We climb awkwardly out of the snowcat, making sure not to slip on its icy, sharp tracks as we lower ourselves ski boot deep into the soft Colorado snow. We’re a combination of nervous chatter and zingy anticipation, the atmosphere of intent reinforced by the positive connection between boot and binding and the fastening of backpack clips. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama provides the soundtrack to this period of preparation before the doors of the cat are slammed shut, the engine growls into life, and it trundles off back down the mountain. Not a word is spoken as we watch it go, each of us fully aware that the departure of the snowcat signifies our last connection with the noise and technology of modern day life. It rounds a corner and goes out of sight. We are alone.
This is day one of our ski trip to Crested Butte, arguably the last remaining gem in Colorado’s world-famous portfolio of ski towns. Like many others of my generation, I was brought up on a diet of Eighties ski films leading me to believe that all Colorado ski resorts were powder frontier towns, home to ski bums and outlaws, brew pubs and beards. With age comes experience, however – the combination of a monthly pay cheque and a love of travel revealing that places can, and very often do, change. The quality of the skiing found in the likes of Aspen, Vail and Telluride may still be without question, but the soul of these iconic Colorado ski towns appears to have become slightly confused. Over the past 20 years, wealth has ploughed through, paving the way for the influx of the fur and facelift brigade and forcing out many locals. Private jets throng the runways of local airports, restaurants are full of designer sunglasses and jewel-encrusted smartphones, and lift tickets can cost up to an incredible £110 a day. The transformation of these old mining towns into multi-million dollar generating resorts is undoubtedly impressive, yet they’ve always left me feeling a little bit cold.
Standing at the top of Scarp Ridge, it’s almost impossible to believe that we are only about 35 miles as the crow flies from the land of mega glitz. The wilderness expands in all directions as far as the eye can see and we fall into a sort of reverent silence as we struggle to take in the enormity of the landscape in front of us.
Simultaneously humbled and inspired, we refocus on our immediate task. We are here to ski powder. The very same cold, dry Colorado powder made famous in those ski films which provided the fluffy backdrop to so many of my youthful dreams. One by one we drop in to our first line of the day – an easy angled east-facing treeline run with boot top “hero” snow. The temperature may be a teeth chattering -15C but right now it is inconsequential. When it comes to snowfall, Crested Butte delivers both in terms of quality and quantity. With an average of 300 inches falling in the resort each winter, it’s no wonder the town is right up there on the global powder hunter’s list but if you want to ski here, you’ll need to be committed to earning your turns. Reaching “Crusty Butt” from Denver airport involves a five-hour car journey or an additional short internal flight to Gunnison airport, so if you’re looking for immediate snow gratification, then for sure there are more accessible resorts in Colorado. However, Crested Butte is definitely worth making the effort for. We arrived in the town in the middle of a snowstorm on Mardi Gras, a little jetlagged but looking forward to a party. It was freezing and chucking it down with snow, but our fears that the mega blizzard might have put a spanner in the works of the annual Mardi Gras parade were unfounded.
Downtown Crested Butte itself is everything you could want in a Rocky Mountain cowboy town: funky yet authentic, the snowbank-lined streets and white lights make for a picture perfect setting for any winter holiday. The restaurants are varied and top drawer, serving up everything from Asian to Mexican food, to pizza and five-star gourmet cuisine.
The coffee shops are great, the pubs full of life, and the diners serve mega carb fest breakfasts to soak up any ill effects from any excessive night-time revelry you might have indulged in. Most importantly, however, is the unbelievable quality of service that you receive everywhere you go. Whether you’re flashing the cash on expensive cocktails or supping down a few local brews at a no-frills bar, Crested Butte feels genuinely friendly, engaged and hugely interested in its visitors.
Compare that to the surly service one has sadly come to expect from many overpriced French mountain restaurants and it makes the extra expense of travelling to the States almost immediately worthwhile.
The folks here may be easy going, but when it comes to skiing, there’s no messing about. Their commitment to the sport is unquestionable and the love that the locals have for their mountain is a seriously passionate affair. With a vertical drop of 850m and more than 1,000 acres of skiing to be had, the generally north-facing Crested Butte ski area is impressive, but it is the type of terrain you find here that really sets it apart.
This is “steep and deep” country, ideally suited to intermediate and expert skiers looking to push their level, hone their tree skiing skills and get comfortable with exposure. If you’re into the whole “tick list” thing you might want to take on the appropriately named “Rambo” – said to be the steepest man-made run in North America and apparently reaching up to 55 degrees in places. I say “apparently” because I certainly didn’t ski it, peering in from the top was enough to set the adrenaline flowing. And besides, I think it was lunchtime…
The love of all things snow sports-related runs deep here and the desire to share this passion is inspiring. Crested Butte may be home to one of the best ski resorts in the world, have access to some of the best backcountry terrain around, and have produced some of the best mountain athletes on the planet, but it is the Adaptive Sports Center that is arguably the town’s greatest achievement.
The mission of the facility is to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities through exposure to outdoor adventure activities, including skiing. No matter what the physical or cognitive related disability, the Crested Butte ASC is a professional and inclusive organisation dedicated to strengthening the spirits of those who are often left behind when it comes to mountain activities. Mention the ASC to anyone around town and their admiration for the work done by the team at HQ is overwhelming – this town wants to do good things and is proud of those who do.
After five days, dozens of beers drunk, hundreds of vertical metres skied and countless new friends made, it was time to say goodbye. There are literally thousands of ski resorts around the world offering slick, no-nonsense, satisfaction guaranteed-type holiday experiences and while there is nothing wrong with that, sometimes they can feel a little too manufactured.
If you’re looking for something with a bit more soul, a ski town with authenticity and powder in spades, then Crested Butte delivers on all fronts. Is it the last great Colorado ski town? Quite possibly. Is it my favourite mountain town on the planet? Definitely.