When Shakespeare asked “What’s in a name?” he eloquently stated a question man has had since time immemorial: What do names mean?
In the case of Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, there generally is a method to the variety of trail names spread out over the ski area’s 10 lifts, 88 runs and five terrain parks – there’s a theme based on where a trail is on the mountain and when the trails were cut.
But first, the ski area.
When the ski area was still in the planning stages, there was a lot of thought given to what to call it.
“I think it was me and Joan Duncan and Ray Duncan,” said founding general manager Chester R. “Chet” Anderson, who served as general manager from 1965 to 1981 before moving over to work on planning until he left the ski area in 1991. ”We sat down to discuss it, and we had a list of three possibilities: Hermosa, Columbine or Purgatory. We decided Purgatory was spicier, not as bland.”
The “Purgatory” is derived from Purgatory Creek, which runs down the mountain. Where the creek got its name is a mystery, said Robert McDaniel, former executive director of Animas Museum and a ski patroller of 37 years at Purgatory.
“That’s true of any number of places in this area where the origin or rationale for the name has been lost in the mists of time,” he said.
Purgatory’s role in Catholic theology may mean the name has come down from Spanish explorers who, artifacts have shown, probably made it to north of Silverton, McDaniel said.
“But there are no definitive accounts from back then, no old maps where it shows up,” he said.
The name Purgatory set the stage for the trails during the first years: El Diablo, Upper and Lower Demon, Upper and Lower Hades, Styx, Pandemonium, Limbo, Limbo Alley and Catharsis. In more recent years, they have added the Paradise Freestyle Arena, the Pitchfork Terrain Garden and the Divine Comedy terrain park.
“We just kind of looked at Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and started picking names,” Anderson said. “There were suggestions from various people but no formal kind of process. But the decision to pick Dante’s ‘Inferno’ was more of a business decision than a creative one.”
Purgatory is a great name for a ski area, said Katherine Burgess, a retired humanities professor and Dante purist.
“It didn’t exist in Catholic theology until Dante wrote his poem,” she said, “It’s a place where you purge yourself of your sins and work your way up to heaven. But they kind of made a mishmash of it with all those other trail names. It would have been great if they stayed on the theme.”
Hades is from Greek mythology, and there’s really no clear reference to demons in “Inferno,” she said.
“Skiing is a great way to go through Purgatory,” she said with a laugh. “You can go flying down the mountain skiing hell-bent for leather and praying ‘Save me, Jesus,’ or you can stroll through the Path to Peace.”
Hades lived up to its name when it came to building it.
“In 1966, the first summer after we opened,” Anderson said, “Paul (Folwell), Bennie (Basham) and I cut out Hades all by ourselves. People like to know there’s something difficult, and it put us on the map with Taos (N.M.) and places like that. It’s so steep, it was really hard work.”
Was there any resistance from people because of the religious connotations?
“I don’t remember any,” Anderson said. “Vincent (Duncan), who was pretty religious, did have us change our post office box number from 666. But the nuns (Sisters of Mercy) started skiing there right away, and when we cut Mercy and had a contest to name it, one of them won some free ski tickets.”
In later years
“The Lift 3 (area) started in 1972, during the peace and groovy days,” said Mike McCormack, senior vice president of mountain operations and general manager of Purgatory, who’s been with the resort for 32 years. “That’s where names like Cool It came from.”
Other names from the “peace and groovy days” include: Divinity, Path to Peace, Salvation, Angels’ Tread, Nirvana, Peace, Cherub, Paradise, Poets Glade and Cathedral Treeway.
Zinfandel reflects Ray Duncan’s entry into the wine business, and Pinkerton Toll Road, Hermosa Parkway and Harris Hill Run are named after geographical features in the area. Some just reflect what skiers can expect – Elevator Shaft, a double-black diamond run, is steep, fast and not for the faint-of-heart, while Airmail is a fast intermediate run.
Then there’s the Lift 5 area’s ode to the elk that call the mountain home.
“I found a dead elk when I was cutting Dead Spike, so that’s where that name came from,” Anderson said. “And that was an area where there were a lot of elk, so Wapiti (a Shawnee and Cree word for elk) and Bull Run represent that.”
‘Key to making it successful’
The idea for the Legends section came in 1985, with the building of Lift 8.
“Those people in Legends built the area from $1 million in assets to $12 million with hardly any debt,” Anderson said. “Those people, especially Keith Blackburn and Paul Folwell, were the key to making that place successful.”
Among those honored with trails in their honor are:
Ray Duncan, who was the principal owner until 1986, with Ray’s Ridge.
His former wife, Joan Duncan, who was involved in many ways with the startup, with Joan’s Jubilee.
Ray’s older brother, Vincent Duncan, who took over the corporation in 1986 when the resort hit financial difficulties, with Vincent’s.
Cobb and his wife, Sue, both of whom have served as U.S. ambassadors, with Ambassadors’ Glade.
Folwell, who organized the original ski patrol and worked with Anderson to design the trail system, with Paul’s Park.
Blackburn, who helped build the first chairlift and was in charge of lift operations for 21 years, along with his right-hand man, Bennie Basham, with Blackburn’s Bash.
Sally Duncan, Folwell’s former wife, who is married to Ray Duncan, with Sally’s Run. She spent 20 years at the area, starting as a ski instructor and retiring as vice president of personnel.
For Nick Turner and his Bank of Durango, which, after a series of buyouts, now is Wells Fargo Bank, which helped make the funding possible, there’s Bank and Lower Bank.
James “Hoody” Hards, who has worked at Purgatory for 37 years, can call the Hoody’s run his own.
And of course, Anderson, with Chet’s. But the naming of his trail happened a little differently.
“I named Chet’s,” he said. “I named it from a business sense. It’s a very, very good intermediate run, and the business was built on intermediate runs. They produce the most dollars.”
McCormack has his own trail, as well, McCormack’s Maze. Legends trail names have to be earned, and his 32-year tenure with the ski area certainly qualifies him for the honor.
“They’re for longtime employees, original founders and the people who got Durango Ski Corp. up and running,” he said. “We look for longevity, commitment and contribution to the entire picture.”
Do people ask about the people honored with a Legends trail?
“Not so many of the destination visitors,” McCormack said. “But locals new to the area, as they get more established, they’ll ask more about the history of the ski area. That’s why we put the wall (with photos and biographies) up in Dante’s – so people could learn.”
Purgatory hasn’t added many runs in the last decade, he said. It has to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to cut new ones, and they have authorization to cut only a few more in the Legends area.
Who will have the honor of the next trail name?
“We don’t have a list,” McCormack said, adding that they’ll decide when they cut it.
All historic photos courtesy of Durango Mountain Resort except that of Ray Duncan, which is courtesy of the La Plata County Historical Society.