Kochevar’s Bar in downtown Crested Butte is where my dreams were shattered. For this is where I realised that gunslinging outlaw Butch Cassidy was not the man I thought he was.
After all, what kind of badass leaves his handgun on the bar when being chased by bounty hunters? Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, that’s who.
The famous outlaw hit the town after robbing the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride in 1889, high-tailin’ it with $21,000 (around $500,000 in today’s money).
What kind of badass leaves his handgun on the bar when being chased by bounty hunters?
Apparently shots were fired in Kochevar’s as Cassidy and his gang were pursued, and the bullet holes are still there – as is the pistol he forgot to take with him.
As we all know Cassidy escaped to go on and enjoy a career in Hollywood, and Crested Butte retired from the limelight for several decades until it re-emerged as one of the great outdoor towns in Colorado, a state not short on great outdoor towns.
I was here to ski its famous powder, steeps and trees on my first stop on a road trip through the state, but unlike many ski resorts this is a place where you really should spend a good proportion of your visit negotiating the streets as well as the steeps.
Crested Butte’s downtown is a trip back in time – remove the cars, pick-up trucks and fat bikes and you could pretty much be back in the 1890s.
The town has a wealth of classic cowboy town architecture, such as the Masonic Building, the Grubstake and the Company Store, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a Western movie really should check it all out (not to mention the fact that there’s also a great selection of bars and restaurants located among these classic old buildings).
Although the ski hill, located five-minutes uphill from the town, is small by European standards, there’s still enough to keep anyone of any ability more than happy for several days; and the harder you want to push it, the happier Crested Butte will be, for however big the gauntlet you lay down the resort is more than a match for it.
Before you start it’s worth remembering that Crested Butte’s base area stands at 9,375-ft (2,857m), and it tops out at 12,162-ft (3,706m) on the hike-to Elevation Peak, so most of us will already be gasping for breath just getting on the chairlift.
Head across to the resort’s renowned extreme terrain such as ‘Extreme Limits’ and you’ll be suffering serious oxygen debt.
Not only do you have to hike in, but to quote the Crested Butte trail map: ‘The Extreme Limits are not for everyone. This is true double-black diamond terrain as serious and demanding as you’ll find in-bounds at any ski area in North America’.
They’re not kidding. When you combine steep terrain, closely packed trees, shin-deep powder, high altitude and jet-lag – five obstacles in my way of taking on this terrain with any style – I was more than happy to emerge from a morning of hitting it with my mates Tom and Ben with nothing worse than steamed up goggles and snow down the back of my neck from various yard sales.
WHERE AM I?
At one point all three of us got separated, indeed lost, in the trees. Bearing in mind that this is in-bounds terrain ‘lost’ is all relative as eventually you’ll emerge on to more skiable slopes.
However, I couldn’t help but remember a discussion the previous night whilst we’d been staying at the evocative Pioneer Cabins on the edge of the forests and mountains a few miles out of town.
His warning came to mind as I picked my way between spruce and fir trees ... Eventually these petered out - where now?
Owner Matt Whiting regaled us with tales of how skiing the local backcountry is best left to those who know the area intimately.
The peak above the Pioneer Cabins, Cement Mountain, was Crested Butte’s first ever ski area – rudimentary lifts were installed in the 1930s – but it was abandoned long ago and Nature has fought back to such a degree that Matt pithily observed “You don’t want to ski into the wrong drainage or get stuck in real tight trees…" as we swigged Colorado’s famous Fat Tire Ale in front of a swirling campfire.
His warning came to mind as I picked my way between spruce and fir trees somewhere above the top of the East River chair, following a single set of ski tracks. Eventually these petered out - where now?
I was thankful that I was ‘in-bounds’ at Crested Butte and not on remote Cement Mountain; some ten turns later I burst out onto a groomer, Ben about 100 metres above me.
All good fun, but at the same time a warning of the importance of not getting split up skiing trees in the backcountry…
That said Crested Butte isn’t all so wild and woolly. We had a couple of novice skiers in our group – in fact one first timer – and both of them had a blast too on the wide, easy groomers that snake between the trees above the base station and off East River, Paradise and Teocalli chairs.
Despite the relatively small size of ‘CB’ (1,547 acres) compared to Europe’s mega-resorts, the two days I had there left me feeling I’d barely scratched the surface of what’s available - and this was my second visit.
I would undoubtedly have liked to stay for longer, but we had to move on; in fact we had to reverse Butch Cassidy’s 1889 getaway from the San Miguel Valley Bank heist and take off to Telluride.
Wherein lies another of the joys of skiing in Colorado; the road trip.
TARANTINO’S IN TOWN
Telluride is and isn’t like Crested Butte. The scenery is very different – set at the end of a giant box canyon and beneath craggy mountains reminiscent of the Alps, this is much more alpine than the more gently angled peaks and wide open valley location of Crested Butte.
Telluride town is, however, reminiscent of its neighbour to the north. The handsome Victorian mining town has been preserved and drips with character.
