Somewhere near Telluride, Colorado is a super-top-secret valley. You can find it on maps, but if you attempt to make the trek there, you might not be so lucky. The highway sign pointing the way has disappeared so many times the department of transportation gave up replacing it. Lost drivers are pointed the wrong way and given directions out of town. Unsuspecting posters to social media are scolded for hash-tagging the name of the town in photos. Some inhabitants of this unnamed valley don’t want the outside world to know it exists. It’s The Valley That Must Not Be Named.
This Shangri-La does not have a single store or restaurant or paved roads. It’s the middle of nowhere. But with a bunch of other people and houses and dogs roaming free. “Settlement” is a better description, although it technically has a mayor and town manager.
It also has epic backcountry skiing. And certain skiers go to great lengths to keep it a mystery valley because if you can’t find it, you can’t ski it.
Two beautiful canyons are easily accessed from town and provide sweeping views of the high alpine, gnarly couloirs, perfectly pitched tree runs, all often covered in plenty of powder. If you have trouble finding fresh turns in this vast valley, it’s due to extreme laziness or lack of creativity. It is the antithesis of the Disneyland that is the nearby ski resort of Telluride. Peace and solitude reign.
Skiers have been protective of their powder stashes since the day they first strapped long wooden planks to their feet. Powder is a finite resource and when this valley is good, it is gooooooood. But the attitude of some valley skiers goes too far. It is an attitude of hyper localism.
Localism has long been rampant in surf culture and is now spilling over into the valley’s backcountry skiing. Parking wars have become frequent. Passive aggressive notes are being left on vehicles. Would-be backcountry skiers who reside one or two towns over are made to feel like unwelcome outsiders. Acting like the self-appointed steeze police, a few local skiers try to determine who has the street cred to ski there and who does not. To be fair, not all the skiers of the valley have this attitude; some longtime residents are embarrassed by their neighbors’ actions. But the ones that do have this attitude are ruining it for everyone.
In a world where resort skiing is increasingly a sport reserved for the rich, backcountry skiing is the great egalitarian equalizer. Freed from the tyranny of expensive lift tickets, touring requires little more than the will to go uphill. That is the main reason residents of The Valley That Must Not Be Named need not worry about their ski runs getting discovered and tracked out: Most people are just too lazy to do the required 3,000-feet-plus vertical on an icy skin track. The valley and its people are nothing if not hardcore.
But there is another reason the harassment of visiting backcountry skiers needs to stop. In a time when our country’s administration is seeking to alienate and exclude certain sectors, this animosity toward fellow skiers smacks of nativism: the policy of protecting the interests of established inhabitants against those of immigrants.
This attitude of I-found-it-first-now-I’m-closing-the-door-behind-me is a shame, because one of the joys of recreating in wild places is sharing them with others. Getting there first doesn’t mean you can hoard the outdoors for yourself. Let’s face it: Nearly all of us are transplants to these mountains and few of us have been here in this tiny southwest corner of the state longer than a generation. Being a “local” does not give anyone the right to intimidate others who are simply enjoying the very same thing they share a passion for.
Localism goes against the backcountry spirit of camaraderie, friendship, and community. The love of skiing should unite, not divide. It shouldn’t be cliquey; it should be inclusive. It is not a place for barriers. Skiers should be free to bring their friends to their favorite ski runs without the fear of being heckled and hassled.
Most important, these mountains are public lands open to and owned by everyone. If you are willing and able to earn your turns, you have just as much right to be there as anyone, with or without proof of residency.
The ranks of those initiated in beacon checks, kick turns on skin tracks, face shots, high-fives on ridgelines and celebratory after-beers in the parking lot always has room for more members. The skiers of The Valley That Must Not Be Named should hope that they don’t succeed in scaring off their backcountry brethren. Because after all the effort to make sure they are the only ones out there, they might just find out it’s lonely at the top.
This essay appeared in Adventure Journal on Feb. 22, 2017.