Shark Fin Mountain: Skiing Crested Butte

skiing-crested-butteDon’t even think of touching the safety bar! If you reached up while sitting in the Paradise Express chairlift, grabbed the restraint and pulled it at belly height, everyone around you will assume you are beginner or perhaps worse — a wimp. What an embarrassment. After all, Crested Butte is considered a hotspot for extreme skiers.

The Victorian mining town (estimated year-round population 1,500) is tucked away about four driving hours southwest of Denver in the pristine West Elk Mountains, a ragged mountain range deep within the Colorado Rockies. In winter, when an average of more than 200 inches (5.1 m) of snow falls upon Crested Butte, the two-lane through road is closed only a few miles behind the last town buildings.

Crested Butte is not easy to get to. You probably won’t pass it coincidentally. However, chances are you may wish to get stuck here after having discovered this mountain gem. (Read Top 5 Colorado Mountain Towns.)

Pippi Longstocking would be envious. With its colorful wooden houses along picturesque Elk Avenue, Crested Butte seems cheery and welcoming, without any glitz or glamour.

No attitude here. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes called “the anti-Aspen.” You won’t meet Hollywood here, but probably ex-hippies, nature lovers and ski-fanatics.

True “Buttians” don’t care much about big money or a steep career path. A precipitous ski run on a powder day is much more meaningful. There are no chain hotels or fast-food joints around. And even “lifties,” some of whom hold a double master’s degree, can still afford a ski-in ski-out condo in “Colorado’s last great ski town.”

Crested Butte is still said to be an insider’s tip, surprisingly also because of its excellent restaurants. Well-traveled regular visitors swear that the local Sushi bar outrivals any competitor in metropolitan London. And most guests don’t even come for the restaurants.

You can go snowshoeing here or enjoy dogsledding through lonesome aspen groves. The highlight, though, is, of course, Mount Crested Butte, about 12,162 feet (3,707 m) high, pointy and sharp. Its curiously carved summit almost looks like a petrified shark fin.

Actually only 20 percent of all trails are designated “experts only.” Nevertheless, the small resort offers ambitious skiers the most extreme terrain on the entire continent that is still comfortably accessible by ski lift. “Exactly,” smiles Alison Gannett, “this mountain is quite a handful.”

As a world champion freeskier — the anarchists of the skiing scene, who plunge down precipices with pleasure and jump off dizzying cliffs — it’s easy for the woman with the funny dimples to laugh off knee-weakening slopes. When swinging chairlifts whisk away average skiers like this writer to Crested Butte’s higher elevations, a mere glimpse of the notorious “North Face” raises the hair on their necks.

In the Alps, where I’ve learned to ski, the most difficult trails are simply classified as black runs. In the U.S. there are double black runs, color coded with two black diamond symbols. For really tricky slopes, the two diamonds are additionally adorned with a capital E and X. Yes, you guessed it – that’s for EXTREME.

The deterrent is working. Novice skiiers usually don’t dare venture up here without professional help like that of champion skiing instructor Alison Gannett. She teaches “Rippin’ Chix Steeps Camps” — specialized women’s clinics to allegedly master any nauseating slope in “baby steps.” The chairlift is now zooming past the vertical chutes of Paradise Cliffs and I pray that her promise is correct.

“Look up there!” Alison says excitedly as she digs down her right elbow into my side and points to the cliff’s edge. In fact, the three black dots clinging to the sheer rock are no pine trees but skiers defying gravity in a wondrous way.

“What’s the name of this run?” asks a fellow chairlift passenger, her voice quivering, “and are we taking it?” For better orientation, a picture of Crested Butte’s trail map is mounted on top of the safety bar, which comes in very handy as we lower the restraint now — for reference reasons only, of course.

Good one! Silently I thank my co-passenger. All of a sudden she and I feel much more relaxed. For now at least…

If You Go

Crested Butte Mountain Resort

Colorado Tourism Office

Heike Schmidt covers North American destinations for the German wire service.



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