Last month, two friends, Betsy and Uschi, and I spent two days skiing at Purgatory, near Durango, Colorado. Betsy is a long-time Purgatory girl, so she knows the mountain inside and out. Uschi is an accomplished, independent adaptive monoskier and instructor.
Skiing with these two women, I saw two different sides of Purgatory. Betsy views the mountain through a lens of affection and memory. Purgatory is very special to her and she an incredible ambassador for the resort, taking us to her favorite lifts and runs and finding the best snow.
Uschi looks at resorts from her vantage point as a monoskier. While I won’t speak (or write) for either of my friends, here’s what I learned skiing two days with them at Purgatory.
1. Do Your Homework.
Find out where to park, where to buy tickets and get situated before arriving at the mountain. For adaptive skiers, this is especially important.
Most resorts have an adaptive skiing program that welcomes visitors with open arms. This was certainly true at Durango, where Ann Marie Meighan, the program director for the Adaptive Sports Association (ASA) greeted Uschi, got us oriented and, most importantly, set her up with discounted lift tickets.
Uschi is an independent skier, so with me as her buddy, and Betsy as our guide, we didn’t need a coach or lesson. If you do, plan ahead and schedule a “ski buddy” or coach in advance.
2. Speak Up and Smile.
When we ski together at Uschi’s home mountains of Powderhorn or Crested Butte, everyone knows her. The lifties usually remember her chairlift instructions: slow, no bump, full speed at the top. They also know to step on the back of her ski and help raise her bucket to its lift boarding height.
In Durango, Uschi was a stranger. While everyone tried to help, no one quite knew how to handle loading the main lift at the base. This lift is a detachable 6 pack with gates. These gates are impossible for a monoskier. On our first day, there was plenty of confusion.
By day two, Uschi had taken over, giving clear directions to the lifties (always with a smile and a genuine thank you), and shaping Betsy and me up as well. Lift 8, on the westernmost side of Purgatory, became our favorite. As we lapped this chair, which serves advanced, steep groomers and long pitches of bumps, the lifties quickly learned the drill.
3. Evaluate the Terrain.
Long traverses, run outs and flat areas are a bummer for a monoskier. While building up speed isn’t a problem, propelling oneself up even a slight incline with your arms and outrigger poles is tiring. Lift 3 at Purgatory serves some really fun terrain (most notably Dead Spike, a long run interspersing fun moguls with fast groomers), but it’s no fun when it takes an extra five minutes of pushing to get back in line. Lift 8, had no such problem.
Likewise, some chairlifts work better than others. Some detachable quads actually go too slowly at the top and sap her momentum as Uschi launches off the chair. Others have “sticky” seats which make it hard for her bucket to slide off at the top.
4. Practice, Baby, Practice.
We all know that practice makes perfect, but that doesn’t mean we all practice or practice wisely. I’ve known Uschi for nine years, and in that time, her skills have exploded. She skis a minimum of two days each week and takes clinics and classes throughout the season. Next on her agenda? A big-mountain clinic at Crested Butte.
5. Expect Compliments and Questions.
Most skiers and riders are impressed and inspired when they see adaptive skiers. Whoops and cheers from the chairlift are not uncommon, nor are strangers skiing up to chat, compliment and ask questions.
All of these people mean well and most are dialed-in. Sometimes, though, the questions are odd, as when a man in Crested Butte once asked Uschi, “Is that a hard way to ski? I’d like to try it sometime.” Uschi smiled, told him it takes lots of practice and we moved on.
We’re still laughing about that guy.
A Bit More About Skiing at Purgatory
Purgatory (a.k.a. Durango Mountain Resort) is a mid-size Colorado Mountain, not too big, not too small, and quite possibly, just right. In the past few years, the base area has expanded and boasts some beautiful lodging, new restaurants and all skier/rider services.
Home to one of only 14 Rossignol Experience Centers, skiers visiting Purgatory should consider leaving their skis at home and demo-ing the latest Rossignol technology.
Frontside or Backside?
Purgatory has two distinct sides (and they are NOT angel and devil, despite their nifty logo).
Lift one, the Purgatory Village Express serves the front side of the mountain, including most of the teaching terrain, the terrain parks, NASTAR race course and two famous runs, Hades and Styx. Hades, which starts on rolling blue terrain, quickly drops off into a steep face, and was the site of many an NCAA downhill.
Styx, is, as you might guess from the name, a bit otherworldly. Winding and dipping around natural bulges and benches in the mountain, you can ski just about every possible pitch on the mountain in this one run. A local we met claimed that Styx is one of the top 50 runs in the country. Since Styx was skiing a bit icy and rough the afternoon we tried it, we’ll suspend judgment for another day.
The backside of Purgatory is where much of the skiing is found. Extensive intermediate terrain is spread amongst three lifts (3, 5 and 8), all of which also have good mogul runs, glades and steeps. Lift Three, Hermosa Park, is a high-speed quad, while the other two lifts are fixed-grip. Skiing on a bluebird day, a week after the last storm, we found the backside to be softer and less windblown, with plenty to keep us busy.
Big, Beautiful Views
And then there are the views. While I’m not sure about “top 50” status for Styx, I can confidently say that the views of the southern San Juans, Engineer Mountain are spectacular.
- The Benefits of Adaptive Skiing, April 10, 2012.
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