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Editor’s note: This winter, we’re honoring five Colorado resorts celebrating milestone anniversaries, including Copper Mountain, Vail Ski Resort, Eldora Mountain, Steamboat Ski Resort, and Telluride Ski Resort. Read more about their history, hear from their fans, and learn how you can join in on the fun.
When Joe Zoline bought 4,200 acres in the northern San Juans back in 1968, there wasn’t much happening in the town three miles down the road. Telluride had around 500 residents, less than 30 rooms to rent, and only a few essential businesses open regularly. With its mining heyday winding down (only the Idarado claim remained in operation), many of the buildings on the main drag boarded up, and a geographic location rich with rugged mountains but hours away from major cities, the economic prospects were limited—except, perhaps, as a ski resort. “Zoline definitely saw a lot of potential in the area that a lot of people had not,” says Molly Daniel, director of programs and exhibits at the Telluride Historical Museum. “He saw that the mountain had a lot of great terrain that would work very well to ski.”
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Four years later, Zoline—with considerable help from local skier Bill Mahoney—made it happen. With his other proposed names, notably “Silver Mountain” and “The Big T,” abandoned in favor of something more straightforward, the Telluride Ski Area opened on December 22, 1972, a couple weeks behind schedule due (ironically) to too much snow. Back then, it was mostly locals lining up to pay $7.50 for access to five lifts and 23 runs.
This season, skiers and snowboarders from around the world will scan their passes for access to 19 lifts and nearly 150 trails as Telluride Ski Resort celebrates its 50th anniversary. “I’m proud of the team at the Telluride Ski Resort,” Telski co-owner Chad Horning says in the Official Guide to Telluride & Mountain Village. “They have worked tirelessly to develop the ski resort into the world-class experience that it is today.”
While Zoline had the funding, he wasn’t the only person who saw the potential in bringing skiing to Telluride. The industrious “old-timers,” as Daniel calls them, had been making tracks in the backcountry and rigging up makeshift rope tows using car engines and pulley systems for decades. Among them was Mahoney—“Senior” as he was known around town—a miner by trade and skier by passion. He’d spent his life in the mountains around Telluride panning for gold, hunting, and skiing. “Telluride Ski Resort was his dream,” says Jane Watenpaugh, who has lived in Telluride for 50 years.
In 1959, a group of locals formed Telluride Ski, Inc. and raised more than $20,000 toward their goal of creating a ski area; it wasn’t enough, especially after their primary financial advisor ran off with at least part of the funds. “It was just task after task, challenge after challenge,” Daniel says, listing out the needs for reliable equipment, Forest Service permits, and money to buy land. “In order to have a ski area, the locals knew that they would need investors.”
There were few real prospects until spring 1967, when now-shuttered Skiing Magazine featured images of Telluride’s snow-covered playground snapped by photographer Joern Gerdts. What happened next is Telluride lore: Supposedly, Gerdts boarded a flight and sat down next to a Beverly Hills businessman named, you guessed it, Joe Zoline. Historians say Gerdts pitched the prospect of a Telluride ski haven on that flight because Zoline bought the land a year later.
As Zoline began planning the resort alongside Mahoney and French ski area designer Émile Allais, he recognized that Telluride’s distance from metropolitan hubs meant it would need to be a destination ski area rather than one focused on local users. He had to create the ski area first, however. “He was really focused on creating a ski area, not necessarily on creating a world-class resort,” Daniel says.
That was a task Ron Allred and Jim Wells had in their sights when they bought the ski area for around $4.5 million in 1978. Their 20-year plan included increasing the number of chairlifts, introducing better snowmaking technology, adding a restaurant, creating a base area that would become the Town of Mountain Village, and pushing for an airport. It all came to pass by late 1987.
The following decades brought new owners—all independent—and numerous other updates to the town and ski area, from the addition of the gondola connecting the Town of Telluride to Mountain Village in 1996 to the 733-acre Prospect Bowl expansion in 2002, which nearly doubled the skiable terrain. By the early 2010s, numerous international magazines recognized all that hard work, adding Telluride Ski Resort to their “best of” lists.
