TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The explosion reverberates off the surrounding peaks with a staccato series of booms as a giant white smoke ring spins high into what the locals call a bluebird sky.
Avalanche controllers at the Telluride Ski Resort are playing defense, trying purposefully to set off avalanches with bombs on closed terrain before nature unleashes one on the unsuspecting public. Ski patrollers had just lighted a fuse, then lowered by rope some 25 pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil (the ''ANFO" made infamous in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) down a steep trail. The explosives had been strapped into a $3 plastic sled, and for an instant, the only result is shreds of blue plastic fluttering overhead.
Then there's a crack like a rifle shot. The ground shakes hundreds of yards away, and a huge wall of snow fractures. Swirling like an angry genie, tons of feathery powder roil, churn, and heat up during the downhill plunge before rumbling to a stop. What once was powder now resembles car-sized chunks of rock-hard snow dappled with tree parts.
The muffled silence of the alpine world returns. Remnants of the smoke ring continue to spin. Watching it all from a safe perch, Craig Sterbenz (''Sterby"), the ski area's snow safety director, takes a deep breath of the thin mountain air and turns to me.
''That," he says, ''is why you're not skiing there today."
. . .
In January, I enrolled in a new potpourri of powder snow offerings that roll four adventure skiing scenarios into one itinerary. The Ultimate San Juan Package combines three days at Telluride (helicopter skiing, resort skiing, and guided ''hike-to" skiing), a day of snow cat skiing in Durango, and a day of guided skiing at Silverton Mountain.
None of the components is new. Telluride Helitrax, for example, has been flying skiers to high places for 23 years. The novelty comes in the packaging, which combines comfortable lodging along a 300-mile scenic drive to connect the powder dots in five days at a price roughly 25 percent less than all of the parts would be if purchased separately.
The idea was hatched on a bicycle last June as John Humphries, 35, director of marketing for Helitrax, was halfway up a 12-mile hill en route to work.
''I was looking up at these mountains that have to be the most beautiful in the country and thinking, how can we share this place?" he recalled. ''How can we get people off the standard grid and into a place where they don't think about anything except the moment?"
Spend a few days in the San Juans and you realize he may have a point. In the southwest corner of the state, these are some of the most concentrated tall, young mountains in the Lower 48. Nothing appears weatherbeaten about these peaks.
As I also discovered, the mountains have ultimate say in the San Juan package schedule.
I had arrived in Telluride shortly after the storm that dropped all the rain in Los Angeles also dropped 66 inches of snow on the San Juans. The ''hike to" terrain, as Sterbenz and associates had so deftly illustrated, was still unsettled. It was a scratch.
Next stop: Telluride Helitrax.
. . .
It is said that there are old guides and bold guides, but there are no old, bold guides. So I am pleased to meet Brian Miller (''Speedy") as the 800-horsepower turbine on the Bell 407 helicopter roars to life on this crispy morning. One of four former ski bums who founded the company in 1982, Miller, 53, is a man with soft eyes and solid ski stance who will be my guide. Avalanche danger has dropped from severe to considerable.
''There is no ski run worth dying for," he states bluntly.
I am going to like this guy.
Telluride Helitrax is Colorado's only (surviving) heliskiing operation, taking skiers into untracked powder. Citing safety issues, state officials declined to allow the competition to continue operating decades ago.
Helitrax has had but one serious mishap, a well-publicized helicopter malfunction in 1994 during which Christie Brinkley, the supermodel, and a companion were injured. Otherwise, the Helitrax record is clean, according to operators. This is more than most ski areas can claim each week.
Today, we are three groups of five skiers each who will be shuttled from one 2,000-vertical-foot run to the next, almost all the terrain above treeline. To minimize surprises, Helitrax had dropped bombs from the helicopter the day before -- as patrollers were doing on skis at Telluride -- to prod loose any snow inclined to slide. Now, as the chopper settles atop the back saddle of Hope Lake Basin more than 13,000 feet above sea level, yesterday's avalanche debris and the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of rotor blades offer hints of combat.
Jumping from the helicopter to the snow, my companions include Greg Spencer, 44, an engineer for
Then the dragon departs, the snow settles, and an eerie silence permeates these peaks of snow and rock that whisper that the scale has changed. It is inhuman. With Miller dictating safety etiquette, it is time to dig in.
The Muratas, veterans of Alaskan helicopter ski excursions, descend with a divine grace that Spencer, a native of suburban Detroit, and I can only dream about. Deep powder skiing introduces a bottomless third, velvety vertical, dimension not generally found at Blue Hills or Nashoba Valley.
''I feel far from Michigan," quips Spencer after one of several snow submersions. Eventually, we find a stride and rhythm that begins to pull the dimensions together; the sensation becomes more one of gliding than sliding.
We ski a total of five runs, varying from gently sloping meadows to steep chutes walled by ledge, and at 1 p.m., our day is done. Over a cup of tomato soup back at the resort, Miller reflects on safety procedures that will send him back out before sunset to drop more bombs from the helicopter. What drives him?
