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How to Ski the Extremes of Crested Butte Mountain Resort

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Now 61 years old, the ski area on Crested Butte peak still reigns among the most extreme nationwide.

Home to a portion of the gnarliest in-bounds territory in the country, Crested Butte Mountain Resort has endless double-black-diamond runs and cliff drops to make your hair stand.

In fact, the steepest sustained ski run in the nation sits below the North Face Lift: Rambo, a 300-yard pitch that maintains a 55-degree pitch.

Naturally, the slope is so perpendicular that the entryway tends to be rocky — an extra incentive to be laser-focused as you plow downhill through nonuniform moguls and stunted trees.

TJA_CBMR_1_Photo by Taylor Ahearn:West Elk Creative
Crested Butte Mountain Resort is full of rocks, boulders, drops, and cliffs for airborne play; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

Crested Butte Mountain Resort: Hair-Raising Runs in the Elk Mountains

Located in Colorado, Crested Butte’s topography even helped shape the sport’s freeski movement, hosting the second-ever U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships in 1992. The contest format had premiered in Valdez, Alaska, the season prior.

Legendary athletes flocked to the area’s steeps to compete included Shane McConkey, Glen Plake, and Wendy Fisher, who still calls Crested Butte home today. CBMR (as the mountain is also known) added snowboard, junior, and telemark events on those sheer slopes, too.

If exploring steep turf is your top priority — and you have the skills and experience to safely do so — here’s how you can maximize your time on a 2-day trip to the Butte.

A lifelong skier and snowboarder, I learned to navigate difficult contours at my home mountain of Telluride Ski Resort. Now based in Crested Butte, I’ve spent two seasons getting to know the mountain and have hardly scratched the surface. A huge volume of radical terrain exists here.

To learn more, we met up with Taylor Ahearn, the owner of West Elk Creative, who is the photographer and videographer for Crested Butte Mountain Resort. While he’s worked with the ski area for five seasons, Ahearn has lived in Gunnison and called CBMR his home mountain for nearly a decade.

Here’s an introduction to the steeps of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

A map of the Headwall area ski runs, which are accessed off the High Lift; (photo/Morgan Tilton)

How to Choose Your Ski Runs

Ground rules: Crested Butte’s ski runs are rated relative to the surrounding terrain.

A black diamond or double black diamond could potentially be more challenging than the same category of runs at your home mountain. Start with blue and black runs, and work your way up to the gnarlier domain.

The High Lift — which accesses one of three chief areas with the most challenging descents — is the best place to start to get a taste of how the runs are labeled before climbing the ladder.

The other two aforementioned territories are the North Face and the West Side, also known as the Front Side.

On CBMR’s lower face, the beginner and intermediate runs are traditionally labeled on the ski area map and feature posted signs.

However, most of the runs in the extremes do not have signage, similar to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in British Columbia, so you really need spacial awareness, navigation skills, and a mental roadmap planned out in advance.

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The Rabbit Ears feature is visible halfway down the east side of Headwall, which is accessed by the High Lift; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

High Lift

From the Base Area, take the Silver Queen Express Lift, and then descend a short distance down North Star run to grab the High Lift T-bar.

Halfway up, the run flattens out. Here’s where you can exit the T-bar and enter a marked gate to drop into Big Chute, lookers left.

“It’s a big open drop into a steep, mogul trail with a lot of good snow that sluffs in, so it’s nearly always good, no matter the time of year,” said Ahearn.

Taking the T-bar to the top, you can access Headwall, one of the mountain’s most iconic extreme spots. The wide-sweeping, steep bowl is chock-full of ample rock features and chutes, colloquially named, such as the Rabbit Ears, Box Rock, and Ear Canal.

After releasing the T-bar, you’ll sidestep to the top of a hill and then skirt on a ski cut around the backside of Morning Glory Ridge.

3X7A6542_resized-2_Photo by Taylor Ahearn:West Elk Creative
Taking a worm’s-eye view of the notoriously rocky entrance of Headwall; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

A sign for Headwall sits above Halfpipe Gully, a short, mogul-filled run that you can drop then traverse right into the lower half of Headwall, skipping the very steep, rocky entrance. If visibility is poor, do that.

If you enter at the top, the center is known as Angle Gully, a nearly straight-up section scattered with rocks.

Alternatively, from the top of Headwall, you can veer skiers left to Powder 8 Gully for a reprieve — the glade-adjacent gulley is less steep with fewer moguls and generally easier, noted Ahearn. Plus, the section is usually chalked up with good snow.

