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While seemingly the rest of the North American nordic-ski community converges on West Yellowstone during the week of Thanksgiving, several other places also offer great opportunities for early-season nordic camps and skiing. One of the most unheralded nordic ski communities that can almost guarantee great XC skiing with top-level camp clinics and other fun nordic-related activities is Crested Butte, Colorado.
Although the Crested Butte Nordic Council was founded only as recently as 1987, the history of skiing in the area goes back as far back as anyone can dig up in recorded history. The pioneers of the area pretty much had to adapt to skiing just to get around at all, due to the incredible amounts of snow that the area receives every year.
The tradition of nordic skiing, Rocky Mountain style, runs rich throughout the Gunnison Valley and the West Elk Range of Colorado. The local museums and taverns have all sorts of historical photos, written accounts, and memorabilia that illustrate how the culture was born, imported by European settlers, and thrived as a means of survival and recreation. Any visitor to the area interested in the history of skiing should take some time to learn more about the rich traditions and colorful characters that laid the foundation for what is now one of the most unique and genuine nordic towns in America.
More recently, the Crested Butte Nordic Council has held the torch in keeping all things nordic alive and well in the valley. The real credit should go to the very dedicated people of Crested Butte and the nordic center staff, led by its director, Keith Bauer — a Midwesterner transplant that knows a thing or two about running a nordic center.
But, the most obvious asset is the network of trails that all start right on the edges of town within short walking distance, including from the nordic center, which serves as the epicenter of nordic activities. It also includes the regulation ice rink, a pretty serious (and fun for all ages) sledding hill, and the most incredibly beautiful and challenging International Ski Federation (FIS)-homologated 5-kilometer race course, in addition to the other connecting ski trails on the breathtaking, open-space lands that abound around the village.
The grooming is also something to rave about. CB Nordic has continually sought to improve the quality of its grooming, with new and improved equipment, more groomers, a more robust schedule and more interaction with staff and skiers. Another aspect is that they have actual nordic skiers doing the grooming, and know what a finished product should be. There has been a lot of energy and effort put into this area of the operation, and it really shows.
Despite the already-great conditions for a Thanksgiving camp, I witnessed the grooming team going out and shoveling every little area that wasn’t just right in terms of grooming depth. I don’t know that I’ve seen that very often, except right before big events.
Since 2002, the Nordic Council has played host to the annual Crested Butte Thanksgiving camp. While not as well-known, nor as vast in scope as the camp at West Yellowstone, the CB camp is nevertheless an extremely good alternative. For one, the snow is almost always in abundance for November.
While not as well-known, nor as vast in scope as the camp at West Yellowstone, the CB camp is nevertheless an extremely good alternative. For one, the snow is almost always in abundance for November.
If it isn’t up to par in town, there is a pretty amazing alternative just a little ways up the old Kebler Pass road (used in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge) at a place called “Lily Lake” that is more than an adequate alternative, with some fun and interesting trails. It’s up a little higher in elevation, and tucked in a hidden high plateau among towering peaks that receive those beautiful Rocky Mountain early season dumps of snow, quite often providing skiing as early as mid-September, and most certainly by October.
But, usually there is good snow down in the valley for some great early season skiing, and this year was no exception. Conditions were simply fabulous with a good base and abundant sunshine. Nighttime temperatures plummet in this high-mountain valley, so the snow remained cold and mostly untransformed, despite the comfortable afternoon conditions. Most days saw glide and kick wax in the “blue” ranges, with only a little violet mixed in for sunny spots.
The camp itself has evolved over the years, but what has been a mainstay from the beginning is the high level of instruction in the various technique clinics. The instructors that the CB Nordic Center gets for these clinics are the real heroes, donating their time and expertise to the center for a charitable cause. Where else can you get local Olympians to teach clinics? And PSIA and master’s instructors with deserved celebrity status? Crested Butte has it all. The most notable instructors I’ve had over the past few years include Ingrid Butts, Rebecca Dussault, Ross Matlock, Murray Banks, Jeff Banks, and Steve Hindman.
