Ski enthusiast and journalist Abigail Butcher takes to the road in the winter sports paradise state of Colorado, USA, ticking off some of the places she’d been dreaming about for years.
I’m inching my way along a ridge, 100mph winds whipping snow into my eyes, stinging my cheeks and forcing a biting cold into my fingers so penetrating that they hurt down to the bone. As the gusts increase in strength, I plant my poles into the snow, bracing myself against their force and waiting for a slight drop to allow me to sneak in a jump turn, taking care not to fall off the precipitous drop to my right.
“This must be what it’s like on Everest,” I think to myself, as I try to steady my breathing — exerting yourself in this way at an altitude of 4,000m is not easy, let alone when your heart’s beating twice as fast with adrenaline fuelled by such a precarious situation.
I’m not in Alaska, nor Everest but on Silverton Mountain in Colorado, the highest and steepest ski area in North America. Here, you ascend by rickety chairlift or helicopter and descend any one of myriad routes down a mountain left entirely in its natural state, a choice of 1,819 acres of snow fields, gullies, cliffs, tree runs and bowls or — as I was now — by inching your way down the wind-whipped ridge of a cornice.
No one goes up Silverton unless they are carrying avalanche safety equipment and are an extremely competent skier — this is expert-only terrain. For half the season, you also can’t go up without a guide. I had a guide, and was fit, strong and healthy, but right on the limit of my ability — and loving it.
Extreme effort was rewarded with surprisingly soft, deep powder considering the strength of the wind, and fortunately for my nerves, by the time we reached base camp the lift had closed so that one run remains my only run at Silverton…until the next time…
I was with my British friend Sophie, a Swiss-qualified ski instructor who lives in Verbier, part-way through a road trip across Colorado, ticking off ski resorts that have been on our bucket lists for years.
We started in Crested Butte, drove to Silverton, then Telluride, followed by Aspen and finishing up with 24 hours in Denver — a total of 1,200 miles over ten days of snow, sunshine, open road and Colorado’s best skiing in historical mining town resorts. Though it would have been possible to fly between the resorts, the cost would have been almost prohibitive and although railways once existed in order to haul coal, gold and silver around the state, the tracks have sadly long since been ripped up.
So in good ol’ fashioned American road trip style, we hired a huge 4x4, unashamedly easy to navigate along Colorado’s wide, spacious roads and budget friendly thanks to rock bottom US fuel prices.
On that note, a top tip for anyone considering a US road trip is that Shell service stations team up with Ski Free to offer a buy-one-get-one-free lift ticket in various resorts across the state, when you buy ten gallons of fuel (visit skifreedeals.com) from January onwards.
Picking up the car from Denver, we drove four hours south-west to the cult resort of Crested Butte (2,860m), home to more than its fair share of big mountain skiers including Kim Reichhelm, Wendy Fisher, Seth Morrison and Steve Winter. Arriving late in the evening, it took nothing more than a good nights’ sleep and opening the curtains of our room at The Grand Lodge to bright Colorado sunshine to forget about the jetlag.
Though Crested Butte is famed for its extreme terrain — hosting a qualifier event for the Freeride World Tour for many years — this place has a unique selling point in that from the top of every lift is a blue run, so families and friends of different abilities can ski together.
Staying in the newer mountain village up the valley from Crested Butte itself, we met our guide for the day at the base area, a short walk from Grand Lodge, and started up the Silver Queen Express, a fast four-man chair. To get a feel for the slopes, we worked our way from east to west across down the groomed, tree-line runs for which Colorado is famous. By noon, with ski legs recovered from their long journey, we headed for the North Face lift, a T-bar from which you can access most of the “action” in this place.
You can buy a separate trail map with more detailed routes through the area’s bowls and gullies — North Face, Spellbound, Phoenix and the famous Third Bowl, usually the last area in Crested Butte to open. The resort isn’t vast in terms of acreage, but it offers up ungroomed, natural-state mountain terrain — with the best stuff accessed with little hikes. You can join a guided group, but if you go alone you must pick your route carefully — littered with “no fall zones”, this mountain can catch anyone out.