The New Sheridan Hotel and adjoining Opera House are the town’s focal point. Otherwise, The Senate and the Silver Bell soda parlour are two of the best of the town’s restored buildings.
Located in ‘Popcorn Alley’, these once lay at the core of Telluride’s red light district. Hollywood has now set up shop here, in more ways than one.
But what about the skiing? Well, like Crested Butte, Telluride packs quite a punch.
The likes of Tom Cruise own opulent properties there and Telluride’s summer film festival is world famous; past premieres include Brokeback Mountain, Slumdog Millionaire and The Last King of Scotland.
Whilst we were there Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and other Tinseltown ‘A’ listers were in town shooting Tarantino’s forthcoming movie ‘The Hateful Eight’.
But what about the skiing? Well, like Crested Butte, Telluride packs quite a punch. It too is formidably high in the peak and mighty at the base.
That's a base elevation of 9,540-ft (2,908m) and a high point of 13,320-ft (4060m) at Palmyra Peak, which like Crested Butte’s high point is hike-to territory.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH ROAD
Skiing in the Rockies goes hand-in-hand with road tripping in the Rockies. Here’s how to do it:
1. Rent a big 4WD – the bigger the better since you’ll be driving through country that can and does get serious winter weather
2. Don’t forget your music. Make a playlist before you travel; don’t bring Euro sounds, they just don’t work on a long, wide road through the Rockies. Go for some classic Americana – think Drive By Truckers, Silver Jews, Beck, Springsteen etc.
3. Climb aboard, turn on the ignition, turn up the sounds and drive…through rolling hills, towering mountains, deep forests, beside silver streams and frozen lakes, past elk, deer, bighorn sheep and soaring eagles.
4. Stop at roadside diners for strong coffee, high calorie meals and snacks (don’t worry, the skiing will burn all that off), truckers hats and ski mags.
5. Arrive at your destination wishing the road had been just a little bit longer…
It had been our intention to hit the spectacular range of double-black diamond terrain available beneath Palmyra Peak.
Gold Hill Chutes (numbered 1 – 10) have, in recent years, become legendary for their steep and challenging skiing.
Next, the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is a spectacular steel staircase/bridge affair that spans the chasm between chutes 8 and 9 to make the scariness even more accessible.
However, along with character-building terrain another thing that Telluride has in bucketfuls is snow. And we had arrived at the tail end of a major storm, which meant all that good stuff was inaccessible due to the avalanche risk.
Our morning began in Mountain Village, a purpose built community of hotels, shops, bars and restaurants sitting on a shelf above the main town. We were staying in the über-luxurious Lumière Hotel from where it was but an easy saunter to the Village Express Lift.
FAITH, HOPE AND CHARITY
Here we met with two Telluride gals whose names are straight out of the ‘Rough Guide to Wild West Names’ – Charity Banker and Pepper Raper. Pepper took off to show our novices the ropes, and Charity set about putting Tom, Ben and me to the sword.
Just because the signature runs at Telluride were inaccessible didn’t mean we still couldn’t bounce through featherlight powder between the double-black diamond trees of Little Rose; and Dynamo; and Electra; and Buzz’s Glade.
All at full bore because Charity did not live up to her name – of charity we saw none. Literally – once she set off on her skis all that remained was a cloud of powder.
‘Keep up or go home’ was her motto. My quads and lungs were reduced to searing hot lumps of body tissue.
‘Keep up or go home’ is apparently Ms Banker’s motto, and by the time we were allowed some respite on the mere blacks of Prospect Woods and Revelation Bowl my quads and lungs were both reduced to searing hot lumps of body tissue.
Help was at hand however, in the form of the highest restaurant in North America, the 11,966-ft Alpino Vino where the name and a chef called Nico who hails from Bormio give a pretty good idea of what’s on the menu.
Antipasti, lasagne Bolognese and a large glass of red more or less coaxed my various abused body parts back to life, so as snow crystals from the afternoon showers glittered in the Colorado sunshine we headed out for more punishment.
This time it was less painful and merely consisted of several blasts down the superb selection of wide, steep groomers that soar up above Telluride town centre. The pitch of black runs such as Plunge and Milk Run is consistently steep and the town appears to be literally right beneath your feet as you plummet down into slightly more oxygen-rich air.
The pitch of black runs such as Plunge and Milk Run is consistently steep and the town appears to be literally right beneath your feet.
By the time we were finished I felt that I’d enjoyed a modern day version of the kind of ‘whoop-it-up’ that would once have taken place in downtown Telluride. No pistol shots, no bar room brawls and no wild, bucking broncos of course, but in their place hero powder, tough tree runs and superfast groomers.
With all that on offer, maybe Tarantino should come back one day and shoot a ski movie…
DO IT YOURSELF:
Flights London – Denver – Montrose (for both Telluride and Crested Butte) with United from £668 return united.com
Package deals to Telluride and Crested Butte are available with Ski Safari (www.skisafari.com) and Ski American Classics (americanskiclassics.com)