Learning curves

Challenging slopes in a remote part of Colorado have plenty to teach all levels of skiers, says Stephen Wood

The western states of the US are big. They're so big that when travelling across them you frequently ask yourself: "Why there?". Of all the sites in all of Colorado's 104,000 square miles, why does this small town, factory-outlet shopping mall or Average Joe's Muffler Service and Lube happen to be in that spot?

Take Gunnison, for example. Follow the highway that winds along Tomichi Creek on a traverse of southern Colorado and, about 140 miles south-west of Denver, you arrive in the sort of place where pick-up trucks surround every diner and the local "sporting goods" shop sells mainly weapons. On main street in winter Gunnison looks half-dead; in the pages of the Compass Guide to Colorado its description reads: "once the supply hub for scattered mining camps"; on the internet its site sends out the message that there is a grey bag containing clothes possibly belonging to a Hunter Thomas in its "lost and found" department.

Why is Gunnison here, and what is it for? Why do 5,500 people live in the city? (Yes, legally it's a city.) And how come its airport has daily flights to New York, Houston and Dallas and commuter aircraft regularly coming in (or not, if visibility is bad) from Denver? Turn off at Gunnison's T-junction - as I did on my second visit to the place - and you find your answers.

First, it's the turn-off which is actually Gunnison's main street, a thoroughfare lined with the restaurants, bars and shops that cater to the needs of the 2,500 students at Western State College, a 100-year-old institution. Second, the road out of town runs up the pleasant Taylor River and is lined with fishing lodges and holiday homes. And third, 30 miles away at the top of the road, is Crested Butte, among the best-known mountains in the US for extreme skiing and source of the college's unofficial slogan: "Ski Western State and get a degree in your spare time". Gunnison is a college town, and its airport is a hub for tourists bound for the surrounding valleys and mountains.

There was once a railway that ran up Crested Butte, built in 1881 to ship coal down to Gunnison where it was picked up by the Rio Grande railroad. The coal mine survived until 1953 and the Victorian mining town of Crested Butte still survives, rendered charming by the passage of time and a lack of development. A couple of miles up the road is Mount Crested Butte, a purpose-built ski village ringed by expensive chalets. And above this is Crested Butte mountain itself, whose ski operation is - to prevent confusion - called Crested Butte Mountain.

The North American word "butte" describes a hill or mountain standing in isolation, usually flat-topped. This particular butte has a peak; hence its name. That might not sound much, but surrounded by typical Colorado ranges - although high, not dramatically mountainous - Crested Butte is striking. So is its skiing: the resort reckons to have "the most lift-served extreme terrain on the continent", with gradients "almost 50 per cent steeper than a typical 'most difficult' run". The US extreme skiing and telemarking championships, plus the Annual Extreme Boarderfest, all take place here.

In late January, thin snow meant that much of the 448-acre extreme terrain was closed. But on the Headwall and the North Face there was enough powder to give me a lot of fun, some frights, and one long fall. The "Extreme Limits" area does have a dedicated terrain map - unfortunately it consists of a series of aerial photographs, and is therefore more useful to helicopter pilots than skiers. I am still not sure where I fell, although I did get a good look at a gully on the 15-minute climb up to retrieve a ski.

If Crested Butte's skiing is so challenging, how come the resort's long-running slogan was "Colorado's best corduroy"? Partly because its prepared pistes are indeed superb, with pristine "corduroy" snow furrows left by the grooming machines, and partly because a reputation for extreme skiing is a poisoned chalice. There are only so many expert skiers around. The bulk of skiers are intermediate, and not drawn to places famous for a type of terrain they can't enjoy.

In its February issue, US Ski magazine described the resort's terrain mix as a "nearly perfect 44 per cent intermediate, 43 per cent advanced/expert". Perfect for whom? Not for intermediates. Experts can ski the same steep slopes all day because there are so many ways down, but beginners need to learn technique, not explore. An intermediate's demand for pistes is limitless. "We need to offer a lot more to the average skier," the CEO of Crested Butte Mountain, John Norton, told me last month in his "not-so Corporate Office".

Norton, the great iconoclast of US skiing management, had the "not-so" painted on the glass doors when he arrived in 2002 with a brief to groom the resort for sale. And he has done his job: Crested Butte now has new owners (hence Ski magazine's article, headed "Crested Butte on the brink"). Now the resort is set to have new, intermediate slopes on an adjacent mountain. Which will be good for Crested Butte, and for Gunnison, too.

EVERY SKIER SHOULD HAVE ONE: A MAKEOVER

Have Trinny and Susannah ever submitted a skier to a makeover? My wife, who has been monitoring What Not To Wear closely, thinks not. But recent surveys suggest it is time that something was done about the sartorial weaknesses of the British skier - perhaps a Moonie-style, mass makeover.

In late January, the ifyouski.com website went straight to the heart of the matter, asking visitors to the site to specify the item of skiwear they would most like to see banned from the slopes. "One-piece ski-suits on a downhill slide" was how the results were headlined, because 36.5 per cent of respondents chose the ski-suit. What does this tell us? That 63.5 per cent of UK skiers are far too tolerant. There's nothing worse than a one-piece (unless this week's ifyouski poll is accurate, and 40 per cent of skiers would go naked). At least people who wear funny hats (which also scored high in the survey) know that they look ridiculous.

The problem was highlighted by a Teletext Ski Holidays survey, which in mid-January revealed that skiers and snowboarders spend an average of £531 on their skiwear and equipment, £127 more then they spend on their average winter-sports holiday. It's one thing to look embarrassing in charity-shop gear, quite another when you've spent £500-odd achieving the look.

But a survey by the Ski Club of Great Britain's website, skiclub.co.uk at least suggests that our personal hygiene standards aren't too bad. For how many days do its members wear the same skiing socks? Two days, said 59 per cent of respondents. A mere eight per cent said "a week".

Ski Safari (01273 223680; www.skisafari.com) offers seven-night packages at the Sheraton in Crested Butte (accommodation only in a deluxe room, based on two sharing) including London-Gunnison flights on United Airlines plus transfers, from £809 per person

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