Disclaimer: This article is not intended to inspire anyone to travel to Crested Butte at this time. The county’s public health office expressly asks you not to do so even if you are a second home owner. The aim here is to highlight the familiar therapeutic role cross country skiing has played in the community thus far during the COVID-19 crisis.
Like many other small mountain towns, Crested Butte has been labeled a “coronavirus county hot spot” as Gunnison County ranked 6th on March 29th for per capita confirmed cases of COVID-19 throughout the country. The small rural hospital has limited resources and staff, insufficient to meet the demands of a large surge in the caseload. Of the roughly 17,000 residents of Gunnison County, there have been 90 confirmed cases, with 20 pending and 711 self-reported as symptomatic as of April 8th. There has been one fatality.
When it became apparent that the health of the community was at risk, the county swiftly rolled out stringent public health orders, shutting down all non-essential businesses and short-term lodging. A sleepy ski town community centered upon tourism sputtered to a halt.
The message was clear: stay home, isolate. Gatherings of more than one individual who do not live together are forbidden, with few exceptions. This means you are disallowed from meeting up with a buddy for a ski, even if you intend to remain at least six feet apart throughout the activity.
On March 14th, Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order closing all ski resorts. Because the Crested Butte Mountain Resort is no longer patrolled or managed for avalanche hazard, uphill access was also ended.
However, mother nature missed the message that winter activities were coming to an end. Nearly 5 feet of snow fell in March — roughly a third of the annual total — making it the snowiest month of the season. The accumulation also created instability in the Elk Mountain regional snowpack, raising avalanche danger, meaning safe backcountry skiing became limited.
Enter the nordic trails.
With over 50-kilometers of pistenbully groomed trails wide enough to maintain a safe physical distance between passing skiers, the local non-profit nordic center, Crested Butte Nordic, was given the green light to continue grooming operations, providing the local residents a reliable opportunity to recreate outside. A little slice of normalcy and serenity to contrast the rapidly changing circumstances around the globe.
“Essentially, amidst an enormous public health and economic crisis, here in Crested Butte, nordic skiing has risen up as a critical resource for health and wellbeing,” wrote CB Nordic marketing director Laura Puckett-Daniels in an email to FasterSkier.
This sentiment was echoed by CB Nordic executive director Christie Hicks in an email to members.
“CB Nordic was founded on the principle that cross country skiing and snowshoeing are good for the health of our bodies, our minds, and our community,” wrote Hicks. “Never has this felt more true. While the COVID-19 pandemic rages around us and the snow continues to fall, it has become ever more clear to me that our mission is of vital importance for the health and wellbeing of our community.”
The phrasing is not hyperbolic. As skiers, we understand the positive impact the sport has on our mental health. The expanse of trails in Crested Butte have absorbed and dispersed a multitude of users over the last few weeks, from regulars to first timers, all expressing their deepest appreciation for the trails.
“We have seen an overwhelming response to our services in the last three weeks,” wrote Puckett-Daniels. “The trails are full of skiers. Our inboxes and social media feeds are full of gratitude and enthusiasm. In addition to our 1200 regular adult season passholders, we’ve issued over 135 new passes and over 400 rentals since the epidemic hit Gunnison County. CB Nordic has been praised for doing ‘hero work’ by the local paper, recommended by the County, and even designated as a Utility by the County so that we can continue our work.”
The team at the nordic center adapted operations quickly to abide by regulations without compromising access. They decreased their grooming staff to two, who worked in separate machines and always used the same machine, changed rentals from daily to weekly to reduce the number of exchanges and rolled out an online request system. They also graciously changed rentals and passes to a by-donation system to acknowledge the severe financial impact many residents, some suddenly jobless, are experiencing.
“We’ve made all trail passes and adult rentals ‘pay-what-you-can’, so literally everyone, no matter their financial circumstances, can participate,” explained Puckett-Daniels. “We have been able to continue with our services because, as you know, nordic skiing requires minimal infrastructure, is easily accessible, and allows for social distancing.”
That is not to say that CB Nordic has not experienced set-backs during this time.
Like many other small businesses and nonprofits, CB Nordic is not immune from the economic impacts of the shut-down. They cancelled their biggest fundraiser of the year, The Grand Traverse backcountry ski race to Aspen, as well as all their remaining spring lessons, tours, and dinners at the ski-in-ski-out Magic Meadows Yurt.
They are optimistic that summer trail races and mountain bike events, which also benefit CB Nordic and its programming, will run as scheduled.
CB Nordic will continue to groom its trail system through Sunday, April 12, with a possibility of extension based on conditions. Puckett-Daniels reported that users have done well with respecting physical distancing recommendations and not congregating on the trails, so it is unlikely that the privilege will be revoked.
“It’s been easy to stay 6 or more feet away from other trail users, and everyone’s been very good and polite about that, but it’s been hard not to stop and chat with our friends,” Puckett-Daniels shared. “The smiles and waves are huge, and, especially when the sun’s shining, there’s an infectious joy to being out there. Like we’ve all been able to take a deep sigh of relief… there’s a strong sense of camaraderie and community out there.”
Again, we are not encouraging anyone to travel to Crested Butte, nor do we aim to proliferate a feeling of missing out if you are no longer able to ski. The message is simple: as the COVID-19 pandemic destabilizes our world, access to fresh air, exercise, and sunshine are of vital importance to our collective well being. Puckett-Daniels summed it up best:
“In a time with so much fear and uncertainty, we feel that this story of “the little sport that could” rising to serve residents’ needs — spreading joy and supporting mental and physical health — is one worth telling.”