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Crested Butte: The Little Ski Town That Cares

December 09, 1990|JAN GREGG | Gregg is a free-lance writer living in Belvedere, Calif.

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — "Hot chocolate and keep it coming," I pleaded as I sank into the cozy booth at Bubba's, the mid-mountain restaurant tucked into the Paradise Warming House in this Colorado resort town.

Leaky boots and Popsicle toes, the bane of my ski life, led me to start dismantling my ski boots while waiting for my burger.

The mega-burger came and the waiter, seeing my plight, offered to take the inner lining of my boots to the back and put them in the clothes dryer.

This is what sets Crested Butte apart from other towns like it--people really care here. Sounds corny, but it's true.

It's only 20 miles over the hill from Aspen, as the crow flies, but Crested Butte might as well be 2,000 miles away. As the most isolated and arguably least known of Colorado's winter resorts, the area has virtually nothing in common with its neighbor, other than the smattering of restored 1880s buildings.

Many of Colorado's historic mountain towns have been rebuilt to the point where they bear little resemblance to their early look. In Crested Butte, most of the buildings have remained "original equipment," giving a very special feel to this National Historic District.

This is Western skiing at its best. Wide open, uncrowded, sunny, plenty of powder, long beginner/intermediate cruising trails and double-black-diamond tough stuff on the hidden back side.

Just a word or two about this "hidden back side." Until a few years ago, adrenaline junkies had to hike for 20 minutes to reach the ungroomed powder stashes of the North Face and Phoenix Bowl. In 1987, the resort decided to access the steep, rugged terrain with a two-minute lift, yet maintain the wild, back-country flavor. It's now a Mecca for adventure-minded experts.

Crested Butte is also great for walking, loaded as it is with restaurants, shops and interesting nooks and crannies. A walk down Elk Avenue, along blocks of authentic Victorian buildings, provides a reminder of how the town appeared in the 1880s. The wooden floors are uneven and the walls are the same ones Butch Cassidy saw when he came through town and had a drink at Kochevar's Saloon and Gaming Hall, which still operates today.

This is an eating, drinking town. You'll be welcome in the most elegant restaurants in your turtleneck and ski parka. The charm is raw and genuine and a little rough around the edges, but it's real.

Actually there are two Crested Buttes. One is the aforementioned Victorian mining town, the other is the ski village, Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Mt. Crested Butte, which is three miles down the road by free shuttle bus.

Mt. Crested Butte is where most of the glitz is found, ranging from condos and lodges to the hedonistic Grande Butte Hotel. The ski village has its own share of shops and restaurants, but come nightfall, the action is in town. The shuttle buses run all the time, so it's just plain silly to have a car here.

One of the best-kept secrets in the ski world is just 12 miles from Crested Butte. It's the Irwin Lodge. Located at 10,700 feet, it's accessible only by snowcat or snowmobile during the winter. The lodge is an immense 27,000-square-foot cedar log structure with 23 guest rooms, all with private baths, and the most romantic luxury suite I've ever seen. When you arrive at Irwin Lodge, you have found the ultimate getaway. Your private ski mountain.

The lodge has a snowcat powder skiing operation that is the adventure of a lifetime. With an average base of 365 inches of snow--up to 100 feet of snow falls during the season--there's virtually no ski day when there won't be great deep powder conditions. In fact, since management puts only 48 people a day on their terrain, they can guarantee that at no time will your tracks cross those of another skier.

A day-trip for a Crested Butte Mountain Resort guest runs $140, with group discounts available. A package with lodging, meals and skiing starts at $161 per day. Comparing this with helicopter skiing, which can cost about $500 a day, one realizes what a really good deal this is.

If helicopter skiing is your thing, Irwin Lodge has customized helicopter tours offering quick access to numerous peaks and slopes in the company's permit area for spectacular first-track descents.

In addition to alpine skiing, the lodge offers cross-country equipment and trails, plus ice fishing, snowshoeing and snowmobile tours.

A number of all-inclusive special vacations are available, including powder skiing weeks at Irwin Lodge or combined Silvergate/Crested Butte Mount Resort packages. For Irwin Lodge, call (303) 349-5308, or book through Crested Butte Vacations at (800) 544-8448.

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