Everyone’s a Beginner Once
By Margaret Hedderman | Winter/Spring 19-20
Since Durango is home to more than a few former and current Olympians, national champions, professional athletes, and some darn good amateurs, it’s easy to feel a tad overwhelmed if you’re a beginner here. All the same, despite the real or perceived intimidation factor, an abundance of entry-level opportunities make Durango a great place to learn a new sport this winter. Here’s how to get started:
Give Snowshoeing a Try
One of the easiest ways to get outside in the winter, snowshoeing is quick and simple; anyone can pick it up in a couple of hours.
“It’s a great activity to get used to being in that type of environment,” says Jack Klim, a local guide and operations director with San Juan Expeditions (formerly Kling Mountain Guides). “You learn about the cold and snow, and how to manage your layering. It’s a great place to start.”
Snowshoeing itself requires very little instruction beyond learning how to put the snowshoes on; but if you’re wanting a bit more guidance, there are a few options in town to help get you started. Purgatory Resort offers guided snowshoe tours behind the ski area. These half-day excursions will allow you to get comfortable traveling in snowy terrain and get used to your gear.
Alternatively, if you’re over 50, Seniors Outdoors offers Saturday snowshoe tours throughout the winter, often exploring unexpected, less traveled areas. For a small fee, $15 a year, you’ll gain access to endless programming for winter and beyond—plus a wealth of local knowledge and a few new friends to boot.
Snowshoes are relatively inexpensive—compared to other winter gear—and can be purchased or rented at a number of outdoor shops around town.
Get a Workout with Nordic Skiing
If the first sight of snow sends you to the gym, consider picking up Nordic skiing this winter. With an abundance of groomed areas close to town and plenty of local stores offering rentals, there’s no excuse not to move your workout outside.
“It’s like going for a walk in the woods. It’s beautiful,” says Helen Low, center manager at Durango Nordic.
Steep and deep is not the name of the game, but you will come across some rolling terrain at most Nordic areas. Low recommends taking a lesson to learn how to navigate the ups and downs, as well as to avoid taking up any bad habits. Durango Nordic offers one-off clinics and lessons throughout the winter, but if you’re serious about getting into it, Low suggests signing up for their masters’ program, which offers classes from December through February.
In addition to a selection of rental gear in town, the Vallecito Nordic Club hosts an annual demo (usually in January or February) with the latest and greatest Nordic equipment from top brands.
Become a Powder Hound
It’s all about perspective. When the forecast calls for a foot of snow, don’t think about shoveling the driveway; imagine first tracks at the mountain. Whether you’re called by skiing or snowboarding, we recommend taking a lesson from a professional if you’re brand new to the sport. Both Purgatory and Wolf Creek offer lessons, including beginner series, to get you started. The “8-Week Program at Purgatory” is a great way to meet other skiers or boarders at your ability level.
If you’ve been around town long enough, you’ve probably heard the term “backcountry” come up in conversation. If you’re even considering venturing out of bounds this winter, Klim says you should be able to “link turns down a black diamond, skiing it top to bottom.” The backcountry presents a host of new challenges, primarily avalanche danger. Klim recommends attending an avalanche-awareness clinic as a basic primer.
“You should understand the dangers, as well as the dynamics, of avalanche terrain,” Klim says. “It’ll give you a good idea of whether you want to do it or not.”
Several outdoor-gear stores, as well as the Powerhouse Science Center and Friends of the San Juans, host cheap or free clinics throughout the winter. Snowboarders can also take advantage of free Splitboard 101 clinics, led by Klim on behalf of Weston Backcountry and Backcountry Experience.
Eventually you’ll need to take a true avalanche-safety course to learn how to travel safely in the heavy backcountry snow. San Juan Expeditions, as well as other guiding services in the area, provide level-one certifications through the American Avalanche Association.
Don’t worry, climbers, we didn’t forget you. But we’ll be honest. Neither ice-climbing nor mountaineering are exactly entry-level activities. Still, if you’re a strong rock-climber looking for a new way to get vertical this winter, here’s where to start.
“Ice-climbing all stems from rock-climbing,” says Klim. “It’s just a different medium that you’re climbing on.”
He recommends signing up for a guided group lesson for either ice-climbing or mountaineering. While you can be relatively new to climbing, Klim says it helps to know how to belay and at the very least top rope.
Durango is within an easy drive of the Ouray Ice Park, which hosts an annual ice-climbing festival. Sign up for a variety of clinics and enjoy watching some of the world’s best ice-climbers compete.