It’s 6:30 in the morning, dark, and I’m freezing at five degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Joe and I are at Mount Crested Butte ski resort today, Colorado, USA. We drove over from the WildSnow home village to partake in their uphilling culture — and attend a public meeting for feedback on the resort developing an uphill traffic policy. Turns out the Forest Service needs that policy finalized in a few weeks, so the fire is lit.
We could have simply attended the meeting, but this is WildSnow where experience is the rule. So we rally for an uphill session. As is common with U.S. resorts, CBMR doesn’t allow uphill traffic while the lifts are running. Thus, an entrenched culture of earlybird (and evening) skinners has developed.
Yeah, it’s cold. Luckily we only wait a few minutes for our meeting with Ethan Mueller, General Manager of the resort and progeny of the resort owners. Shortly after that a bigger crew develops that includes mountain biker attorneys, skinny rando racers, the mayor of Crested butte, and assorted other nefarious individuals who could have only achieved their exalted societal status by living in a place where 30 miles of single track a day is as important as how full their appointment book is.
Uphilling at resorts is fun. You can diss it for not being “backcountry skiing,” and lean on me for simply slogging up some groom and skiing down. But with no avy danger, no backpack and a ski patrol at the ready, the sport lends itself to being a nice cardio workout with friends, significant others, etc. Low stress. I wouldn’t make resort uphilling my primary recreation, but hey — it’s all skiing.
As the sun rises behind us on the Elk Mountains, Ethan shows me where they’re proposing an all-day uphill route. He also points out how the route we’re on (a mellow groomer) may be designated the dog-allowed route (not used during operating hours).
The possible all-hours uphilling route is a bit short at something like 1,100 vert, but ends at the essential on-mountain food service where all uphilling routes should always go, and has the potential for extension. I’m thinking once you got used to doing a few laps, the all-day trail will easily be a quality workout as well as good practice for transitions.
The dog issue is tougher. After our morning on the groom, we gather for a public meeting so resort management can gather feedback on their proposed uphilling policies. About 30 people show up — with at least 11 dogs. During the discussion we counted two dog fights, along with plenty of growling, dogs bumping your legs, and so on. What is it with these folks and their dogs? Is it something in the Crested Butte water that makes you acquire a medium to large sized canine as soon as you move there?
Whatever the cultural reasons for the Crested Buttes dog population, it is indeed an issue. During the meeting on-mountain staff spoke about how many truly close calls they’ve had with hitting dogs. They’re not the only ones with a problem. Over here in the Aspen area, while skiing down the resort after an uphill, twice I’ve had to beat off dogs with my ski poles in defense of life and limb. Lisa has actually been bitten, torn pants to prove it.
Problem is that even a dog under voice control is still ranging around. A snowmobile or ripping skier comes around a corner, the dog moves out of the bushes on the side of the trail — instant recipe for disaster. Mandatory leashes would solve most of the problem (along with mandatory poo pickup), but leashes are culturally difficult and don’t work well while on the downhill. Thus, the solution of one route designated for dogs sounds doable. On-mountain staff would know where all the dogs are; skiers without dogs would know where the canines are on the mountain and and use other routes to avoid toothy encounters.
The biggest take-home for me was hearing the CBMR mountain operations guy talk about how impractical it is to have recreational skiers using the whole mountain 24/7. Snowmaking and grooming operations do not blend well with skiers ranging around the mountain after-hours, sometimes in the dark. Best example he had was their winch cat. Three thousand (yes, 3,000) feet of cable, sometimes buried in the snow and hidden, with 8,000 pounds of weight stretching it taut as a bowstring. If that cable whips and you’re there, it’s like being hit by a gigantic steel bar and causes instant bodily discorporation. In other words, you end up in pieces. Or you might survive being clotheslined if the cable rises up out of the snow just as you’re skiing down where it was hidden on the way up. Living through that is unlikely of course, but I’m trying to be optimistic.
A few other points that received attention:
– Mountain Safety director Frank Coffee explained how they only need to close the upper mountain to off-hours uphilling for 10 to 13 mornings a year due to avalanche control and danger. But how to communicate that to people is the crux. The easy way out is to just keep those upper areas closed to uphilling all the time. Some folks at the meeting expressed concern about that, while others didn’t seem to care. The route we’d just uphilled that morning turned around before the avalanche zones and was totally adequate for a cardio session, but I could see how getting up higher on the resort and dropping a steeper run could add interest to the somewhat dull grind up the groom.
– It sounds like CBMR probably _will_ charge money for uphilling. This is revolutionary for a North American resort and a rather bold move. The logic is sound. The resort provides snow making, grooming, safety etc. We pay our fair share for it. Last time I looked those things were also why they sold lift tickets. So on the face of it I can’t disagree.
On the other hand, I’d certainly like to see all resorts keep uphilling free (as in Europe) and be happy with the revenue from food service that uphillers pay for, both on the mountain and at the base facility.
The fee issue becomes complex because, according to Ethan and other management I spoke with, rather than making money off uphilling the small fee CBMR may charge uphillers is more about creating an awareness in the uphilling public that the resort has a product that costs them money to create, and we are receiving the use of it. (The amount won’t be large, and will be included in your lift ticket or season pass. A yearly uphilling pass will be sold; $75 was thrown out there. Daily uphilling tickets will be available as well, but included in a comprehensive demo program sponsored by Scarpa/Ski Trab.)
Again, while I can’t argue against CBMR’s reasoning behind charging money for uphilling, I’d like to see them forget it for now and find better ways to create awareness (and eventually, revenue, as this is a business after all).
My biggest takeaway from this? Fee or no fee, by establishing a designated all-day uphilling route, with food and bathroom amenities at both top and bottom, CBMR is providing something special that will become incredibly popular. Add effective dog control on top of that, and watch uphilling grow huge at CBMR.
(One other note: CBMR’s special use permit area encompasses a mountain called Snodgrass where they’d proposed building more lifts but were denied by the Forest Service. Snodgrass is still in the resort permit area and CBMR can utilize it for recreation — just not with lifts. Muller and CBMR Mountain Planner John Sale tell me they’re looking seriously at developing Snodgrass as a human powered skiing experience. Full service hut on top, glading of runs, and so forth. Beyond their having an all-day uphill route on their main mountain, would this be forward thinking or what? Exciting stuff.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.