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Ski Bummery and Recovery

All ski towns have a celebratory nature, and I used Telluride’s upbeat vibe to further indulge in my addiction.

telluride colorado substance abuse

By Paddy O’Connell | Photo Kristofer Noel

October 17, 2007, my father drops me off at O’Hare airport. I am moving to Telluride, 23 years old, excited, and overly confident. I have never skied before, except for three days in Telluride last spring when my friend Scott and I visited our best college buddy, Adam. The San Juan Mountains have ahold of me. My life is never the same.

May 19, 2013, I am sober and terrified. I don’t turn to booze or a baggie for the first time in recent memory. Instead, I fly home to Chicago for an intervention after exploding in a drunken mess at Adam’s wedding. I am in the dark, unyielding grip of alcoholism and drug addiction. Near death, I ask for help and my life is never the same.

During that first winter, the snow would not stop falling in Telluride. Nor could I. My skiing career began with a yard sale wreck on the Meadows—the bunny hill—which included flying through the air sideways, jabbing myself in the ribs and snapping my pole in half. But with helpful pointers and nonstop peer pressure from Adam and Scott, I wiggled my way down the Plunge, my first black run, with less than a handful of days in ski boots. I spent that season following my two best friends all over the resort, hiking the Prospect Ridge to the rocky steeps in Black Iron Bowl, navigating the trees on Lift 9, and finding out what “pucker factor” really meant on Gold Hill. I was becoming a ski bum.

In order to stay in Telluride I worked every mountain town job available. A mustached, raccoon-eyed, shaggy skier may not seem like a great boutique panties salesman, but I was pretty good. Due to my lack of product knowledge, I relied on my creative nonsensical banter and blushing red cheeks. Before that storied gig, I delivered pizzas. I also drilled, blasted, and “mucked out” rock while constructing the Goat Path, the egress out of the Gold Hill 1 chute. My résumé also boasts dishwashing, bouncing, bartending, snowmaking, and chair bumping. I did it all, people.

At the prodding of several ski patrollers I drank beers with, I participated in the patrol-hiring clinic, despite the fact that it was only my second year on skis. I like to think they had never before seen such style and pure athletic power from a 6’5” Midwesterner with a midsection jiggle, but my hiring probably had more to do with my sense of humor and work ethic. My Telluride skier-identity was complete: ski patroller, wind- and sunburnt face, old-school yellow a-frame hat, bro-tilted sunnies, beat-up Kinkos, and a one-liner for every gal in the bar.

But as my ski bum identity was being realized, so was the emptiness within me growing. For my entire life, I carried a dark, oppressive yoke. Around my fortified hollowness I built a façade of laughter and brashness, buttressed by charm and dimples. I used ego to protect my inferiority complex. But I’d long since discovered my cure-all in the feeling that drugs and alcohol gave me. All ski towns have a celebratory nature, and I used Telluride’s upbeat vibe to further indulge in my lifelong addiction; never once thinking I had a problem. Still, my agony always returned. And in majestic Telluride—perhaps the most idyllic ski town in North America—that agony nearly consumed me.

Now, my skiing and my recovery go hand in hand. They inform every decision I make, acting as my internal governors. I will always be a Telluride skier, even if I never live there again. The mountain helped shape the better parts of who I am. And if I stay in recovery for the rest of my life, which I work toward daily, I will still always be a drug addict and alcoholic.

When I am trudging up Telluride’s Palymra Peak, skis on my back, I often hear the voice from the past telling me I am not good enough, that I should stop and go back. Anxiety and self-doubt trying to steal me away from the moment. But once I drop in and let go of the fear that, for me, leads to sustained athletic rigor mortis, everything flows and falls into rhythm. I am 100 percent here, lost and found in the turn. 

Telluride, CO

Acres: 2,000 | Vertical: 4,425’ | Snowfall: 300” | telluride.com

What’s New: Telluride joins The Mountain Collective, giving TMC passholders two free days at the mountain, and locals—with a $200 upgrade to their existing Telluride pass— fifty percent off skiing at all TMC resorts. 

From the Early Winter 2016 issue.

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