Finding Mountains and Meaning in Crested Butte

Ben TheyerlAugust 28, 2023
A banner on Crested Butte’s Victorian-era City Hall bids the Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT) well last winter. (Photo: Crested Butte Nordic)

Even for the US Postal Service, delivering mail to the end of the road at 9,000 feet is a challenge. Home delivery is out of the question: in Crested Butte, Colorado, you need a PO box, no matter who you are. As a consequence, a trip to pick up packages at the Post Office is something you make a day out of, and each member of the disparate factions that make up life in our mountain town—the ranchers, cowboys, ski bums, remote workers, and millionaire second homeowners—has to wait their turn. The post office is an egalitarian space by necessity.

I was taking my turn last March when I picked up a phone call from Than Acuff. An all-trades character in a town that has knack for producing them, Than is most prominently the Crested Butte News’ one-man sports department, where he covers the gamut from homegrown Olympians to local beer league softball in his “Sports Barrel.” When I answered, I let on that I’m at the Post Office, and he responds, “So that means we can go really in-depth, right?!?”

As it turns out, we did. We talked through how the Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT) had just finished our last Junior National Qualifier, and how a handful of our athletes now had their sights set on Junior Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska. We covered how, as a coach, I was proudly looking forward to following our athletes up to Alaska.

Then, we slipped into retrospection. When the season started out last November, it was my first as the Head Coach in town, after taking over a growing program from Molly Susla, our previous leader of nearly a decade. It was a quick learning curve, as we were slated to host the first race of the year for Rocky Mountain Nordic last December. Than and I started there, and traced a throughline from the support that had poured into putting on that race to what turned out to be an extraordinarily successful season for CBNT. We both agreed that the weekend had been the best of what our small town could be. Parents whose kids had outgrown CBNT decades ago took day-long shifts volunteering on course, little kids came out to look up to our junior skiers, our steadfast local photographer Xavi Fane (who’s photographs are featured in this article) weaved through the woods in his Telemark gear to get the best shot, the Mayor came by just to say hi, and one of our parents, Pat O’Neil, supplied a self-curated mix of Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash, and the Grateful Dead from which a random sample of the color commentary went, “Jerry Garcia, BIG nordic skiing fan, not many people know.” It was cold. It was fun. It was quirky. It was tough. It had also set a tone for the Crested Butte kids that followed them throughout their season. Up front, they saw that to be successful in the sport of skiing they didn’t have to aspire to be anything that they weren’t already. All we had to do as a team was lean into the qualities that shaped them as people, and the community they lived in.

Some of Crested Butte’s hearty volunteers (l-r) Kevin Krill, Rich Smith, Tony Veit, Tim White, and Emma Lohr. (Photo: Xavi Fane).

After reminiscing, I said bye to Than, and from right behind me in the post office line, a voice went, “That was super fun to hear!” I turned to find Carol Kastning, whose son Andrew had skied on the Team in another iteration, long before my time, and had gone on to race and coach in Alaska, where, a couple weeks after this conversation, he would lend his voice as a commentator for Junior Nationals. Mrs. Kastning and I proceeded to recap my impromptu report, before starting to trace the throughline of that season the other way, back in time, to illuminate a nordic community that had waxed and waned in its character over the years, but never in its spirit. The theme recurred: in Crested Butte, nordic skiing had been a constant fixture, a solitary winter pursuit that so many in this deep pocket of the world had figured out how to form a life, and a community, around.

Other members of the post office line chimed in with their variations on that theme. There were old hippies who had cleared out the mine tailings and equipment to lay the ski trails we now use every day, and parents whose kids had just taken their first stride on skis and now wanted to join in, too. Two people conversing turned into five, and then ten. A moment in the last remaining egalitarian space in town echoed out towards the past and future of a community, and did so focused around skiing.

I picked up my packages and started to walk back to my office at the Crested Butte Nordic Center. Fresh snowflakes were falling. That directed my disposition up towards the mountains, and thoughts of skiing them rose to the top of my mind. Quickly, they were met by more thoughts about the little post office gathering I had just left that had looked to make meaning out what skiing them meant.

Looking down the Slate River at Mt. Crested Butte during a winter morning. (Photo: Xavi Fane)

I decided it was best not to search too hard. The essence of Crested Butte, this mountain town, most probably was located up in the mountains. Get two tectonic forces deep down in the Earth crashing against each other, and they’ll push up a mountain range. Likewise, the forces that move life along in a mountain town follow the same physics. On one plate, the landscape drives some kind of radically democratic impulse. Sublime is the mood of the high country, on its peaks and in its low, endless expanses. It’s rendered an uncharacteristic cession of human hubris, caused us to have marked off thousands of miles of the Rocky Mountains as land that was made for you and me – National Forests, Parks, and Wilderness Areas. On the opposing plate, however, there is the ever-more-exuberant desire to own it for oneself. Where those two forces have collided, a history has formed. For thousands of years, the Ute came to the Slate River Valley where Crested Butte currently lies in the summer and left when the snow fell, before the coal miners showed up to stake their claim. After a century, a generation of Hippies moved into those miners’ abandoned shacks, and 50 years later, a Billionaire owns half of town. Those same miners’ shacks come affixed with seven figures in the real estate ads that look to sell them.