''An imaginary witness stand," he says. ''I am being grilled by a lawyer who asks, ''And so you did what?!' "
I can identify with him. I had promised my wife I would try to keep all my skiing ''in bounds." The effort has been minimal today.
''But it's all in-bounds heliskiing," Miller points out.
I knew I'd like this guy.
Next stop: Durango and snowcat skiing with the San Juan Ski Co.
. . .
Under yet another bluebird sky, Mike Anderson sits in the cab of a
We are headed toward the summit of a peak that the miners named Grace Hill. It's graceful, but at 12,100 feet above sea level, it's no hill.
Anderson, 42, is a heavy equipment operator who spends winters driving snowcats and guiding skiers and boarders down some of the 35,000 acres of bowls, chutes, and glades served by the San Juan Ski Co.
As Anderson reaches the crest of Grace Hill, he whirls the growling cat into an about-face, then stops. Ten passengers climb from the cabin into the silent void. Anderson pauses for a moment, slowly eyes the mountain peaks poking up around us, and then muses, mostly to himself: ''I really don't care if I ever ski at another regular ski area again. Ever."
If helicopter skiing casts a net around terrain, snowcat skiing uses tweezers. Started by one Bob Rule eight years ago, the San Juan Ski Co. delivers skiers perhaps a dozen times daily atop relatively short 800-vertical-foot runs that they can either ski and ski again, or choose to leave and move on. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the lift system is the camaraderie fostered by riding in the rear cabin with, on this day, nine other boarders and skiers.
Grady James, 15, has brought along an impressive CD collection for the snowcat's audio system, and we never get far from the Rolling Stones as we chug uphill for descents down runs such as Gray Sill Creek, Titicaca, and Grace Hill.
The avalanche threat continues to abate, thanks to a meteorological phenomenon that Rule calls ''the Betty Crocker principle."
''The warmer the day gets, the more the snow pack stabilizes like a cake," says Rule, 49, who turned to skiing years ago after he attended preseason camps for the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers and everyone, including Rule, decided football might not be his calling.
By 3 p.m., we are carving up untracked granular snow, some of us in shirtsleeves. The late sun has turned the snow a dazzling gold. The moon rises over our backs. The scene is dreamlike, says David Grant, 25, a student and construction worker from Santa Cruz, Calif.
''It's going to be tough," Grant says later, ''to go back to skiing at the resorts."
Next stop: Silverton Mountain.
. . .
Once there were mountains -- New Hampshire's Moosalauke and the old Wildcat, to name two -- where American ski pioneers rocketed down steep and ungroomed trails that required them to suck it in, take what nature served, and blame no one but themselves for mistakes.
Such a place is Silverton Mountain, a 13,500-foot-high mom-and-pop shop 6 miles east of the old mining town for which it is named.
Nestled deep in country too prone to avalanche to permit commercial development, Silverton Mountain is a heartening step back in time.
The mountain offers but one amenity: pure, unadulterated powder on terrain too steep for ratings back East.
Here the lunches are brown bag, the lodge is a Quonset hut (without running water, but with draft beer), central heating is a woodstove, the rental shop is an old school bus, the rest room is a two-holer, and the lift is the former Chair 15 purchased for a song from Mammoth Mountain in central California.
A maximum of 80 boarders and/or skiers are allowed here daily under terms struck with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns much of the area's 1,600 acres. To ski here, you must have a guide, a shovel, an avalanche probe, an avalanche locator beacon, and, OK, as the mountain's popular bumper sticker succinctly puts it: ''Got Balls?"
The mountain, now in its fourth season, was the brainchild of Aaron Brill and his wife, Jen, who gambled a few years back that if skiers were offered something genuine, they would come.
Silverton turns people away daily. The area is booked weeks in advance.
Before I can set foot on the mountain, I need to sign three release forms, one for the ski rentals, one for the mountain, and one assuring my would-be ambulance chaser that my guide had prepped me on the rules of engagement. My immediate companions this day will be camera-toting hotshot boarders working for the Canadian magazine Snowboard Canada. Boarding the lift, I notice I am the only skier, I am twice their age, and I am at a serious loss for chitchat.
I wonder if I have strayed beyond my element.
Jen Ader Brill, the co-owner, is our guide and a boarder. Apparently dressing for the occasion, she wears a large motorcycle helmet.
We dismount the lift 12,300 feet above sea level, and it then stops. No use running the thing between runs. Brill leads us on a 15-minute, lung-stinging climb to the lip of our first run. The snowboarders ascend like frolicking mountain goats; I ascend with baby steps as beads of sweat roll from the end of my nose into my helmet, which I had strapped to my waist.
Finally at the top, I peer over the precipice and down a 45-degree pitch aptly named Waterfall (the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington is typically 38 degrees). As I catch my breath, our guide lays out the safety rules. Then she takes off. I follow.
Three turns down Waterfall, my nerves settle, and my whimpers turn to whoops of joy as snow like goose down explodes around me. Each burst brings cheers of encouragement from the snowboarders above.
They continue to cheer all day.
In a world like this, who needs chitchat -- or running water, for that matter?
David Arnold can be reached at email@example.com.