Published November 07, 2011
After hibernating for eight long winters, Colorado’s snowiest resort reopens December 15 with an upscale identity as fresh as its 600 annual inches of powder.
Situated in a meteorologically blessed section of the West Elk Mountains 12 miles west of Crested Butte, Colorado, Irwin has never struggled in the snowfall department (it topped 1,000 inches in ’07-’08). But management has been a different story: The old Irwin Lodge, a giant, rustic cabin that included a 20-room hotel, restaurant and bar in addition to a basic catskiing operation, became a local’s favorite outpost to party and ski, but it shut down in 2002. Despite subsequent attempts to revive the ski area, its Forest Service permit eventually expired.
Enter CS Irwin, a new catskiing company with a permit encompassing about half of the terrain used by the old operation. Beginning its first full season after three years of planning and a soft opening last spring, Irwin’s absurd snowfall hasn’t changed—it’s already tallied 150 inches as of early December—but its reputation as a no-frills operation has been replaced with a new luxe persona.
“We’re trying to create a bit of an anonymous getaway for high-end people that would like a retreat,” says Alan Bernholtz, CS Irwin’s mountain operations director.
A day at CS Irwin begins at 7:30 a.m., when a brand-new custom snowcat, featuring plush leather seats, silvered barn-wood walls, glove warmers and 360-degree picture windows, picks up the day’s 10 skiers in downtown Crested Butte. It totes them 40 minutes to CS Irwin’s rustic 10,400-foot base cabin, an old employee housing building converted into a cozy warming hut, après lounge and lunchroom for a catered gourmet midday meal. From there, skiers outfitted with Wagner Customs designed for Irwin’s conditions board another brand-new cat, which ascends the 2,100-foot vert of the surrounding terrain. A typical day includes eight to 12 untracked powder runs on the resort’s 1,000-plus acres of intermediate-to-expert glades, chutes and bowls. The price tag? $450 per person, per day, or $4,000 for a private cat. Though CS Irwin doesn’t currently offer lodging accommodations (the old lodge now stands empty), it plans to open a renovated eight-room hotel downtown in the summer.
Market research indicated that Irwin would be a good candidate for an upscale catskiing operation, Bernholtz says, and so far, it seems to be true: nearly two weeks before opening day, CS Irwin was already 30 percent booked through late April.
“We’re definitely piggybacking on a legend,” says Bernholtz, who has lived in the area since the late ’80s and last year finished a four-year term as Crested Butte’s mayor.
Though CS Irwin’s chic direction is a conscious departure from the old Irwin, Bernholtz seems determined to stay true to the spirit of a place where three-foot dumps are unexceptional and blasting through knee-deep powder is as commonplace as carving hardpack elsewhere.
“We’re just skiing,” he says. “We’re not doing anything different. We just put nicer sheets on the bed.”
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