On day one Stateside, jetlag catches up quickly, so time for a good feed and Crested Butte, a cute little hippy town founded in the 1880s that offers more gourmet dining options than any other Colorado town of its size, “CB” doesn’t have any chain stores or eateries — a rarity in the US where convenience is king. We headed to the old town (10-minutes’ drive from the mountain village, but also linked by free shuttle bus) first to Bonez, a Mexican bar stocking an incredible 140 tequilas, followed by Montanya Distillers, home to the world’s best white rum, to enjoy three-cheese ravioli stacks and brie with walnut compote.
Don’t get too carried away with eating and drinking here though — the next day we needed to be on our A-Game when the rope dropped in Third Bowl for the first time in three seasons. With our guide James Kontos, a former pro who competed on the Freeride World Tour, we picked our line carefully past 70ft cliffs regularly dropped by the likes of Colorado locals Chris Davenport and Seth Morrison. While James bemoaned the state of the snow, Sophie and I — so used to tracked-out, heavy off-piste conditions in Europe — revelled in the fact that such light, dry, fluffy powder can be found a week after the last significant snowfall.
The conditions sadly weren’t so good in Telluride, an isolated town even further south west, where more than 100 trees had come down in the storm we experienced the previous day in our visit to Silverton. Telluride locals had known nothing like it — branches and debris littering the slopes and the snow blown away down to sheet ice.
This Wild West town is rivalling Aspen for its popularity among celebrities and the well-heeled, with Oprah Winfrey the latest big name to buy property here. The scenery is dramatic, with Telluride (2,667m), the scene of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery linked by free gondola with the Mountain Village (2,908m). It’s pricey, with upmarket lodgings, shops and eateries, and a nightlife centred around bars throbbing with skiers — particularly at weekends when Denver residents flock to their second homes in the mountains.
Though it’s known for its extremes, Telluride has an extensive selection of green and blue runs, along with three terrain parks. But it’s also a mountain for the big boys: a little bit of hiking will reward you with some serious challenges including Gold Hill Chutes, Black Iron Bowl, Revelation Bowl and a series of runs from Palmyra Peak (a whopping 4,060m) including Senior’s, Roy-Boy, and Tram Shot.
Though we were three resorts down, and two-thirds of the way through our road trip, last up was Aspen — a four-and-a-half hour, 250-mile scenic drive through Colorado wilderness from Telluride.
Aspen is, in my opinion, the best ski resort in the US, if not the world. With four separate mountains — Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Snowmass and Aspen Mountain or “Ajax” to the locals — this place literally has it all. If you can bypass its reputation as a glitzy weekend destination for New Yorkers, LA-dwellers and Denver locals, you’ll find a place packed with serious athletes, incredibly varied, extensive skiing, 300 days of sunshine, incredible powder and a real-life, well-preserved historic silver-mining town.
Aspen is also known for its world-class food scene — highlights include the Pyramid Bistro, the world’s first nutritarian restaurant; Matsuhisa, by Japanese chef Nobu and Aspen Kitchen, the latest addition to the town’s dining scene with a patented formula for dry-aging its beef using pink Himalayan salt bricks.
Unusually for the US, a gondola leaves from the centre of historic Aspen town to the top of Aspen Mountain (3,417m), opening up a plethora of fabulously groomed runs to suit all tastes.
After a day on Ajax, take the free bus around to Snowmass, its more modern (and family-friendly) satellite resort, or Buttermilk, for the X-Games SuperPipe or, my absolute favourite, Aspen Highlands, for a hike up the famous highland Bowl. Climb the whole way, or catch the snow cat from Loge Peak (3,559m) for the first third of the way, then boot pack your way up to the top (3,777m) to open up amazing views (look behind for Maroon Bells, reputed to be the most photographed two peaks in Colorado) as well as some serious steeps. Much of the terrain has a pitch of between 35-40 degrees and you’ll struggle to find bad snow up here.
One of the reasons I love Aspen is for its slightly European vibe — which extends to its après-ski scene. The best place to taste this is Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, an Austrian-themed café-bar where you can dance on the tables on a Monday lunchtime. No barn-like beer houses here!
Tearing ourselves away from the ski town that has it all, we acclimatised back to planet earth with an overnight stay in Denver — something that should have arguably been at the start of our trip to help acclimate us to the altitude. I can’t wait to do it all again.