Spring break at Crested Butte in Colorado is all blue, the deep azure of a sky against white snow so bright on a sunny day it’s nearly impossible to take it all in without a pair of Maui Jims. They’re called bluebird days, when the sky matches the blue square that designates a trail with no surprises. My daughter is cruising without a care, and I’m relieved to stay in the blue boundaries, hoping that the cortisone pumped into my arthritic hip survives the week.
The last time I was in Crested Butte, the skies were pewter gray and the trails we skied weren’t marked. I don’t remember a ray of sunlight during the two days I visited the funky nascent ski resort with my college roommate Alex. We drove into the tiny town center, past false-fronted wood buildings reminiscent of a Hollywood Western, looking for a guy she knew from Outward Bound who worked on the ski patrol. We’d traveled over the Monarch Pass from Boulder in a blizzard, furrowing through the drifts in her Land Cruiser, its tires outfitted with chains. We figured Fredo would let us crash at his cabin. We didn’t have enough money for lift tickets, but hoped to follow our host up and down the hill on skinny skis.
Steve Monfredo, who lived on the side of a mountain that faced the ski area, was good at just about everything he tried, Alex had told me. We were hoping for tips on telemarking, the ski technique that Fredo made look so easy, knees bending to the snow as if he were
Nijinsky taking a deep bow after Le Sacre du Printemps.
Crested Butte has changed mightily in the 30 years since Alex and I slept on the floor by Fredo’s woodstove, after wolfing down the quesadillas he stuffed with black beans from a can. We got stoned and read poetry in the light of a gas lamp. I wrote in my Laura Ashley journal before zipping into my sleeping bag in anticipation of the fire dying during the night.
On our spring break trip last year, my (then) 14-year-old daughter Mary and I camped in the guestroom of our Baltimore friends’ sun-filled house a few feet from the mountain resort’s shuttle bus stop. Our friends, John Segal and Christy Schoedel, have decorated their getaway with paintings and pottery from galleries down the hill in the arty village of Crested Butte, and with photographs by John’s son Chris, who works as a photographer and videographer for the mountain resort. They took us out for meals of sushi and grass-fed beef; we drank craft cocktails and craft beer. Mary and I slept between flannel sheets decorated with pictures of moose, in a rough-hewn bunk bed made by a local woodworker. And this time, we had lift tickets.
The town of Crested Butte, which began its life as a supply center for the surrounding mining camps in Gunnison County, was incorporated in 1880. At the time, the region was the center of Colorado’s mountain coal production.
Duane Vandenbusche, a local historian and professor at nearby Western University, remembers its evolution as a ski town. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he came out to teach at nearby Western State in 1962, the year after the first T-bar was installed near what is now the West Wall. He’d never been on skis in his life. He bought a pair of Heads with cable bindings, lace-up boots and long thongs to keep the boot in place. His first run—an easy pitch—took five hours, what with falling every 50 yards, struggling to get up and put his skis back on. “Now I do that run in about three minutes,” he laughs. At 77, he skis on newer shaped skis, but wears a frayed cotton turtleneck and thick knit Norwegian sweater that looks as if it dates to the era of his old Head Standards.
We began our week of skiing at the very spot Vandenbusche first tackled the slopes, though today there’s a high-speed chair to whisk us up the mountain. These days there are 15 lifts and more than 1,500 skiable acres. And while the mountain maintains its reputation as a place for the hardcore, more than half of the 121 trails at Crested Butte are rated for intermediate skiers.
I’m content to explore these, skiing carefully, my arms holding an imaginary dinner tray in front of me, poles angled nicely behind. My feet are spaced hip-width, a yoga-style stance anathema to the knees-pinned-together form I learned in the 1970s.
Crested Butte the resort and the town itself layer the old with the new. The resort has terrain parks for snowboarders and claims to have birthed mountain biking, when cyclists rode their retrofitted balloon-tire Schwinns down the slopes 40 years ago. The Mountain Bike Hall of Fame was established in Crested Butte, but moved to Fairfax, Calif., earlier this year, and summers find the extremists transitioning from boards and skins to knobby tires.
The false-fronted buildings along Elk Avenue—Crested Butte’s main street—now house galleries and restaurants. On our first night, we had delicious comfort food at the West End Public House, the town’s first gastropub, opened in 2010. We also ate at Lil’s Sushi Bar, a sophisticated spot with a long bar proffering saki and prickly pear margaritas along with its expertly prepared sushi and Japanese robatayaki.
Our hosts also made coveted reserv- ations at Uley’s restaurant, a log cabin on the side of the mountain accessible by Snow Cat (see sidebar).
One afternoon, Mary and I quit skiing a little early and took the shuttle into town to explore the shops and galleries. We visited the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum, tucked in the back of an old hardware store (that also happens to have been the town’s first gas station). We looked at pricey ski pants, handmade jewelry and local art. Mary bought a print from a local photographer, Dusty Demerson. The photo shows the pastel painted wooden buildings on Elk Avenue shot at dawn after a snowfall.
Duane Vandenbusche—who had Steve Monfredo as a student, and often skied with him before the lifts opened in the morning—still hits the slopes a few times a week. Crested Butte “has always been on the cutting edge in terms of skiing, climbing and doing outdoor things,” he says. “It’s never lost that character.”
Riding up a lift, I see a skier who looks like an exotic bird, his arms outstretched, dipping low, his back knee practically grazing the ankle of the leg in front. He rises in a slow-motion leap like a dancer to turn, coming down in the same elegant genuflection on the other side. Look, I nudge Mary. Isn’t that beautiful? I used to telemark, but not so gracefully, I tell her. No way could I do it now, with this hip.
Fredo died in 1987, just a couple of years after Alex and I visited him. He was climbing on Mount Communism in what was then the Soviet Union. His friend Mark Udall (now a Colorado senator), carried him down the mountain after Fredo suffered a pulmonary edema. It turns out, he’d had scarlet fever as a child—a detail of his life even he may not have known—and his heart never fully recovered.
Crested Butte has a run called Fredo’s on the north side, out of the sun. It’s a double black diamond, so we didn’t ski it. Not this trip. But maybe Mary will return someday and ski Fredo’s, maybe with her best friend from college.
Planning your trip
Crested Butte took first place in Powder magazine’s 2014 Ski Town Throwdown. Visit downtowncrestedbutte.com for the inside scoop on arts, culture and special events, including the Crested Butte Songwriters Festival (Jan. 15-19). For ski-and-stay packages, go to skicb.com. United Airlines offers daily flights from BWI to Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (with stops in Denver). Transportation from Gunnison to Crested Butte is available via the Alpine Express. alpineexpressshuttle.com
The must-do mountain meal
During the day, Uley’s Cabin, which sits off the International run, is open for lunch and drinks at its popular “ice bar”—named for an earlier incarnation that was actually carved each season from ice. During the winter months, Uley’s also serves dinner after the lifts have closed. Diners bundle up to ride the Snow Cat to the cozy cabin with rough-hewn walls decorated with antique tools for a prix-fixe five-course meal of Colorado specialties by chef Chris Schlaudecker. On the night we visited last March, entrées included local short ribs with roasted Yukon potatoes, farm-raised duck with cherry and mushroom risotto and Norwegian salmon with beurre blanc and lentils. The wine-pairing suggestions were spot on; dessert was white chocolate apple bread pudding. We dined by candlelight. skicb.com/uleys