Viewed that way—through the lens of this latest convergence—skiing, of the cross-country variety, seemed to me the chosen medium for the Crested Butte community to keep its particular impulses as a place made for you and me a vivid thing. Seventy years ago, the coal mine that had once owned the town closed down. In the intervening time, the people of Crested Butte built, of all things, a Nordic Center where the coal mine once stood. On that March morning outside the Post Office, I chose to believe that wasn’t a coincidence.

Sawyer Ezzell (CBNT) skis up the a-climb with Mt. Crested Butte behind. (Photo: Xavi Fane).

That sure sent me on a tangent; one which is, in many ways, ongoing. The snowflakes in March turned out to be a small part in the grand procession of what would end up being one of the biggest winters on record in Crested Butte. When I met up with the CBNT athletes in June to start summer training, we were still on snow. Then, for the next twelve weeks, we worked on growing as skiers, as athletes, and as members of our community, matching the way we trained to the temperament of the place we were doing it in. We learned that anytime of year is a good time to hop on snow, that long days running in the mountains feel short when in good company, and that while the journey towards being the best we can be is immeasurably long, the effort toward it takes place everyday.

All the while, construction was starting on what will become the new Crested Butte Nordic Center, “the Outpost.” What began in June with bricks from the old coal coke ovens being dug up outside our present Center is now a maze of exterior plywood walls and interior studs, due to be completed this winter. On Friday, August 12th, the entirety of the Crested Butte nordic community got together to celebrate this bigger, better version of the Crested Butte Nordic Center, which will hopefully hold a bigger, better, version of ourselves.

As part of that celebration, I was asked to make a few remarks, alongside a couple of the Crested Butte Nordic Team athletes. Those remarks are printed below. They reflect on the meaning of building a ski community which, while particular to our community, is reflective of the mechanism skiing plays in building community anywhere our sport is practiced.

Murray Banks delivers remarks alongside members of the Crested Butte Devo Team during a celebration of the new Crested Butte Nordic Center this month. (Photo: Xavi Fane)

We also reflect briefly on and on our new team room’s namesake, Murray Banks, a name familiar to many from the New England ski community. As a coach for nearly fifty years, he played a pivotal role in founding Mansfield Nordic in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. He continued as a driving force in the Crested Butte nordic community for nearly twenty years. Those who know him know his disposition, and energy, are those of a much younger person. As a counter, my own penchant for being a bit of an old soul has created a middle-ground for us to form a relationship that has been an outsized blessing since I moved to town. The best way to paint the ethos of our Crested Butte coaching staff with him and I in it is that at the wax bench on a given race weekend, you’ll find one coach who has over fifty years of experience and one coach who has three years, and the latter is supposedly in charge. We push, pull, and complement. Where his knowledge of pine tar ends, my knowledge of fluoro-free top coats begins.

Most pertinent to the purpose of sharing here, I’ve included the words shared by three of our Crested Butte Nordic Team athletes on what skiing, the ski community, and growing up with Crested Butte Nordic means to them. They are Piper O’Neil, Katie O’Neil, and Sawyer Ezzell, and their words should hold everyone over for inspiration until the snow falls, not only here in Crested Butte, but in the many ski communities like it that have used this sport as a medium to turn a solitary pursuit and its lessons into a source of positive community-building.

(l-r) Sawyer Ezzell, Katie O’Neil, and Piper O’Neil—members of the Crested Butte Nordic Team—deliver remarks during a celebration of the new Crested Butte Nordic Center. (Photo: Xavi Fane)

The following are remarks delivered at the ground-breaking of the new Crested Butte Nordic Center, the Outpost, on Friday, August 12th.

(Edited for length and clarity)

Remarks of Ben Theyerl:

I tend to hold that skiing itself doesn’t change us, but instead that it allows us to recognize latent qualities within ourselves. I also tend to think that there’s no better place to understand this fact than here in Crested Butte. These towering peaks around us, the mountain meadows, and the ancient pine and aspen stands – they are here, in this valley, whether we experience them or not. What skiing represents is a way to get there: a medium to see that world as it is, and once seen, it’s a different world. Shades of green, blue, and white become richer, and with them the shades of life do too. The instant becomes glacial, each breath brings in joy – in the moment, and in the work left to do.