Today, the town of Telluride looks a bit different from the scene Zoline found upon his arrival. The population has grown to around 2,500 people (another 1,200 or so live in Mountain Village), and with average home prices hovering around $1.5 million, there are no boarded windows to be found. Bushwacker and Happy Thought remain common topics of conversation, but the names now reference favorite ski runs rather than the local mines. “There was still a lot of work that needed to be done after 1972, but they kept at it,” Daniel says. “The ski area is the element that has kept Telluride from becoming a ghost town.”
How to Celebrate
Ahead of your visit to celebrate Telluride’s Big 5-0, take a peek into the town’s days of yore with Ben Knight and Travis Rummel of Felt Soul Media’s short documentary, Senior. The beautifully shot film recaps Bill Mahoney’s 82 winters in Telluride, complete with vintage photos and an endearing narrator. Once in town, be sure to earmark an hour off the slopes for the Telluride Historical Museum and its anniversary-themed exhibit, “The Long Run: 50 Years of the Telluride Ski Area.” It walks visitors through the Town of Telluride’s history, emphasizing the ski area’s impact on its evolution. The exhibit runs through April 2023.
Telluride Ski Area also has some celebrations in the works for March, though dates and details are still being confirmed. Guests can pick up 50th-logoed apparel at the Telluride Resort Store in Mountain Village’s Gondola Plaza.
One Run to Try
Double-black-capable skiers should head to the top of Gold Hill Express (Lift 14) and drop down into Dynamo, a natural avalanche chute that starts above timberline, features a wide-open expanse, and typically remains relatively mogul-free.
Where to Stay
Looking for the bliss of first tracks without the early wake-up call? Book a few nights at the Madeline Hotel & Residences, Auberge Resorts Collection, situated steps from the Station Mountain Village Chondola—and the slopes. Post-powder day, spend the après hours relaxing around one of the fire pits in the al fresco lounge, ideally with a steamy drink in hand.
Telluride, in the Eyes of a Local Legend
Though Jane Watenpaugh’s first year in Telluride coincided with Telluride Ski Area’s opening season in 1973, it wasn’t the new lift-accessed winterscape that brought her and her husband to the San Miguel River Valley. It was work. “We came because there was an ad in the Denver Post for a part-time pharmacist at a new ski resort,” she says. But within six months, her husband’s boss decided the pharmacy wasn’t profitable. “My husband said, ‘Well where are we going to go now, Jane?’ And I said that if he left Telluride, then he was leaving without me because I’d fallen in love with this place.”
The couple worked hard to stay in the valley. In addition to waitressing (which Watenpaugh admits did not come naturally), she worked at Telluride Medical Center, where she saw plenty of ski accident victims brought in by ski patrol. “I went, ‘That’s the job I want,’” she recalls.
In 1977, she donned a uniform as the first female member of Telluride Ski Patrol—she just didn’t do much patrolling. “That year it didn’t snow at all, and it was before snowmaking,” she says. “I didn’t get very much experience that year, but we really just skied and had fun and threw charges and created avalanches. That’s how I remember it.”
Watenpaugh only served as the sole woman for two years. When Joni Knowles joined the team, “I had a compadre,” Watenpaugh says, adding she and Knowles remain good friends today.
Watenpaugh patrolled for 10 years, until she found out her second son was on the way. She and her husband remained in the valley though, living in the same house they bought back in the early ’70s. Why move when your property happens to sit at the base of the mountain? “In the old days, we were sure nobody ever cared about Telluride,” she says. “We thought we would have it to ourselves forever.”
Now 74 years old, it’s clear Watenpaugh still loves the “dreamlike” valley she refused to leave nearly 50 years ago. And the former patroller still skis more than 80 days a season. She politely informs us: “I’m dressed to go skiing right now, so…”
And with that, she was off.