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Steep and Deep – Crested Butte is Having a Winter for the Ages

Photo courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

By R. Scott Rappold

I stood at the top of Spellbound Bowl, and one might say I was, well, spellbound.

It took 15 minutes of traversing and side-stepping through the forest, hoping against hope I was still on the right path, to get here. Cliffs lingered to my left and right and, for all I knew, just below me. I couldn’t see another soul or, for that matter, a single chairlift. This was one of the steepest runs at the steepest ski area in Colorado, Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

Where do I even go?

The answer, of course, was down. My trepidation turned to exhilaration as I found a line of virgin snow, touched by neither skis nor groomer. To ski such terrain on marginal snow would be an exercise in terror for this reporter.

Fortunately, that’s not a problem this winter. Crested Butte is buried.

Photo courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

Too much snow

The snow banks were already high around town on Jan. 9 when it really started to come down. Two feet of dense snow piled up in just 24 hours, falling at up to 4 inches an hour. Just keeping the lifts clear was a challenge and mitigating for avalanches in steep terrain was impossible. Resort officials took the unprecedented move of closing for the day at 1:30 p.m.

“We decided it was in everybody’s best interest to shut down the resort for the day, let everybody start to dig out. It was more of a safety concern than anything,” said Zach Pickett, communications coordinator for the resort, over coffee before I set out on the hill.

Two other Colorado ski areas were also forced to close during the monster storm. Meanwhile Crested Butte remained in the heart of the snowglobe – 10 inches one day, a foot the next, 90 inches eventually falling in a 10-day period.

“Here at the resort everybody was working overtime. Mountain ops and ski patrol did a great job keeping it open, mitigating for avalanches,” said Pickett. Streets grew narrow and snow banks piled up higher than houses. Rumor has it that somewhere there is a pile of hauled snow that could rival jagged Mount Crested Butte in elevation.

If locals grumbled about dealing with all the snow, it was frustration mixed with powder-loving glee.

Said Pickett, “That’s why we live here, for the snow. Everyone was okay with working, skiing, shoveling, sleeping and repeat.”

As of mid-January, the base was 2 feet deeper than the previous winter. What few runs were closed were off-limits because brutal winds had blasted them, making skiing unsafe.

Photo by Trent Bona courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Photo by Trent Bona courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

Tackling a new mountain

Skiing a new resort for the first time can be intimidating – especially one with a reputation for insane steepness, not to mention all the signs warning that a fall in such terrain could mean injury or death.

I asked Pickett for advice.

“If there are no tracks going somewhere, there are no tracks going there for a reason. So if you’re heading up into some of the extreme terrain and you see this big open patch with no tracks, it might take you into a rocky area or cliffed-out zone or out of bounds,” he said.

Said another local on the lift: “If you find yourself at a cliff, just step back a few feet and find a way around.”

Iscared and thrilled myself in Spellbound Bowl. I plunged down the ridiculously steep North Face trail. I found deep stashes in the trees off the East River Express lift. And when my legs felt like rubber from the steeps, I blasted at mach 5 down some of the widest groomers I’d ever skied.

From the base village, all you see is the intimidating summit and the gentle groomed runs of the beginner area. It is much, much bigger than it looks. And owing to its location, far from the Front Range, with only one road in or out in winter, lift lines are practically nonexistent. My only regret was that I had but two days to explore this fascinating mountain and the many cliffs and bowls that reveal themselves only after a long hike or traverse.

Most of this extreme, double-diamond terrain is open every season to those who dare. This year, said Pickett, all the snow has made it easier to ski, a good thing for us mere mortals who might otherwise shy away from skiing a 50-degree slope like Rambo, the steepest cut run in the Lower 48. Not surprisingly, visitation is up this winter, though he couldn’t provide figures.

“The word is getting out that Crested Butte has some awesome snow and we’re excited to share that with everybody who has been coming,” he said.

Later that night, as I worked to numb sore legs with happy hour margaritas at a downtown cantina, I met Bob Lowe. He’s beenskiing this mountain for 26 years. I asked him when was the last time Crested Butte had such a winter.

“The last winter this good was 2007-2008,” he said. “Before that was 1995 or something like that.”

So how does he approach skiing the mountain in such a big year?

“Very carefully,” he laughed. “You enjoy it more too.”