Responses to the level of instruction has always been at the top, and many of us have made personal friendships over the years with the various instructors. They’ve made the sport fun in terms of a life-long learning adventure, and I have most certainly improved thanks to them.
The Crested Butte Camp instructors have always been high-quality people who are passionate about sharing their love and knowledge of cross-country skiing, whether it be for junior to master’s level racing, or just for weekend warriors looking to find a little more efficiency and enjoyment in their workouts. The clinics are not merely stand-around and listen clinics either, they’re fast paced and require a lot of energy input from everyone, which makes them more fun than other clinics I’ve participated in.
Camp clinics that are offered range from “novice” level (not first-timers), to fully advanced and racing-specific classes. Schedules include both techniques at all levels from Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) through Saturday, with some bonus activity on Sunday, like a fun group ski.
In years previous when Western State in Gunnison still had a Division-1 ski team, Sunday was reserved for an intramural scrimmage race of collegiate racers, local former racers, masters like myself, and everyone in between. It was always fun to break out the fancy wax and good skis and see if we could employ what we’d learned over the previous days’ clinics. But with the ski program at Western State being dropped, interest in a Sunday race sort of dropped as well because everyone is usually quite exhausted after all the high-energy clinics.
As many times as I’ve attended the CB Thanksgiving camp clinics, one would think it would get repetitious, but with cross-country skiing being such a life-long learning activity and all, even the well-seasoned instructors seem to have learning revelations during their time skiing and coaching. I’m always impressed that something new, or a new angle on an age-old challenge, can be added to the wealth of information the CB camp instructors always present.
“As many times as I’ve attended the CB Thanksgiving camp clinics, one would think it would get repetitious, but … even the well-seasoned instructors seem to have learning revelations during their time skiing and coaching.”
Additionally, they’ve always spent a lot of time and energy collecting very detailed video analysis of each and every clinic participant in a variety of techniques and terrain. There have been times that Ingrid Butts needed to be done to get to something else, but got so into her instruction, that it got well past dark by the time she was done with us. I’ve also held Murray Banks and Ross Matlock hostage a couple of times to help work out some issues that arose during the clinics, and they were not just being polite, but really enthusiastic about spending the extra time to go over not only my, but others’ cases as well. The individual attention is probably what is best about this Thanksgiving camp.
This year, my local ski club, the Southwest Nordic Ski Club of Northern New Mexico, sort of ad-hoc partnered with the Crested Butte Nordic Council to add in a kids’ fun clinic for an entire morning of games, obstacles, relays and short races. It was a lot of fun for the kids and parents alike.
Murray Banks, who is recovering from surgery to repair an injury sustained during a backcountry ski adventure last May, stepped up and led us parents to help him with all the many kids who joined in the morning clinic. The kids really got into it and learned a lot without ever getting bored or having to sit and listen for more than just a few seconds. It was so much fun and if you ever get an opportunity to take a class from Murray Banks, take it. He’s so entertaining, on top of being a very good teacher. The kids just love him (as do the adults!). He may be an old-school Vermonter, but he really breathes a lot of life into everything he does, especially cross-country skiing.
Finally, the Crested Butte Thanksgiving Camp also serves as a fundraiser for the CB Nordic Council. They host a couple of other apres-ski activities, like an evening film festival with interesting ski-related Indie films, and a very fun dinner party with a silent auction and often an impromptu dance party. It’s always been a fun week of Nordic celebration that welcomes everyone.
Other notable Crested Butte information:
- Crested Butte is also home to one of the most famous alpine areas and always has some good deals this time of the year.
- Great restaurants (of all kinds) and coffee shops abound, and all are open and welcoming to visitors.
- Lodging deals are also easy to find, since it’s still considered “low season.”
- The Crested Butte Nordic website is: www.cbnordic.org
- More camp photos: CB Nordic Facebook