11/01/2009 – Ski Magazine
by Philip Higgs, Contributor, SKI Magazine
One day last April, at dusk, a wide pink cloud began billowing over the town of Crested Butte, CO. Red desert sands were blowing in from Utah’s eastern edge, and the sky had turned almost sepia, as if the Wicked Witch herself were about to broom in at any moment.
At The Secret Stash, a niche pizza place at the far end of Elk Avenue festooned with Buddhist prayer flags and floor pillows from Egypt, a few diners and waitresses poked out onto its second-floor back balcony for a look. The dust was turning to hail, then to light snowflakes, then back to dust. Was it a good omen, or a bad one? It was Friday, the first day of the last weekend of the ski season, and the Stash was having an Easter egg hunt the next day in its small back yard, with 311 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon hidden in the snow instead of eggs-one for every inch of snow that had fallen on the Butte that season. Enough of it had piled up to block the back door that led to the yard, but whatever crew had been tasked to clear the stairs had instead built a giant snow slide from the balcony into the yard. If you wanted your PBRs, you were going to have to slide for them.
Jeff Graceffa, who owns The Secret Stash along with his wife, Kyleena-he has a pizza pie tattooed on his right bicep-sounded unimpressed by the stormy skyline: “You see that all the time up here.” As if to say, it’s just part of the routine beauty that comes with living tucked up against a hundred thousand acres of stark wilderness and, contained therein, one of the sickest, sweetest, steepest, meanest mountains in ski country: Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
Jeff, who took the fine-dining track at culinary school but worked at Pazzo’s Pizza in Vail, and Kyleena, who worked ski town restaurants in winter and the Hamptons bar scene during summer
(“it was all just models and real estate agents and stars”), opened the Stash in the spring of 2002. “We went to Aspen, Carbondale, Basalt, everywhere in Colorado,” Jeff says. “Eagle, Edwards, Avon, Vail, Minturn, Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida, Gunnison.” But Jeff, who was “almost” a pro freeskier-“the top 10 percent make it; I was maybe 15 percent”-wanted to be near a mountain he could respect. “I’m humbled every day I go out there,” he says of CBMR. “I mean, if this mountain doesn’t scare you on a daily basis, you’re not pushing yourself. If you want to go for it, on any given day the mountain will hand it out to you.”
The liftline-visible steeps of Crested Butte’s expert terrain form an ominous U over the mountain, a black half-halo bordered by the avalanche targets of Banana Funnel and Upper Peel to the south and the Headwall and unsubtle Big Chute farther north. But the real trouble begins after you skitch-skitch-skitch your skis over the granite teeth lining the traverse that leads to Extreme Limits, a 526-acre face of pillow drops, mandatory airs and few trail markers. I call them crying steeps: On a Butte trip a few years back, skiing out of my weight class with a couple of ex-patrollers, I found myself crouched around a boulder, promising God a new leaf if He would just flatten the mountain for me, or at least bring the angle under 50 degrees.
That run, a deathtrap called Sock-It-To-Me Ridge, is a stage upon which the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships are often played, a three-day competition that any skier with a fragile ego should avoid. Otherwise, while daintily scraping your way down some frightful crag,
all you’ll hear over the loudspeakers is Here comes 12-year-old local Banner Charm!
I think he’s going to, yes, he just stuck a 70-foot cliff-face backflip! Nice work, Banner! Which is to say, you shouldn’t go there without some local knowledge-for instance, while on a roundtrip weekend from Dallas-Fort Worth.
For the most part, that’s the way the locals like it. But every hey-bro local was once an outsider. Despite being at the end of the road, many miles west of nowhere, Crested Butte-mountain and town-has long been a Shangri-La for steep fiends; the hardcore come to be subsumed. The town’s current mayor, Alan Bernholtz, who this year will return to his first vocation as a backcountry ski guide, moved to Colorado to become a ski bum in the 1980s, “back when ski bums were still alive and well in this country.
“I was looking for a town that was small and simple and athletic and outdoorsy,” he says. “I traveled around the country looking for that place. One day I came up over the hill and there it was.”
Anyone who wasn’t an old-timer from CB’s coal-mine days was there for the mountain, three miles from town. And they were there not just for the resort’s crags and drops, but the great masses of mountain spreading for miles in every direction, all waiting to be hiked and skied and hunted and fished and camped. They certainly weren’t there for the town’s stunted economy. “I worked as a breakfast cook at the ski area and part-time at the grocery store,” Bernholtz says. “Between those jobs, in five months I knew every single person in town.”
But the international community of badasses is still a small one, and the Crested Butte region-1,500 people downtown, maybe 2,000 or 3,000 in the rest of the valley-can’t sustain a resort that’s too limited for the less dedicated. Add in distance for out-of-staters-DIA is a five-hour drive away, most of it on two lanes-or a pricey flight into Gunnison, and you end up with short liftlines but an unsustainable business model, which has led the resort through a peak-and-valley succession of owners and would-be rethinkers.
The latest in that series are Tim and Diane Mueller. Well-regarded in the industry for turning Okemo, a Vermont resort, from a local yokel’s hill into bigger business by adding more beds, better terrain and that chimeric quality known as improved customer service, the Muellers had similar plans for CBMR when they bought it in 2004. It worked in Vermont, perhaps their thinking went, it’ll work in Crested Butte. Last year, however, they sold the resort to CNL Lifestyle Properties, a big real estate investor, but retain operational control in a lease-back deal. “It gives us access to deeper pockets,” says Diane.
