Photo: Greg Von Doersten

Telluride Ski Resort

From the top of Telluride’s Revelation Bowl — at 12,570 feet, it’s the highest lift station on the mountain — there is a cat track, wide and groomed and a mile long, which climbs the ridgeline to Gold Hill Chute 8. The climb is gradual, only 300 vertical feet, making it more of a high-alpine amble than a hike, and along the way, signs indicate drop-offs into Gold Hill Chutes 1 through 7. For a first-timer, dropping into any of them is an act of faith; the rollover from the ridge to the 40- to 45-degree steeps below the horizon makes it impossible to see the dizzying descent until you are already committed to it.

Above Chute 8, the ridgeline meets the start of the serrated headwall of Palmyra Peak. A steel stairway scales a rocky knoll that falls off precipitously both right and left. This is the route to Chute 9, the last of the Gold Hill Chutes and the least-daunting access into a wide, open, sparsely skied bowl that, for good skiers, is manna from the gods. The locals have come to call it the Stairway to Heaven.

“Gold Hill Chute 9 is the easiest way into Palmyra Basin,” says Jeff Proteau, former mountain operations manager and now Telluride’s executive director of planning and sustainability. “The challenge was getting to it. Before we put the stairway in, a lot of people who had the ability to ski Chute 9 were wary of risking a possible fall climbing along the knife-edge ridge of that rock face on all fours. It was quite an adventure, and it stopped a lot of people who could have skied that chute.”

A small team of Telluride Ski Resort mechanics measured and marked the rock in late 2009, drilled holes and concreted 40 rock bolts into them, and then built the 124-foot stairway to measure, tightly tailored like a Savile Row suit. Being winter, they worked much of the time in sleet and snow on the rock’s thin layer of ice. Finally, they were able to helicopter the stairway into place in March and bolt it down. “It was precarious,” says Proteau. “Everything had to be hiked in, and we had a million logistical challenges working at 13,000 feet in winter. Such a project is not very common in the States.”

Some readers will recognize the Stairway as an incredible piece of engineering. Others, like myself, will recognize it as an apt metaphor for Telluride’s revolutionary remake in the past half-decade.