Crested Butte: Snowbikes & Ziplines (and Skiing)
By David McKay Wilson
It’s all fun and games on the slopes of Crested Butte this winter.
When the snow is scarce, why not kick back, ski the blues, dine on the mountain’s fine cuisine, and find your thrills on snowbikes and the zipline course?
It’s part of the Colorado ski industry’s efforts to expand the wintry experience, with mountain coasters at Steamboat, Aspen Snowmass, Purgatory Resort and Copper Mountain providing new opportunities for alpine fun.
We discovered our fun in mid-December, as climate change paid a visit during the slow start to the 2017-18 Colorado ski season, and we savored four nights at The Lodge at Mountaineer Square, smack dab at the Crested Butte base, at close to 9,400 feet above sea level.
Sure, we had a dandy time skiing the silky white corduroy in Paradise Bowl that had been laid down by the mountain’s crack snowmaking team. The grooming was exquisite, lots of sweet grooves that we feasted on in our first runs of the 2017-18 ski season. I could have made turns all day long and been perfectly content, as I painted esses down the undulating mountainside.
But I was there was my boys, on their Christmas break from college. They had their hearts set on skiing the plentiful extreme terrain in the steep alpine fields and chutes of Mount Crested Butte. We were there for what we’d hoped would be some epic skiing on the steep glades on the North Face and exploring Spellbound Bowl and the Sock-It-To-Me Ridge. Maybe we’d even make it back to the hike-to terrain in Teocalli Bowl.
But the sign at the Silver Queen lift told a troubling story: a 14-inch base, and all of 28 inches of fresh snow in this snow-starved early season. Every trail among Crested Butte’s famed “Extreme Limits” terrain in double-black diamond heaven was closed.
So after a morning skiing the buffed-up groomers, we decided to boost our thrill quotient by reporting to the zipline yurt to get harnessed up. Then it was a quick hike up the hill to the first of five towers. All clipped in, we leapt off the tower and flew on a descending traverse to the next tower, where a braking system slowed us down, and guide Luke Meier pulled us to safety.
Meier contributed to the zaniness of the experience. On one zip, he encouraged us to embody our favorite super hero. But what exactly did the pink Power Ranger do? Whatever. I channeled my inner Bart Simpson, yelled “Cowabunga, dude!” and jumped. The final zip is the longest, and you really get moving as you get back to the yurt. A final rappel down to terra firm ended the day.
By our third day, there was still no new snow. So we decided to try snowbiking, yet another new-fangled device to get you down the mountain. It turns out that snowbikes are a ton of fun, and quite easier to maneuver.
A Brenter snowbike has two short skis attached to an aluminum bike frame, with suspension, but no brakes. You click your ski boots into the bindings on two ski blades, which act as pontoons.
You turn by throwing your weight from side to side to turn the back ski. It’s really pretty easy, and, after an introduction from our instructor, we were off, finding great joy in the beginner and intermediate trails. The boys were smiling now.
It became more harrowing as we snowbiked the blues in Paradise Bowl. As I criss-crossed the trail, my younger son did the same, not far ahead of me. As I picked up speed to make my turns, our traverses kept meeting in the middle. It kept getting closer. I needed to be on my game.
On our final pass I turned slightly uphill to avoid him, then banged a turn into a hockey stop. Whoa!
I traded in the snowbike for my skis, but the boys kept snowbiking. They charged down to lunch at Uley’s Cabin, where we splurged at Crested Butte’s high-end eatery on the mountain, named for a moonshiner from back in town’s mining days. There, we dined on delicacies such as wild boar, bison, and shrimp scampi drizzled with garlic foam.
On Sunday, it was back to the groomers. Up and down, up and down as I chased the college boys down the hill. When they retired at 1:30 p.m. to do some Christmas shopping downtown, I had the mountain to myself.
And to make it even better I went back to the tent at the base where ski designer Eric Baker, from Steamboat, was there with his new handcrafted Colorado wooden skis called Harvest Homegrown. I’d tried them for a few runs the day before and was impressed by how they responded.
These all-wood skis, hewn from Colorado grown poplar, which felt light under foot, and could really hold an edge. I’d slowed things down, and did several top to bottom runs, really carving, really feeling the skis respond under foot. Then I opened it up, and felt them hold.
And a chairlift game I played with the boys since our early days on the slopes – and still play today – gave me a sign. The game has to do with the numbers on the chairlifts, and the uplift you feel when you get one of your numbers – your age, the street number of your house, year of graduation. On three straight runs with the Harvests, I landed on chair lift # 65.
I turn 65 in April.
To keep up with those boys this season and the next, I invested in the Colorado cure.
I bought a pair.
David McKay Wilson, a veteran journalist who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an avid cyclist, skier and swing dancer. His travel writing has taken him around the world, with his work appearing in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, and several Gannett daily newspapers.