So far, those pockets have paid for more beds. The Lodge in Mountaineer Square-a new base hub that replaces a formerly sprawling and awkward entry to the mountain-features owner/rental condos in mountain-modern style, all fat fir beams and leather. The base area’s stodgy Grand Lodge has been prettified with new flatscreen TVs and stainless steel kitchenettes in its 224 rooms. After a radical $25 million reconstructive surgery, the Club Med of Crested Butte, long the odd bird of the base area, has been reborn as Elevation Hotel & Spa with nearly 254 dark-wood-and-cream rooms, a pool, a spa and enough conference space for herds of cardiologists.
But an empty pillow-top with organic cotton coverings and humane-certified down is still an empty bed: Without mass-appeal terrain, the luxury-loving masses will stay home. (Or, worse yet, head to Vail.) The market, the Muellers will tell you, is in the blues. And CBMR ain’t got no blues. Sure, in between those black battlefields lie some baby greens-a Peanut and a Houston and a wee terrain park made for Auntie Ethel-but there are only a few small pockets of traditionally intermediate terrain. And those runs aren’t really blue, Breckenridge Blue. More like navy blue: fast and stuttery, with a couple of prow-like humps thrown in. Every ski-school progression-from “pizza” to parallel, from upping the gradient to baby’s first black-is met with a paucity of forgiving middle ground. “We’ve done survey after survey after survey,” says Tim. “People won’t come to Crested Butte if they don’t think there’s enough intermediate skiing.”
Thus, the Muellers posit, CBMR’s necessary next step is expansion. “There isn’t really a lot we can do in terms of adding terrain” on Mount Crested Butte proper, says Diane. “We just don’t have that kind of acreage.” Snodgrass Mountain, a pretty little hill of gentler slopes butting up the West Elk Mountain Range (it shares a valley with CBMR, and will be connected via gondola), has been a target for development since the 1970s-and that development has been the source of local opposition for almost as long. But after positive noises by the U.S. Forest Service last spring, chances are high Snodgrass could have its first runs cut within five years. Forty years after the expansion debate began, the Muellers have come closer than anybody to opening the new area.
The Muellers’ plan calls for three new lifts, a connector gondola and a big bump-275 acres-of intermediate/advanced terrain. A new neighborhood, North Village, is currently under way at the base of Snodgrass, with plans for a post office, town hall and coffee shops all within walking distance. “There’s no real neighborhood up there,” says Tim. “No place to get a coffee and read the paper.” Plans for the new village call for an abundance of solar power and energy-efficient design. “We’re always checking back with ourselves and asking, ‘Is this true for Crested Butte?'” says Diane. “Are we growing responsibly? We have to keep in our mind that we’re real, and we’re unpretentious. And the people who gravitate to us are that way.”
“If you go to the grocery store and forget your money, someone in line is going to help you out,” says Mayor Bernholtz. “We keep our doors unlocked. When you know 90 percent of the people, it’s easy to say hello to everyone: ‘I know that guy and he’s my brother.’ And the 10 percent who are tourists? You might as well say hi to them, too.”
Without the town and its vibe and its narrow, stoplight-free streets full of locals in ski boots riding beach cruisers, there would likely be no resort up the road. Without the resort-or a mountain-shaving molybdenum mine like the one planned for neighboring Mt. Emmons-the town of Crested Butte would likely no longer exist, at least not in any format that would welcome its current demographic.
But many in that demographic are loath to see a bigger, easier, friendlier mountain next to their beloved home hill. The town council, though it has no real power to yea or nay it, has come out against the Snodgrass expansion. The dominating complaint is that the resort isn’t doing enough with what it already has. “The analogy I like to use is the salesman who wants more territory so he can sell more,” says the mayor. “And the boss says to him, ‘First sell more in the territory you’ve got, then we can talk about expansion.'”
A couple of food enthusiasts in town told me that, while new CBMR-operated restaurants such as the $28-per-steak 9380 Prime had “all the right linens and silverware,” the staff was “clueless,” and the food was “weak.” (It is, however, a mark of how tightly knit the town and mountain are that no locals wanted their names attached to such deep digs.) So, the locals reason, why give up more mountain-more open space that can’t be given back, more wilderness that can’t be untamed-when the controlling powers are just going to muff it?
“Snodgrass would definitely be a spur into the wilderness,” says Bernholtz, though he admits that compared to the embarrassment of terrain and snowfall the locals enjoy now, “it’s not like it’s that big of a deal.”
“The resort feels they need to get more people and more skier days,” he says. “They want to make money, which is understandable. If I had a business, I’d want it to make money. But you have to be careful of losing what it is that drew you here in the first place.”
By Friday night, the big pink cloud had settled into nothing more than a small blizzard; the Wicked Witch was a no-show. Another of the town’s season-ending parties, the Flauschink Festival, was cranking through its 42nd year of flushing away winter and getting ready for spring. Later, the crowd would crown a Flauschink king and queen and get sideways to the Pete Dunda Polka Band at the Eldo Brewery on Elk Avenue, but before that the third- and fourth-generation locals, the old-timers, the hippies, the ski punks and the mayor would sit together through the annual slideshow: ruddy folk in woolens traversing deep snow in 1890, ski jumpers from 1910, stills from the original postwar ski area. And, just for added weight, a shot of the “new” Crested Butte, when just a single ranch sat at its base.
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