Fresh Powder, Aging Legs: A Telluride Ski Legend Keeps it Young

By Christopher Rhoads

I sat on a chair swinging in wind thick with driving snow. Another skier occupied the other end of the quad-chair, his shoulders hunched like mine against the end-of-season storm at Telluride.

The storm had dropped a foot of snow overnight and had more to give. I felt the familiar adrenaline rush from scanning the untracked powder below. I also felt something I had not before when skiing: a tinge of uncertainty about my conditioning, strength, and, well, my age. 

I was 56. Not old. But not all that young either for the sort of skiing I missed.

Skiing the past few years had lost out to the restrictions of the pandemic and the responsibilities of becoming a father. 

Our two little boys brought their own joys and distractions to any skiing our family had managed to do, our number of runs on the bunny slope competing with runs for hot chocolate—and the potty. Skipping a couple of seasons at this age—I came to realize the day before when I had a chance to make a few turns on some non-toddler terrain—is different than when you’re 36. 

As happens on chairlifts, the other skier on the chair and I exchanged a few pleasantries. He said he had lived in Telluride for 42 years. 

“You know your way around here,” I said. 

“I guess so,” he replied, his face hidden behind his goggles and zipped-up jacket.

I disclosed the rudiments of my situation: Not skiing much, kids, potty runs. 

“You can follow me for a run if you like,” he offered. My first thought was to decline, with my chance to ski alone and unencumbered barely a half-hour old—on a powder day no less.

But what the hell. It was only one run, and he knew the mountain better than I did. I said sure and thanked him.

We swept the snow from our laps as we reached the top, stood and glided off the lift. 

He poled ahead, looked back at me for an instant, nodded—and then disappeared in the powdered trees. 

I did my best to keep up. Amid the trees and heavy snowfall, I glimpsed his obviously elite skills.

Holy shit. 

Smiling, I knew I had gotten lucky with my new chairlift acquaintance.

When I finally caught up with him at the bottom of the lift, I asked between heaving breaths, “Wanna do another?” 

He gestured for me to re-join him.

I learned he had been a pro skier beginning in the 1980s (moguls, aerials and then the early days of what was then called extreme skiing.) He had appeared in three dozen ski films, with titles like The Good, the Rad and the Gnarly, and The Blizzard of AAHH’s.

His name was Scott Kennett. He was 64. He had a bad knee but still skied most days.

His ski-bum bona fides trickled out during the course of what became a handful of runs together that morning: poaching his way into his first Warren Miller ski film by launching off a cliff near the pioneering filmmaker; landing a role as a stunt skier in the 1993 cult classic Aspen Extreme; sand-dune skiing in the Nevada dessert with Glen Plake, the daredevil skier known for his spiked mohawk. 

Kennett’s trademark in those days was skiing with his dog, a part-wolf, part-Malamute named Zudnik. Some of his film appearances show Zudnik following him through the bumps, over cliffs and, occasionally, into bars.

“He was notorious for going around town looking for any dog in heat,” said Kennett, who may have shared a trait or two back then with his old partner.

Through the morning, we bumped into other members of what he called his tribe, most of them around sixty-something. He seemed to know everyone—of a certain vintage.

Waiting with a growing throng of skiers for patrollers to open an access gate to another section of the mountain following avalanche control, Kennett spotted a guy he used to work construction with, named Jay Crowell.

Crowell, 66 years old, told me he’s lived here since 1981 after dropping out of college in Buffalo. Starting with his own off-the-grid home on a remote mesa where he and his wife raised a daughter, Crowell built dozens of the luxury homes here that now dominate the landscape.

He allowed he’s had both knees replaced and other surgeries, but still manages about 120 days of skiing a year, much of that in the backcountry.

His daughter Maddie has grown up to become an accredited guide and skier in freeride competitions. “She’s a badass, okay?” he said. “She has so far eclipsed whatever I was as a skier and athlete.”

Crowell and Kennett waved to a woman in the crowd with gray-blond hair poking out of her helmet. This was Annie Belaska, 57 years old. She’s worked in numerous bars and coffee shops around town since moving here in 1991 from south Florida.

She remembers the days when Telluride was weirder and more earthy, before the onslaught of big money and celebrities (Tom Cruise reportedly sold his home here not long ago in under a week for $39 million.)

For Belaska, the sign of things changing was the arrival in town of parking meters.

“You used to be able to park in the wrong direction, wherever you wanted,” she said. “There was a reason I didn’t move to Aspen.”

But she has rolled with the changes. 

She bought and fixed up an old miner’s cabin about a 40-minute drive outside of town that she now calls home. She suffers from arthritis in her hands from her barista work but figures she still skis—with some of the same friends she made when she moved here three decades ago—about 60 days a year.

“Life is what you make of it,” she said.

The powder had everyone in a good mood, as it does. 

Glory days.

In the welcoming company of Kennett and his kindred spirits, I had completely forgotten about my earlier concerns. 

Like mine in recent years, the lives and circumstances for Kennett and the others had changed—even though they had lived in the same town for decades. Old doors closing gave way to new ones opening. They seemed to be living their best lives. 

That day, of course, I wasn’t thinking much about any of this. Fresh snow can focus the mind. Maybe that’s what it has done for these die-hards all these years.

Kennett acknowledged that on a powder day like this in the past there would be 60 or 70 others like him out here hollering at each other from the lifts, ripping up the powder below. “These guys were just shredding it,” he said. “Like popcorn coming down.”

Many of those old friends have retired from skiing, died or moved on, priced out of town, he said.

But that has not deterred Kennett. After his pro-skiing career ended, he became a sought-after instructor with the Telluride Ski School. He still skis no-fall-zone couloirs. In the offseason, once he turned 65 and qualified for Medicare, Kennett planned to have his knee replaced.

Life goes on. 

His old canine ski partner Zudnik died some years ago, but not before fathering what Kennett calculated were 63 puppies. Kennett has skied with two of them, named Thunder and Sundance.

When the access gate finally opened, releasing the herd of powder-hungry skiers, Belaska jostled for position with skiers more than half her age. Crowell disappeared in the crowd.

I spotted Kennett up ahead near the front of the feverish pack, poling and skating for the fresh snow.

Scott Kennett, these days

Christopher Rhoads is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who remains uncertain if having young boys at his age makes him feel younger or older.