A Bit Of Skiing History
In 1939, Colorado’s first overhead chairlift was installed at Pioneer Ski Area. The chairlift was constructed from an old mining tram and held 30 single chairs made from ore bucket harnesses along 6100 feet of cable. Christened “The Comet,”, the chairlift provided access to runs such as The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper and The Milky Way.
The Big Dipper quickly gained a reputation as one of the steeper runs in Colorado. Originally dropping 1320 feet at a 53% grade, it was extended an additional 1500 feet with the intention of using it as a downhill course for NCAA races. Pioneer hosted races and served as a training ground for the Western State College ski team until 1952.
That year, the NCAA determined that the Big Dipper no longer met the criteria for collegiate ski racing. A new mountain, just 7 miles north and closer to the mining town of Crested Butte was chosen. This mountain, known today as Crested Butte Mountain Resort, opened in 1961.
The Backcountry Calls
With 59 years having passed since the last chair went up the mountain at Pioneer, my husband and I weren’t sure what to expect when as we drove up Cement Creek on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in February. Having read about Pioneer in a handy book called Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs In Colorado’s Lost Ski Resorts (Peter Bronski, Wilderness Press), we had chosen it as our first foray into the backcountry.
I bought Powder Ghost Towns a couple of years ago, with the express purpose of getting us off of the resorts. Alpine skiers with many years of experience, we started telemarking just a few years ago, mostly hiking up resort runs and skiing down. Neither of us is exceptionally competent, but we are game.
I thought that our first backcountry destination would be the old Stoner Ski Area, a little hill between Rico and Dolores, Colorado that closed in 1983. Stoner is were my dad learned to ski – on opening day in 1948. Stoner was operated by the Ski-Hi Ski Club and when my dad was a teenager, he joined their board of directors. If there is anyplace in Colorado that I have wanted to ski for nostalgic and sentimental reasons, it is Stoner.
Alas, it is not that easy. While one can drive within 200 feet of the old Stoner runs, access is blocked by some private land. So, here we were at Pioneer.
Unlike Stoner, where nature has not reclaimed the ski trails in the 28 years since it closed, Pioneer is proof of nature’s resilience. Aside from the steep, straight as an arrow lift line, we couldn’t really pick out any runs. And, we’d forgotten our book which had maps and instructions. As we drove up and down the Cement Creek Road trying to pick out a decent and not too-steep line to ski, we realized we were going to have to go up and down along the Comet lift line, adjacent to the old Big Dipper – yes, the run with the 53% grade.
Our First Ascent…
Luckily, we made a wise decision and stopped at the Pioneer Guest Cabins to get directions. These cabins, leftover from Pioneer’s glory days, are now lovely modern, but still rustic, guest cabins with fireplaces, kitchens and cozy beds. They are owned by a nice man named Matt and he set us right, pointing out a skin track through the trees and confirming that while we didn’t have to go straight up, we would have to come straight down. I looked at my husband and said, “I don’t think I can do that. I don’t think I have the skills on tele skis.” He ignored me and we set off through the woods.
The upshot of our first backcountry adventure is that we were probably the first backcountry skiers to take less time going up than we took coming down. The trail up wasn’t easy, but we had skins on our skis, we were on a packed trail and we were going up. In other words, we were in a controlled environment. We had decided we would skin up for one hour or until we reached the old warming hut at the top of the Comet lift line. We didn’t make it, but when we reached the one hour mark, snow was falling more heavily and it was getting late in the afternoon. Despite not making the top, we decided to head down. That was perhaps our best decision of the day.
As we took off the skins, changed out of our damp shirts and put our helmets on, we noticed a man on a split-board about 200 feet below us, getting ready to ride down. We all said our hellos and he surfed off, graceful, relaxed and unconcerned about the narrowness of the pitch. Ha! While he made it look easy, we soon made it look nearly impossible.
…Better Than Our Descent!
You see, while we can tele — sort of — we had never tele’ed in deep snow, not to mention, heavy snow which had been melting all day in the warm temperatures which occur before a storm. Now snow was falling and as we tried to turn, we were falling. Without our heels locked in, and with such a short turning radius between trees, we couldn’t generate either enough speed or enough force to link more than a couple of turns before our skis sank into a drift and we face-planted. Try as we might, we were terrible. I have never made so many ballet turns, nor side-stepped so much down a mountain. Nor have I ever fallen so much or been so exhausted at the bottom.
Yes, we did get to the bottom — eventually. It took us 1.5 hours, but we made it. We were just thankful that the snowboarder had gone before us, before we could destroy the lines. And thankfully, since there was some heavy snow falling, our elephant size tracks would be covered by morning.
As for us, we’re now talking about getting A/T gear, so we can lock down the heels and alpine ski in the backcountry. We need full-bindings, metal edges and good boots. Precisely the equipment that the skiing pioneers at Pioneer Ski Area didn’t have. And while they may have had a chair to ride up, I am pretty sure they would have smoked us coming down, wooden skis, no edges, leather boots and all. I am in awe.
When You Go…..
Pioneer is about 7 miles south of Crested Butte up the Cement Creek Road (County Road 740). There is a parking pullout along the Cement Creek, with access across the creek at a flat area that used to be the ski area parking lot. Check out Powder Ghost Towns for more details on parking, the ascent and the descent.
Where to Sleep: Whether you are coming just to ski Pioneer or you are also going to Crested Butte, the Pioneer Guest Cabins would be a great place to stay. While we didn’t go in any of the cabins, they looked cozy and warm and the people we saw staying there (some couples, a family, and so on) all seemed to be having a great time playing in the snow, in the forest, at their doorsteps.
On this trip, we stayed at the Nordic Inn in Mount Crested Butte. With a great location adjacent to the ski area, the Nordic Inn isn’t ski-in/ski-out, but is only 500 yards from the lifts (and you can catch the parking lot shuttle if you don’t want to walk). We had a room with two queen beds, which would have been good enough. But when we got there we discovered it also had a sleeper sofa! That meant our boys didn’t have to share a bed or take turns riding the carpet. Perfect!
Breakfast was simple and filling, and the staff couldn’t be nicer. The Nordic Inn has a great outdoor hot tub with views of Mount Crested Butte and the ski runs, as well as a lovely sitting room with a fireplace where guests can hang out. The Nordic Inn also has two chalets sleeping either six or eight people with kitchens and other amenities.
Where to Eat: Crested Butte is pretty much everyone’s favorite ski town and as such, has tons of great restaurants. I’ve covered a lot of them in a previous post Why We All Love Skiing At Crested Butte, Colorado. However, on this trip, we had dinner one night at the Avalanche Bar and Grill in Mount Crested Butte. It was packed, but we didn’t have to wait too long and the wait was worth it. The Avalanche has nightly specials such as All You Can Eat Fish and Chips on Fridays and Prime Rib on Saturdays, as well as a varied, casual dining menu. Two of us had pasta, one had pulled pork and one had a burger. No one was disappointed and no one left hungry and the bill was half of what we might have expected! Good food and a good deal!
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