Rocky mountain high: Colorado ski touring 

Ski touring across Colorado’s greatest Peaks, from the world’s highest chairlift at Breckenridge to the old-Western style charm of Crested Butte

When I was 16, I flew into Denver International Airport and was astonished at the immensity of the United States. The Great Plains stretch out interminably eastwards to dissolve into the hazy curvature of the earth. To the west the Rocky Mountains rise up like an Olympian retaining wall, curiously neat, astonishingly high.

When I arrive in Colorado in 2019, I have the same sensation, along with a persistent popping of the ears, as we nearly double our altitude climbing from Denver (1,560m) to Breckenridge (2,926m). A similar awe is inspired by the muscular metamorphic rock formations of gneiss and schist cloaked in Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, blue spruce and aspen; and the sensation of cinematic novelty from seeing old mining camps wracked by wind and winter. In Golden, two bald eagles revolve and gyrate in the air above a frozen reservoir. In Frisco, a moose gambols along an icy creek.

I’m primarily here to snowboard, and Breckenridge is one of the best places for it in America. The resort is a monster, with five massive peaks, nearly 1,200 hectares of skiable terrain, 167km of piste, four giant parks and a 6.7m-high superpipe. The Imperial Express Superchair is the highest in North America and you can ski the 4th of July Bowl on, well, Independence Day.

My hotel, One Ski Hill Place, has all of the amenities that one could possibly imagine at a ski resort, including a mini spa, a bowling alley, family-friendly movie lounges, a café-cum-restaurant and bar, a business and conference centre and ski-in/ski-out accommodation. There are working fireplaces and aviator-style breathing oxygen canisters. Yes, it’s that high. Don’t rush into the après-ski before you’re accustomed to the altitude or you might monkey-wrench your next day or three on the slopes.

Breckenridge

Breckenridge town has a lot to recommend itself. The Victorian-era mining town has a storied history, veering from gold bonanza in late 19th century to veritable ghost town in the earlier part of the 20th, until it rose phoenix-like in the 1960s to become one of America’s premier ski destinations.

On a snowcat tour from the Breckenridge Nordic Center through preserved wetlands hemmed in by multi-million-dollar chalet properties, guide Sarah Stirt regales us with stories of the town’s history as we head to Josie’s Cabin – one of the first homesteads in the region. Once arrived, we dust off snowy boots and eat s’mores to tales of the inveterate outlaw Pug Ryan, who managed to separate most of Breckenridge’s citizenry from its money (and often lives) during his career robbing casinos, banks and fellow criminals.

Back in the town centre, many of Ryan’s former haunts are still operating. The Gold Pan Saloon has the oldest liquor license west of the Mississippi River and pours out a fortifying array of craft brews. The Briar Rose Chophouse & Saloon, formerly a brothel, serves dictionary-thick slabs of steak, the finest in town. If you’re looking for somewhere a touch more new-fangled to wet your whistle, the Breckenridge Distillery crafts award-winning whisky, gin, vodka and rum and, like many things in Summit County, is the highest in the world.

Breckenridge

Breckenridge is owned by Vail Resorts and therefore qualifies for the Epic Pass, which grants customers access to 67 resorts across eight countries, with five resorts in Colorado alone (Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Beaver Creek, Vail and Keystone). One can fit in a lot of mileage traversing Breckenridge’s five peaks, but we decide to take advantage of the Epic Pass by embarking on a road trip in miniature across to Crested Butte.

During the winter months, a proper 4x4 is a necessity to navigate the Rocky Mountains. We board a Chevy Tahoe and drive just over three hours in a fishhook route through the heart of Colorado, motoring out of the broad valleys and high peaks of the Continental Divide south through the town of Fairplay (a.k.a South Park) into the sandy pinyon pine swathed canyonlands of San Isabel to Buena Vista, where we visit an incongruously hip design guesthouse.

The Surf Hotel is a masterwork of mid-century modern design. Originally built as a bolthole for whitewater kayakers, mountain-bikers and others of their outdoorsy ilk, it’s now evolved to include its own music stage and a world class restaurant. From here the road continues through dramatic cols and along behemoth ridges to bottom out in broad plains of farmland, blanketed with thick deposits of snow. A sharp turn northwards at Gunnison and we enter the beautiful valley of Crested Butte.

There’s a lot to recommend this town and, personally, I found it to be one of the most charming I’ve visited in the American West. With less tourist footfall than many of its neighbouring resort towns, the pristine landscape, frontier history and adventurous mountain lifestyle have been largely preserved.

There are plenty of modern diversions, however, including the legendary Dogwood Cocktail Cabin, Secret Stash Pizza and modern American restaurant Sunflower. My most memorable meal was lunch at the base of Crested Butte’s Twister Lift at Uley’s Cabin. Formerly the residence of the eponymous, infamous local bootlegger, it offers French food par excellence in an extraordinary hunting lodge setting.

On the final morning, infinitesimal orbs of snow wobble in the cold wind and scatter on the paving stones. There’s a palpable frisson of anticipation as we skate down to the Red Lady chair. We’re the first in line, soon to be joined by a gang of fellow travellers nattering excitedly about the half foot of powder blanketing Mt Crested Butte.

Crested Butte, photograph by Chris Sgeal
Crested Butte

We have two hours to fit in before we board a GMC Denali which will take us to Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport. Two hours that comprise snow conditions that flirt with the ideal. Double black diamonds that would have caused concern the day before are rendered toothless. We surf the steeps, scalloping the soft snow with long arcs of the tail, catching massive pockets of air over rollers and landing a few storeys below on a bed as pliant as memory foam.

All in, we score first tracks on four different slopes, just under 20 runs and trips through the trees that rival The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I can’t remember a better two hours of snowboarding I’ve had in the past two decades.

Thirty miles south of Crested Butte in Gunnison the skies are crystalline blue as we stroll across the tarmac to board an Embraer commuter jet. Moments later we’re in the sky, seemingly flush with the Collegiate Range at the same altitude. Big white peaks trade spaces with evergreen-thicketed ridges and ochre-coloured sandstone pinnacles.

We fly over the continental divide where all tributaries flow east toward the Mississippi River or west to the Colorado, and it’s hard to resist an anatomical comparison: the Rocky Mountains are the backbone of the Americas; a meridian separating planes from desert, Atlantic from Pacific, east from west. I’ve only experienced one small vertebrae on this excursion, but what a spine-tingling experience it was.

Fly directly to Denver with United and British Airways from $574, ba.com; United flies from Denver to Gunnison twice a day, approx. $300, united.com; Epic Mountain Express provides services from Denver International Airport to Colorado’s mountain resort areas, from $79 per person for door-to-door service, epicmountainexpress.com; Epic Day Passes start from $125 per day, epicpass.com; Breck Guides, from $299, breckenridge.com; stay at One Ski Hill Place from $399 per night, rockresorts.com