CAT SKIING IN CRESTED BUTTE

Photo: Courtesy CS Irwin

CAT SKIING IN CRESTED BUTTE.The snow was coming down in thick, sticky gobs — the kind that start to fill in your ski tracks the minute you’ve made them — but the afternoon light was beginning to fade. It had started to snow about an hour before, and now I was feeling like a child being called home from the playground. We were on our last run of the day — 11th? 12th? I’d lost count — with CS Irwin snowcat skiing, and all I wanted was to stay out in the storm and ski.

CS Irwin’s venue, 12 miles west of Crested Butte, Colorado, is some-how blessed by the powder gods. Though Crested Butte’s ski area gets an annual average of 300 inches of snow, Irwin gets twice that, thanks to storms from Utah that stall out over the adjacent Ruby Range.

Abundance has a history here. More than 130 years ago, prospector Dick Irwin struck it rich in a high-alpine gulch, establishing a silver camp that attracted several thousand fortune-seekers. Today, a dilapidated mine and a small cemetery are all that remain of the former town, but now there’s something else: 1,000 acres of powder-choked, appealingly varied ski terrain, from huge, open bowls to fun, fast tree runs.

CS Irwin enters its second season of guided cat skiing this winter. It’s not the first outfitter to operate here, but it’s certainly the cushiest. Cat skiing at Irwin was offered intermittently from the 1980s through 2002, with guests housed at a former backcountry lodge, but the operations were plagued by infrastructure and financial difficulties. The current owners returned the focus to skiing — eschewing the hard-to-maintain overnight lodge — and now attract discerning skiers and snowboarders with seamless service and unexpected amenities.

Early one morning this past February, my husband and I, plus eight other guests, settled into the leather seats of CS Irwin’s customized Tucker cat, parked outside the company’s headquarters in downtown Crested Butte. With rubber tracks, the Tucker navigates the town streets as ably as it does the 40-minute drive up the unplowed Kebler Pass road to Irwin. The requisite safety briefing came via video on the cat’s 42-inch flat-screen. Not everything’s refined, though; we also learn that Caroline, our very capable cat driver, recently dominated the local women’s arm-wrestling competition.

At CS Irwin’s staging area, we transferred to the smaller Prinoth Bison, a super-fast climber that would shuttle us between ski laps. It too has been tricked out with leather seating, surround sound, and glove dryers. We also met our guides, Billy Rankin, snow safety director for CS Irwin, and Alan Bernholtz, mountain operations director and former mayor of Crested Butte.

Our posse of skiers was giddy from the sight of so much snow beg- ging to be skied, and awed by the alpine panorama before us, highlighted by rugged peaks like Purple, Mount Owen, and the pyramid-shaped Ruby. We quickly got after it, warming up on a wide-open slope with consistent pitch, then working our way over to the steeper glades of the West Wall. I was loving the snow, the terrain, the instant camaraderie that had developed among our group, and also the easily maneuverable skis I was on — handmade Wagner Customs from Irwin’s demo fleet, designed specifically for the local snow conditions and slopes.

For lunch and après-ski, we gathered at the Movie Cabin, built in 1979 as a set for Mountain Family Robinson. Now totally renovated, it’s a 425-foot solar-powered oasis of rustic comfort with a wood-burning fireplace and overstuffed couches, and 21st-century features like cell service, Wi-Fi access, and videoconferencing capability.

At the end of the day, we reluctantly piled into the Tucker, and settled into soft cushions and cold beer for the return trip to town. When we pulled into Crested Butte in our pimped-out ride, it was getting dark, and the snow had stopped falling. But back at Irwin, I reckoned, those fat flakes were still coming down, erasing all signs that we’d ever been there.

SNOW Tidbits:
*This winter, CS Irwin will up the ante with luxury accommodations in downtown Crested Butte at its new Scarp Ridge Lodge. The lodge will boast, upon its December opening, seven private suites and an in-house chef, an indoor saltwater pool, sauna, massage rooms, yoga studio, concierge service, fluffy robes, and plenty of fireplaces.

* Wagner Custom skis, wagnerskis.com