CRESTED BUTTE • Chris Garren relaxed with a beer, enjoying the sunshine after a few early season runs on the “white ribbon of death.”
It was late November, six days after opening at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Snow coverage was spotty and only a few groomers on machine-made snow were open.
Early season conditions may have been tame, but this is a mountain that expert skiers talk about in hushed tones. In the peak of winter, in a good snow year, the double-diamond runs on the jagged peak are some of the most challenging in ski country, and some of the most cherished, and what makes the mountain great.
“The terrain, the fact we have so much hard stuff. It’s not on the I-70 corridor,” said Garren, 22, a Crested Butte native, when asked about the resort’s appeal. “A double black is harder here than a double black in a lot of places.”
Ski Magazine recently called it “one of the sickest, sweetest, steepest, meanest mountains in ski country.” Warren Miller’s 2008 film “Children of Winter” featured a segment on the white-knuckle rides that await skiers at Crested Butte.
But this resort has learned that the famed black runs won’t keep the balance sheet in the black.
Said Garren, “It’s the best thing for me, but it’s also the biggest complaint we get.”
That complaint is of a dearth of blue, or intermediate, runs, which resort officials say causes Crested Butte to lose visitors to larger resorts such as Vail and Breckenridge. Crested Butte has seen its annual skier visits plummet from 550,000 a decade ago to 360,000 last year.
Resort: We must expand to survive
With a local population too small to sustain a big resort, in a location too remote to attract large numbers of Front Range skiers — it’s about four hours from Colorado Springs — the resort says it needs to grow to survive. Until last month, officials were on track for an environmental review by the U.S. Forest Service for their proposed expansion to nearby Snodgrass Mountain, which would have meant an additional four lifts and 275 acres.
The Forest Service on Nov. 5 brought the project to a halt, citing community divisions and environmental concerns. The two sides could be headed to court, as the resort promised to sue if the agency doesn’t reverse its decision and conduct a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Crested Butte’s situation shows how much the demographics of skiing have changed.
“We have some phenomenal extreme terrain, probably second to none in the country,” said director of operations Ethan Mueller, son of Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of two resorts in New England who bought the financially struggling Crested Butte in 2004. Last year, the Muellers sold ownership to CNL Lifestyle Properties, but they still run the resort.
In the 1990s, that reputation, along with the resort’s early practice of subsidizing flights to Gunnison’s small airport, helped it thrive. But baby boomers are aging, and like Warren Miller said in one of his recent movies, the knees only have so many bump runs in them before they’re used up.
Clientele wants easier terrain
“The majority of skiers out there, they’re families and intermediate skiers,” Mueller said. They want to “check out” the mountain, do different runs every day, like they can at Vail, but they — wisely, probably — avoid the double-diamonds.
“By about the third day or so, they’ve checked it all out. They want to explore more,” he said.
Crested Butte says just 31 percent of its terrain is rated blue, or intermediate, totalling 362 acres, among the smallest at destination resorts in the Rockies.
He said that during busy times such as Christmas and spring break, the longest lift lines are at the chairs that serve mostly intermediate runs. On weekdays in January, the longest lines are at the T-bars up to the extreme Teocalli Bowl and the north-side double-diamond runs.
Not all welcome proposed changes
Many locals agree that the mountain needs more intermediate terrain.
“You get a family up here, three intermediate skiers, and within two days they’re kind of bored with our mountain,” said Holt Loeffler, who owns a landscape business and has been skiing the mountain for more than a decade.
“I’m happy the way it is right now, but I see the tourists and the disappointment sometimes,” he said.
But some worry that Crested Butte will lose the qualities that make it special if it becomes a sprawling resort, including the quaint feel and short lift lines.
While not directly tied to Snodgrass, there are plans for an $830-million development up against it known as the North Village.
“It’s like old time, not like plastic Vail,” said Harry Martin, a skier from Colorado Springs on a trip here last week. “If they expanded, they’d have to get more people here or charge more for lift tickets.”
Opponents of the expansion say it would remove a pristine slice of public land from public use, and that the mountain should do more with what it has. They point out that it would be five years or more before the terrain opened.
Resort officials say it’s not necessarily about attracting more skiers, but getting visitors to stay longer and come back next year.
They also acknowledge that some of the drop in visits over the past decade is because the resort stopped offering free lift tickets early and late in the season.
If the Forest Service upholds its decision, and a legal challenge fails, resort officials say they will have to re-evaluate their business plan, though they stress there is no danger of the resort closing.
“Certainly the business plan for the company has to change, both short and long term, to figure out a way to make a small destination resort operate,” said chief operating officer Ken Stone.
“Quite honestly, we still have our eye on going through a real public process, the NEPA process,” Mueller said.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort by the numbers
Terrain: 1,208 acres
Trails: 121 total, 23 percent beginner, 57 percent intermediate and 20 percent advanced
Snow-making: 282 acres
Season dates: Nov. 26, 2008 to April 5, 2009
Window lift ticket price: $82 for adults
Getting there: 197 miles from Colorado Springs. Take U.S. Highway 50 west from Cañon City to Gunnison, and turn north on Colorado Highway 135. Go 27 miles to the town of Crested Butte, and the resort is three miles farther.