With a crown of stars, Telluride, Colorado glows bright on a cold winter night.
Story By Harry Kearney. Photos By Ben Eng.
I heard a story once about a Florida town in the 70’s where the entire town was involved in drug smuggling from Central and South America. The town was situated on an island, accessed by only one road, and had previously survived on the crab and fish industry. When the smuggling took hold of the town, the boats would go out like they were catching fish, but would bring back bails of weed dropped from airplanes instead. The town got busted though, and when the law came down, all they had to do was put a roadblock on the only road going in. The entire town was involved, so essentially the entire town was arrested.
Around the same time, a few thousand miles away, the first ski lifts were going up in Telluride, Colorado. Telluride is situated in a box canyon surrounded by the San Juan mountains, is also accessed by only one road, and come wintertime, survives on the ski industry. When it snows, people show up late to work, or not at all, because they go riding. If skiing and snowboarding were illegal, there would be a roadblock on the one road in and they would have to arrest the whole town.
Telluride is where I was lucky enough to grow up. Ski and snow culture is deeply ingrained in the psyche there, even at a young age. Ski P.E. is standard in the schools, and a couple times a week everyone goes up to ride as a part of the curriculum. The lifts rise up almost directly from downtown. Sidecountry laps end on a little seasonal road that dumps you back in town a block from the lifts. The mountain and the town blend together and that is how snowboarding became the most influential part of my upbringing.
Harry sails into a sublime San Juan sunset in the Telluride terrain park.
I grew up in the standard fashion with things like school and homework and parents and friends, but my time on the mountain seemed to teach me the most. Normal rules of society didn’t apply on the mountain. I learned by my own experiences. I was the new kid and learned quick by chasing my friends, all of whom skied and already had years of doing so under their belts, even in the third grade. We looked up to the veterans in town- older and wiser figures who had spent entire lives refining the way they moved in the mountains. Their tracks stood proud beyond the boundary ropes - perfectly symmetrical turns maintained top-to-bottom through narrow couloirs or hanging snowfields. Teachers in school turned into mentors on a snowboard. I took notes on paper and studied for tests, but I also watched how my art teacher chose a toeside wall and dissected it with heelside hacks, then did my best to mimic that. My P.E. teacher was a retired pro, and he ended up coaching my brother and I for years. Whenever the lifts were spinning, every free second I had as a kid was spent on the mountain.
Always friends on a pow day in Telluride. Harry and his homie Jerry double up for an over under line.
My most significant growth came when I began to venture into the backcountry. Everything carried more weight. The San Juan Mountains have an infamously dangerous snowpack, something we were made painfully aware of in our upbringing. Some friends who lived in smaller surrounding towns couldn’t come to school sometimes because a slide would come down and bury the road to town. Or worse, when I watched friends lose their friends in slides, and I would see the grief seize the entire town. There was a side to my home mountains I couldn’t see in my younger years that I had now come to fear.
Telluride will teach you how to billygoat with the best of them. Harry is a master of tech, tight lines.
That fear still remains to this day, yet it’s overshadowed now by a deep and profound respect. The minute I decided that I wanted to ride beyond ski area boundaries was the minute I started a new lifelong learning process. I learned from my friends and mentors about how to move safely in the backcountry and how every facet of the weather influenced the snow. I also learned how to work together, mind those around us and take heed of gut instincts. We would consult the veterans like the elders of our tribe, and ride with them to watch how they interacted with the mountains.
I have been lucky enough to experience some of the most beautiful moments in my life right in my own backyard, and more often than not, I was sharing those moments with my closest friends. I realize my upbringing in Telluride was unique and I don’t take that for granted. The San Juan mountains shaped me beyond just a snowboarder, but gave me snowboarding as the vehicle to learn and grow as a human.