Old mining town booming again as skiers' resort

January 12, 1992|By Jules Older

There's more to Colorado than Aspen and Vail.

The state has 26 ski areas, ranging from mini-mountains like Howelsen Hill (vertical drop 440 feet) to mega-resorts with all the trimmings. One of the megas is Crested Butte.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort, in southwest Colorado, sits high in the Elk Range of the Rocky Mountains.

It's just added its 13th lift this season, which opens a new expert bowl, bringing skiing terrain up to 1,150 acres and vertical drop to 3,062 feet.

The town, which lies 230 miles southwest of Denver, is best known for its extreme skiing, that is, suicidal plunges down terrifying cliffs, cirques, crevasses, cornices and couloirs. One skier's terror is another skier's fun.

But its terrain is diverse enough to make all skiers happy: gentle beginners' hills, a NASTAR race course, long-groomed steeps and vast ungroomed areas for extremists to be extreme.

Hotshots ski the double-diamond runs on the North Face. Intermediates play on the long, broad Ruby Chief and Treasury trails. Beginners learn around the Ski School Lift and practice on High Tide and Rustlers Gulch. Because Crested Butte has an annual snowfall of 229 inches and augments it with an extensive (especially for Colorado) snowmaking system, all three groups are likely to enjoy good conditions.

If you tire of Alpine skiing, the resort specializes in telemarking, a Nordic-Alpine cross that is sweeping the country and that got its start -- or, more precisely, was rediscovered -- at Crested Butte.

Telemarking is an ancient ski technique, now adapted to modern equipment and practiced on lift-serviced slopes. Telemarkers wear skinny skis (though not as anorexic as pure Nordic skis) with bindings that don't hold the heel down. To turn, telemarkers lower themselves into what looks like a hamstring stretch on skis. The sport requires the balance of a ballet dancer and the thighs of a gorilla.

For those seeking real solitude -- or something more sedate than extreme skiing or gorilla thighs -- down in town, some 30 kilometers of Nordic trails are maintained for cross-country skiers. The trails pass by old mining camps, under giant firs and above the checkerboard grid of Crested Butte. You can go on your own or, for very little money, hire equipment and join a tour. It's an interesting way to see this part of Colorado.

For those looking for something really out of the way, just 12 miles from Crested Butte, Irwin Lodge offers just that. It was built by an eccentric millionaire whose idea of the perfect ski lodge was one completely inaccessible by car. Consequently, the only way into Irwin Lodge is by snowmobile, Snowcat or cross-country skis.

The lodge, which is 10,700 feet above sea level, has no phone, no network TV . . . and no lifts. A small fleet of Snowcats transports about 50 skiers a day up to the resort's 1,200 acres of deep powder. Fifty or so skiers on 1,200 acres means that Irwin Lodge not only has no lifts, it has no lift lines.

If this isn't exotic enough, Fantasy Ranch offers winter horseback riding through the Colorado countryside. Or you can rent snowshoes. Or a snowmobile. Or take a sleigh ride behind a team of horses. Or a sled ride behind a team of huskies.

However you travel in Crested Butte, beneath your feet lies a rich vein of American history. Under the sparkling Colorado powder are layers of minerals and more layers of historic drama.

Like other Colorado and Utah mining towns that became skiing resorts, the story of Crested Butte is a tale of epochs: exploration, exploitation, recreation and protection. It's also a story of conflict: cowboys and Indians, fights over land claims, labor wars and environmental battles.

What is now an upmarket ski resort was once a grimy, soot-darkened mining town. Through the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, miners extracted gold, silver, lead, coal and molybdenum from the mountains that now draw skiers and sightseers to their pristine beauty.

There was little beauty in living in a mountain mining town. Explosions, exploitation, starvation and largely unsuccessful strikes punctuated the miners' lives. The towns were choked with smoke; the hillsides stripped of trees. The rivers were polluted -- some still are -- with the toxic residue of mining. And winter turned this bare-boned life into an annual agony.

Rumors of gold first lured non-natives to the Elk Mountains in the 1860s. The Ute Indians were less than welcoming -- in two raids they killed 19 pale-skins. But the gold-seekers kept coming, taking Indian territory and "giving" the Utes land on nearby Kebler Pass. When mineral deposits were found there, the intruders took back what they had given.

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