Just a few miles northwest of Crested Butte, along the road to Kebler Pass, the tiny hamlet of Irwin consists of an eponymous lake, a few hardy souls who have to hop on a snowmobile to go anywhere all winter, an old lodge with boarded-up windows, and absolutely perfect slopes for back-country skiing. Oh, and it gets twice as much snow as the nearby Crested Butte ski area, an average of 600 inches a year.
The old lodge has been a center for snowcat-skiing operations in the past, but they've all eventually folded, most recently in 2002, leaving all that spectacular ski terrain under-utilized. That changed recently, though, with the launch of a new cat-skiing operation called CS Irwin that has ditched the lodge concept in favor of a more upscale approach.
I had the chance to spend a day cat-skiing with CS Irwin a couple of weekends ago, and I have to say the luxury approach worked just fine for me. I can't imagine how it could have gone any better.
In addition to my wife and me, there were six other guests, some of them local--others from as far away as Seattle. We convened bright and early at CS Irwin's office in downtown Crested Butte, where we ate fresh pastries and got outfitted with demo skis specially made for CS Irwin by Wagner Custom. Then we all hopped in a huge, street-legal snowcat and set off through downtown Crested Butte for the 45-minute ride to the slopes.
The cat was equipped with a large-screen TV, with video-conferencing service available for those who can't miss meetings to go skiing. On our trip we watched a DVD of CS Irwin's previous clients skiing, while our hostess, Karina, supplied us with drinks and told us a little about what to expect for the day.
When we arrived at the Movie Cabin, the cozy little outpost that would serve as our headquarters for the day, we had a quick briefing with our guide, Billy, and Alan, the director of mountain operations for CS Irwin and former mayor of Crested Butte. Once they'd given us a safety talk and checked to see that we all had our avalanche beacons transmitting, we climbed into a smaller snowcat and headed up the hill.
We skied a beautiful, open slope to start, and once Billy and Alan saw that we were all good skiers, we spent the rest of the morning charging through the powder on nice, steep pitches, drinking in the stunning views of the surrounding peaks.
Back at the Movie Cabin, which is named, I guess, for the fact that it, too, is outfitted for video conferencing, Karina had baked cookies and set up a delicious taco bar for lunch. It might have been a little too delicious, in fact, as most of our party seemed about to lapse into a food coma after they'd eaten. Fortunately, we were able to rouse ourselves for the afternoon ski session. Fresh powder is an awfully good motivator.
The afternoon was one run after the other of perfect terrain and stellar service. I got to ride in the cabin of the snowcat on one trip uphill, and the driver, Caroline, even dialed up Ted Nugent on her iPod at my request. What more could I ask for?
We skied enough that we were all feeling it in our legs by the end of the day, and every run was down amazing terrain, with world-class views and a staff that was not only attentive, but also great fun to spend the day with. We even got to watch John Cusack ski the K-12 on one ski as we sipped cold beers on the ride back to Crested Butte.
An experience like that doesn't come cheap, but it's by no means exorbitant. For $450 per person, or $4,000 to book the whole 10-person snowcat, you get about 10 runs (I think we may have done 12), along with drinks, snacks and a hot, fresh lunch. CS Irwin recently purchased a small lodge in the town of Crested Butte, so future packages may include lodging as well. If you're going to be in Crested Butte, and you've got the money, spending a day or two with CS Irwin is well worth it.
They have a great website at csirwin.com.