All that is to say, that my job as a ski coach isn’t to mold young people into anything that they aren’t already. Rather, my job is, interval-to-interval, practice-to-practice, ski-to-ski, and stride-to-stride, to help them know themselves; to discover the unique qualities within themselves that make them not just better skiers, but better teammates, friends, and members of their communities, and specifically of this community of Crested Butte. This summer, over the past couple winters, I’ve been alongside the kids here as they’ve gotten to know the mountains that surround us, to tread carefully and with steady steps towards peaks, valleys, finish lines, and each other. At each turn, it seems they choose to take the option to do more, to be open to more, to push themselves. I mean that in the sport of ski racing, yes, but I also mean that in all the other parts of life skiing touches. Each day they wake up and choose to take more joy in their experiences, choose to invite others in wherever possible, and choose not to dull the edges of the love they can show towards others, and towards the world.

Members of the Crested Butte Nordic Team get in a late June ski in the Elk Mountains earlier this year. (Photo: Courtesy Image)

They have, in short, managed to lace the practice of skiing with value and meaning. And, even more impressively, they have managed to match those values with the place that they practice it in. This little town where there remains a sense that we’re all in this together, where there’s a rough nod to the little bit of everything, I do that belongs to you, full of down-to-Earth and dream-chasing folks, learning and growing in a little valley where the only platitude is that it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. In this community, Crested Butte, this new building represents a place for that praxis these kids have formed to grow; a bigger, better version of Crested Butte Nordic to hold a bigger, better, version of ourselves.

A couple of our skiers, Sawyer Ezzell, Piper O’Neil and Katie O’Neil, will cover the details (read their remarks below) of what exactly that is going to look like in a few seconds, but before they do, I just wanted to pause and reflect on what we’ve built here. To match the practice of skiing with values that build community is a monumental task, which even after it has happened, can easily disappear, or be transitory. We can tend to forget that here. That the community created here is infinitesimally fragile compared to the mountains that surround us and shape our experience here. Which is why, as someone tasked with tending to that community, it gives me a whole lot of comfort that our Team Room will be named after someone who is a testament to the possibility that values and the communities, they form can remain durable, because he has done so, and done so on skis for over a half-a-century: Murray Banks.

To speak on what Murray means to this ski community would be redundant to this audience. I’m lucky enough to say though, that my journey in this sport has extended far beyond skiing in this valley, and that has given me a glimpse into what he has brought, and means, to a wider ski community – one that spans a whole continent, and a whole lot of time. Before he was here, he was back in Vermont, and via the confluence of time and place many of the kids that he coached back there were at one point or another teammates or competitors, and are friends of mine. What I was struck by when I started reflecting conversations with these friends is that no matter who the skier is, the conversation never remains at a surface level very long. It’s never, ‘how’s Murray?’ ‘Oh, he’s doing well.’ Invariably, our conversation turns quickly towards the very core of why we do this sport. We point towards the most significant lesson he teaches: to find joy in this sport, and more importantly, to never waver in spreading it. To take the path towards inclusion, towards reveling in the joy of life, and in, ultimately, building a community that reflects the things about life that make it important.

When you see joy inching its way into your life, be it via skis or elsewhere, you ought to loose the doorjambs, feed it, let it fill up your spirit, and then immediately work hard to spread it to as many others as you can. That’s what this new iteration of Crested Butte Nordic looks to do, and in doing so, continues a role that skiing has played in shaping this community that we hope will last as long as these mountains around us stand.

I’ll hand it over to Piper, Katie and Sawyer to expand on what this new iteration will look like…


Remarks of Piper O’Neil, Katie O’Neil, and Sawyer Ezzell:

Over the last four years, the Crested Butte Nordic Team has expanded from only filling the first row in our van to filling the whole van all the way to the back and hoping that the door still shuts.

In our new Team Room in the Outpost, we are excited to have a space that’s truly our own. As a team that views itself more as a family, we can’t wait to make the Team Room a home where we can grow as athletes, as a team, and as people. One of our team values is making sure the physical and mental health of our athletes is put first. We can focus on having the time and space to build a solid foundation where athletes feel safe to address personal struggles and support each other.  As we continue to strengthen our team and program, the younger CB Nordic athletes will hopefully fall into the family we got absorbed into. More and more athletes are eager to ski and pursue the sport competitively, and the Outpost will give them the space and resources to do just that.

With this new facility the program can further develop into what we know it can be. We believe in the value of empowerment through investment, and we are endlessly grateful for the time and funding that went into creating this new and amazing space for us. As the parents of the team and Nordic Center Staff know, we basically live at the Nordic Center, so we are so appreciative for never ending care and support. So from the Nordic Team family, thank you so much for giving our family a real home.

Members of the Crested Butte Nordic Team last winter. (Photo: Alison White)

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

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