By David McKay Wilson
Since my arrival in the Rockies in late March, I’d peered up at Crested Butte Mountain, that 12,161-foot peak with some of Colorado’s most challenging ski terrain, and dreamed of skiing down the chutes that spill down its western face.
On the last day of our trip, the mountain’s snow safety team dropped the ropes and I headed down a steep chute called Banana Funnel, which grows narrower and narrower as you descend, with a steep rock wall rising on skier’s right. My legs were strong, the snow was forgiving, and my crisp turns brought me down into the snowfield they call the Hockey Rink, where the gentler terrain encouraged wide sweeping turns.
I spent the rest of the afternoon traversing along that face, and heading down trails called Peel and Forest, and then finding my way back to the base area.
It capped a three-day trip to one of Colorado’s premier resorts, high in the heart of the Rockies, with its base elevation at 9,375, which makes it among the West’s highest. Perched in the Elk Mountains, Crested Butte is accessible from Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport, or a five-hour drive from Denver.
Our three-day powder fest ended came near the end of the 2010-11 ski season. The mountain, like most in Colorado, could have used some of the snow in December and early January, 2012, as clear sunny skies prevailed, and skiers stuck mostly to groomed runs where the mountain’s snowmaking guns had laid down some white stuff.
The resort is just up the hill from the town of Crested Butte, an old coal-mining town that has retained its charm, and supports a year-round population of 1,600. It’s a town that loves a parade – be it the Flauschink to mark the end of the ski season, the July 4 parade, or the impromptu gathering this past April, to celebrate a mining firm’s decision to withdraw from a controversial plan to mine molybdenum from Mount Emmons.
Many of the old century-old structures have been restored, including one with a second-floor outhouse. We stopped by the Dogwood Cocktail Cabin, an old mining cabin at 309 Third St. with snow piled up over the first floor windows that’s been transformed into a dimly lit lounge with an edge of funk. At the Dogwood, I savored a Beetnik martini with ginger, a deep-red drink concocted with vodka infused with beets.
After cocktails, we headed down Elk Avenue for The Secret Stash, an upscale pizza restaurant where we sat on pillows around a table, kicked back, and sampled such delicacies as The Notorious F.I.G. – a pizza topped with mozzarella, blue cheese, prosciutto, and fresh figs – and another called the Booty Call, a pizza piled high with meat and cheese.
Crested Butte is just 40 miles from Aspen, but that’s as the crow flies, or the back-country skier skis. You need to cross two, 12,000-foot peaks to get there, which hundreds of back-country racers in the annual Grand Traverse did the stormy night we arrived. The racers, who set out in two-person teams – headed out with head lamps at midnight, and arrived in Aspen the following morning in one of skiing’s hallowed endurance races.
We kept within bounds during our stay, and there was plenty of challenge for our East Coast ski legs. It was late March, and we’d booked the trip, hoping for three days of spring skiing in the Colorado sun. Instead we had three days of snow, with powder stashes everywhere. There were wide-open intermediate trails for carving, and expert terrain up on the Headwall and the North Face that proved wonderfully challenging during our stay.
We stayed at the Elevation Hotel, in a room with a sixth-floor balcony that overlooked the Red Lady Express Lift, and the sound stage for that weekend’s FestEVOL, which featured the popular rock band, O.A.R. Downstairs, at the restaurant, 9380 Prime, where the Rocky Mountain IPA flowed by the tap, skiers dined on hand-cut steaks, and I savored my Mediterranean Salad, with spinach, roasted tomatoes and peppers and feta cheese.
By 9 p.m., hotel guests still gathered around the fire pit. One Texan, Mary Grayhart, who’d owned a condo here and spent up to four months a year at the resort, says she preferred Crested Butte over glitzier Colorado resorts, like Aspen or Vail.
“It’s more southern, more laid back here,” she says. “It’s not the place to wear your fur. And if your ski outfit doesn’t match here, it really doesn’t matter.”
To learn more, visit Crested Butte
David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.