Winter in Crested Butte, Colorado’s hard-core skiing town

(Trent Bona/ ) - A skier in the expert-rated Teocalli Bowl at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

(Trent Bona/ ) - A skier in the expert-rated Teocalli Bowl at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

It’s a powder day in Crested Butte, Colo. Nine inches of fresh snow have fallen overnight, and it’s still snowing — sideways.

“It’s a blizzard,” my friend yells as the Silver Queen Express Lift at Crested Butte Mountain Resort whisks us to an endpoint nearly above the tree line.

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“A blower!” I correct her, using my best skier slang. But I don’t think she can hear me. My voice is muffled, my mouth hidden behind a balaclava and the high neck of my jacket.

If you go: Crested Butte, Colo.

Together we raise the bar on the chairlift and slide down to the top of Eflin’s Way, ready for our first run. Behind us, three boys also exit, exchanging high-fives and whooping shouts of joy. “Let’s do this!” one yells. They’re young, preteens maybe, and it’s before noon on a Friday.

“Did Crested Butte have a snow day today?” I ask, trying to join in on their powder day thrills. The smallest flashes a smile. “Nope, I’m skipping for the rest of the day,” he says. “My dad came and grabbed me before lunch.”

They start off down the hill in their brightly colored jackets, adjusting the pole straps around their gloved hands. As they pass us, the last one, who sports braces and red curls drooping below his helmet says, “Kids in Crested Butte don’t get snow days.”

The people of Crested Butte, from the time they’re born, live for snow, and hence live to ski. Without one or the other, there’s no modern-day Crested Butte. “Crusty Butt,” as many Coloradans refer to it, is a skiers’ town, and you’ll never find a soul here apologizing for it.

Incorporated in 1880, Crested Butte was once a tough-as-nails coal-mining town. The Big Mine closed in 1952, but the place hasn’t lost sight of its roots. The main road through downtown, Elk Avenue, is almost entirely intact from the Victorian era and is now a National Historic District. The greatest modern impact came in 1962, when Crested Butte Mountain opened its first lift. That began to attract the outdoor crowds and new residents, although not easily. Nestled deep in the Elk Mountain Range of west-central Colorado, Crested Butte is 41 / 2 hours by car from Denver, the closest big city, and that’s if roads are clear.

But for the 1,550 residents who live here, the fewer the people, the better — especially on a powder day.

My companion and I take off down the open run. The snow is vintage Colorado champagne powder. It’s light and fluffy, easy to turn through and float on top of when you discover a powder stash, of which there are many. It’s the second week of January, and the holiday crowds have mostly returned home. In the weeks since Christmas, the mountain has already seen 26 inches of snow — 14 inches in the two days before my arrival.

The mountain itself is small among destination resorts at 1,547 acres, but 542 acres of that is inbounds, double-black terrain, accessed via the North Face Lift and the High Lift, both T-bars. The High Lift is where most skiers are heading today. Twentysomething men and women are making laps in Teocalli Bowl and the Headwall, some in full body armor, prepared should they come into contact with the rocks that line Mount Crested Butte’s legendary chutes and cliffs.

We opt for the blues and blacks at mid-mountain, each run attracting more snow as the minutes pass. After a few runs, we take respite at Uley’s Cabin. Outside, young riders occupy most of the seats at an ice bar in the snow. We head indoors, where there are walls to block the storm and a stone fireplace to warm our fingertips and toes. Our waitress delivers a Caesar salad and Omission IPA. After lunch, we head out again, riding until the last lift of the day. It’s still snowing.

Après-ski in Crested Butte and throughout Colorado is often as exciting as the skiing itself. We stop into a restaurant-bar-candy shop called Sweet Spot at the base of the mountain and enjoy the undisputed king of beers in Crested Butte — Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR is a cultural phenomenon here. PBR and a shot of whiskey are specials on the après menu at Sweet Spot and our next stop in historic downtown Crested Butte, Kochevar’s Saloon, where a white Christmas tree left over from the holidays is lovingly decorated with PBR cans.

Crested Butte is said to be a “drinking town with a skiing problem.” But tonight, as we walk down Elk Avenue to the Montanya rum distillery, things seem relatively tame for a Friday night. “People are being good,” our Airbnb hostess tells us later. “They’re getting ready for tomorrow.”

In Crested Butte, the sound of snowplows overnight is akin to the bells of Santa’s sleigh. It means that the gift of another powder day is being delivered. When I wake up in the morning, I hear avalanche bombs exploding, launched by the ski patrol to release snow in the bowls. I pull the shades open and take a first look at the day. The snow has finally stopped. It’s white and bright, and the skies are classic “bluebird.” Dark green pine trees appear gray from snow that has settled on their branches, and the distinctive cone of Mount Crested Butte has a plume of snow blowing from the peak.

As we pack our bags into our car to head back to the mountain, locals hike past carrying their gear and pulling kids in sleds, heading to the free town buses that provide transportation to the lifts. Everyone’s up early on this Saturday morning to catch first chair.

When we get to the hill, I half expect someone to break out singing the ’80s Juicy Fruit commercial, when a young guy in a bright green jacket walks by doing just that. “Get your skis shined up!” he instructs at the top of his lungs. People are clicking in to their skis, hugging and shouting each other’s names. It’s a powder day in the Crested Butte community, and if there was any question of whether a skier’s paradise still exists, this scene of connected exhilaration says it all.

Later, I drive down into downtown and walk along the snow-covered sidewalks, stopping in for a fresh bagel and lox at Izzy’s. Tucked just off Elk Avenue, the cozy breakfast and lunch spot is busy with patrons, not just because the food is great and the owner is a longtime tie-dye-wearing local, but also because it’s one of the few places actually open. We approach store after store to see the same note on their front doors: “Ski Day! Open by 2 p.m.”

Crested Butte is the town that any skier older than 35 daydreamed of as a child. It retains the charms and the grit of the Wild West — untamed, unpretentious and unimpressed by its worldly visitors. Everyone here knows “what’s out there” in the real world, but they choose to look inward to themselves, upward to the High Lift, Teocalli Bowl and the peak of Mount Crested Butte.

It’s where the snow is, and they’re getting after it.

Beazley is a food and travel journalist based in Aspen, Colo., and the author of the children’s book “Snowmastodon! Snow Day Adventure.” Her Web site is www.awbeazley.com.

 
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