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North Face Lift

Epitomizing sheer slopes and huge drops, the North Face lift opened in 1987. Skiers and riders can drop into hundreds of acres of cliffs, bowls, chutes, and glades also known as the Extreme Limits.

The North Face region is notorious for rolling terrain that makes forecasting the terrain ahead impossible. The further east you go, “in areas like Staircase and the Spellbound/Phoenix bowl — with run names like Dead Bob’s Chute and Body Bag Glades — if you don’t know where you are, you can get cliffed out and be much higher up than 5 feet,” warned Ahearn.

From the top of the T-bar, a good start is to take Avery to Rachel’s, a wide-open mogul run that funnels back to groomers to Paradise Express Lift. “The moderately steep run has really amazing views of Gothic Valley, so that’s an awesome introduction without getting in too extreme of terrain,” said Ahearn.

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Dropping into Hard Slab off of the North Face; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

Head to the proper North Face run by taking a short traverse through the trees, skiers right of Avery, to the High Notch Entrance sign.“The High Notch entrance is usually rowdy and rocky. The Low Notch entrance is much mellower,” said Ahearn, pointing downslope to the west.

The Low Notch opens the top of Hard Slab, a far-reaching, continuous bowl with incredible views of Teocalli Mountain, East River, and Paradise Express Lift. Rock features speckle the lower third.

Following the western periphery of the North Face, trend skier’s left to connect Honey Pie, Stevie’s, and the Easy Out Trail to Canaan, a groomer that drops to the bottom of Paradise.

Another link up: Take the rockier entrance of North Face Cliffs or High Notch. At the bottom, ski over the next knoll into Hawk’s Nest, another open basin. Then veer left to link up with the Easy Out Trail to Canaan, or follow the open pitch below to the Last Steep. (Warning: trending right will pull you into Sock it to Me or Cesspool with very risky obstacles and mandatory cliffs.)

Halfway down the Last Steep, to the left you’ll see Buck’s Traverse, a narrow exit through the trees to return to Paradise lift without doing the short hike at the end of the run.

For efficiency and fun, do an “Around the World Lap. Go up Silver Queen, do a High lift lap, then go to the North Face Lift, return to and take the Paradise Lift, then go back to Silver Queen. You can do those big laps pretty quickly,” said Ahearn.

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Views of the Front Side (aka West Side) of Crested Butte Mountain Resort from the Base Area; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

West Side, aka the Front Side

Looking up at Crested Butte Peak from the Base Area beholds one of the most enticing, iconic lines: Banana, a long, continuous shoot straight down the face below the ski area’s namesake point.

At the top of Silver Queen Express Lift, unload to the left, buckle your boots, and then take the gated entrance in the trees (looker’s left) to follow a defined traverse across the top of the West Side’s runs. (Make sure you’re ready to commit to a narrow, exposed traverse beforehand.) Pass above Upper Peel and Flatiron before reaching Banana.

“You are right under the peak and can get a super cool view looking up,” said Ahearn, adding that the West Side is recognized for straight-down bumps compared to the feature-laden grounds of the North Face and High Lift.

At the bottom of Banana, enter Hockey Rink, a spacious mogul field, and connect to the Banana Exit, a catwalk back to the Base Area. Hold your speed!

During a spring freeze-thaw cycle, the West Side is usually closed in the morning and open by afternoon, noted Ahearn.

Standing at the top of the North Face run; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

When to Visit

Seasonal openings and snow conditions will influence where you go.

“The mountain here is steep and [new] snow is generally unstable. Ski patrol works hard to safely, quickly open steep terrain, which can generally take one or two days after a storm,” explained Ahearn.

To that end, generally aim to visit the second half of the ski season if you’re planning a trip around the extremes.

How to Learn More

Dozen and dozens of extreme and super-extreme runs decorate the uppermost zones of CBMR. There are also plenty of challenging, enjoyable black runs from the main ski lifts that are easier to explore, too.

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Looking up at Headwall; (photo/Taylor Ahearn, West Elk Creative)

For a comprehensive book of runs, pick up a copy of the “Extreme Limits Ski Guide,” by Greg Payne and Sandra Cortner.

Of course, study and carry a ski area map. CBMR also has a host of expert guides, including Olympian Wendy Fisher, that know the current snow conditions and can help safely and efficiently introduce you to the extremes, especially for laps at the North Face.

“It’s so hard to navigate in the North Face. If you hire a guide, you would feel confident, not be worried about getting cliffed out, and get to see the terrain,” said Ahearn.

Given the number of folks I’ve seen precariously crawling up or tomahawking down these vertical faces, after entering too steep a pitch, a half- or full-day guide is a worthy one-time investment.

View down the valley

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