in the direction of the toaster and the stack of bagels. There’s no 15 different kinds of cured bacon or multi-cheese omelettes here. But somehow a peanut butter and banana bagel washed down with a cup of strong coffee tastes as good, if not better.

Over breakfast we get a text with the good news that Jenny and Hana made it most of the way back last night. In fact, they arrive at the base of the lift before us. Like our hotel, Silverton Mountain couldn’t be more different from Telluride – if that’s the Courchevel of Colorado, then this is its La Grave. A solitary two-person chairlift snakes halfway up the mountain and everything above that is accessed by foot. The base station is a shabby-looking white marquee, and in place of electronic lift-tickets there are two lasses sat behind a card table making guests sign waivers. The passes aren’t cheap, but it seems churlish to complain, because the riding experience really is like nowhere else on earth.

For starters, only eighty people are allowed on the hill at any one time, and everyone must be accompanied by a guide. Skylar, who’s in charge of our crew, explains things as we walk down to the lift station. “We use groups of guests like other resorts would use a snowcat. We make sure we only ride in particular sectors, and rotate regularly so we keep the snowpack compacted and stable, but also ensure there’s always freshies waiting for the next group.”

It certainly works for us. After following Skylar up a sketchy bootpack along the top of a ridge, we find ourselves faced with a nearly thousand metres vertical descent all of which is pretty much pristine pow. As the girls slash banks and drop rocks, Dan’s shutter whirs, echoing the noise of the heli buzzing overhead – ferrying those groups who’ve paid a bit extra to the top of more distant peaks.

The zone owned by Silverton is absolutely vast, and with steep, rocky mountains of the kind that Summit County (the area around Breckenridge) can only dream of, it truly is a pow-seekers’ mecca. It’s no wonder that experienced shredders like Skylar come here and choose not to leave. On the way down he points out various couloirs that he’s put the first tracks down, and chuckles at their names. “They’re so filthy the state refuses to print the trail map”.

Dirty monikers like Porn Star Face (so called because you’re guaranteed face-shots) alternate with comedy names like Gnar Couloir ­– suggesting that, like everything at Silverton, the trails are made and managed by a bunch of mates having a laugh.

Blasting down the run out with massive grins on our faces and fluffy pow plastered to our jackets, we’re greeted in the carpark by an old 1960s style bus with ‘Silverton Correctional Facility’ written on the side. Dan is loving it. Who needs expensive snowmobiles when you’ve got this to ferry you round for another run? Everyone’s grinning as we shape a take-off on a cornice, and the smiles get bigger when a familiar-looking orange jacket comes tramping up the ridge to join us – it’s Nate, who’s finally got his truck problems sorted.

We arrive at the bottom to find that the marquee has transformed itself into a bar serving the local brew. The crew sits on knackered seats ripped out of an airplane while Dan gets the pints in. The fun continues as we roll back into town and straight into the Montanya Rum Bar, a local micro-distillery where they give you free sample shots as you walk through the door – on the assumption that you’ll stay for more. Which of course we do.

Snow is falling again as we cross back over the Red Mountain pass. We part company with Hana and her filmer in Ouray. They’re heading up to Alaska the following week, and (obviously) they’re driving. It’s only 3,300-odd miles, five states, and two Canadian provinces away after all. The rest of us head back across the semi-desert towards Denver as the sun is setting, spinning the dial through country, classic rock, and Christian talk radio stations. Jenny, Dan and myself start naming American states, trying to remember all 50 to pass the time. “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas…” we rattle through them in alphabetical order “California, Colorado, Connecticut…” There’s so many names that inevitably we miss a couple, though Nate and Angus, when we say goodbye to them at the Breckenridge junction, manage to remember Delaware. But what strikes me most as we list them with the thud of the highway under our tyres is just how vast and varied this country is.

As Brits we love to stereotype, but really, you can’t generalise about America or Americans. In just one of these 50 states, we’ve found more diversity than you would in most European countries. We’ve passed monster trucks, and seen bumper stickers reading “Proud Mother of a US Soldier ”. Near Grand Junction, someone had even erected a sign in their back garden exhorting passing drivers to “Support Our Troops”.

Yet Denver, on the other side of the mountains, is a cosmopolitan city of two million that votes Democrat and drives hybrid cars. It’s a place where weed has been decriminalised, and where hipsters park their fixed-gear bikes outside trendy independent book stores. The morning that we leave, Dan takes us to his favourite shop in the city – a massive organic food emporium that stocks just about every vegan substance known to man.

Like the state itself and the country it sits in, snowboarding in Colorado is also full of contrasts. Yes you can drive your massive trucks, take your sleds and build your monster booters. You can ride up in heated gondolas and stay in the lap of luxury. But there’s still room for good old-fashioned hiking, Chamonix-style lines and back to basics living. Best of all, whichever approach you take, it seems that even in the 21st century, you can still find gold in them thar hills.

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