Rounding the final turn off Butte Avenue toward the Slate River Valley at the start of the second and final lap, I had my eyes peeled for a ride. There: the man dressed in a Birkebeiner-esque sweater with suspenders fastened to his Swix pants just beyond the — is that the Jamaican bobsled team?
This is Crested Butte’s Alley Loop, titled a “Birkie qualifier with a twist”, a moniker that falls far short of capturing the infectious energy of this unique event. With four race lengths to choose from plus options for kiddos, the Alley Loop brings together a community of skiers of all ages, abilities, and costume intricacies.
Not convinced your whole party will want to race? There is a full weekend of offerings from the Elk Avenue Pub Ski Friday night where you and a group of friends can ski bar-to-bar in costume, completing quirky challenges and earning points on your scorecard along the way, to a casual Sunday brunch tour out to the Magic Meadows yurt. Unless you are averse to recreating in a beautiful place or indulging in good food and drink with friends, you will have fun at this event.
Nestled into the southern edge of Colorado’s Elk Mountains at 8,885 feet, the town of Crested Butte has preserved its integrity as a small and sleepy western town (along with steep real estate prices) with unlimited offerings for the outdoor junkie. For cross country skiers, this includes over 50 kilometers of groomed, variable terrain, trail: rolling meadows, steep climbs and descents, and gently graded beginner-friendly tracks, all with a jaw-dropping backdrop. In fact, the town is aptly titled “the Nordic Ski Capital of Colorado.”
On the first weekend in February, the streets and alleys of downtown Crested Butte are transformed from a snow packed grid to a meandering strip of corduroy, welcoming skiers to the “best costume party of the year.” And they mean it. Though the origin of the tradition is unknown (perhaps some lingering 70’s and 80’s party culture at play?), the town takes advantage of every opportunity to play dress up. Word on the street is, “everyone in Crested Butte has a costume box”.
While you may see a few tie-dye t shirts, retro race suits, and other small touches that are minimally impactful to aerodynamics on the race course, you will also note the full cast of Alice in Wonderland, Cleopatra and King Tut, a pair of blow up giraffes, and the garish orange 45th president skiing in jeans.
I found myself struck by how much different this was from any event I had experienced. Competitive skiers there to ski fast and breathe hard blended amongst the larger population who were celebrating the simple joy of sliding on snow in a beautiful place with good company.
Director of Marketing and Development at Crested Butte Nordic Laura Puckett Daniels put it simply. “It’s ALL cross-sections of the whole community, not just nordic skiers in the nordic community.”
What does this event do for the Crested Butte community and how does the town pull it off? More on that later, but first: the race.
Though both techniques are offered at the 21 and 42 k distance, it is perhaps a skater’s course, and this is where you’ll tend to find the larger and more competitive field. Case in point, the 42 k skate was won by Kyle Bratrud (SMS T2) for men and Rosie Frankowski (APU) for women. (You can listen to Frankowski’s thoughts on the event here.)
Shorter skis also make it easier to navigate the narrow alleys and bridges through town, and allow for top cruising speed through the gently undulating terrain found on the bulk of the course as it winds through the meadows of the valley floor.
If you do plan to kick and glide, be prepared to do a lot of double poling and kick double poling. With only one significant climb per lap (four total) on the 21 k course and two per lap (six total) in the full marathon, the Alley Loop has far less vertical than the Birkie, the Lake Placid Loppet, or the Craftsbury Marathon. Granted, you’re racing close to 9,000’, so your body and lungs will feel it regardless!
Depending on how fruitful the winter has been, the snow in town can be a little dirty and gravely, and it’s good to consider the calculus of ski selection. Know that you may come away with a few dings in your boards from the roughly 1 k section in-town, but the vast majority of the course will be immaculate. If your race boards are due for a grind and the snowbanks indicate the generosity of Ullr, send it.
Anecdotally, we had a fairly unremarkable winter and the snowpack in the Elk Mountain region sits close to the median. The course was immaculately prepared, though the section in town did erode by the end of my second lap. I chose to race on an older pair of race skis, which accrued a few minor scratches — nothing in any way alarming. (Side note: the available wax service made these skis ripping fast and very fun to ski!)
Because of the street closures and parking limitations incurred by laying a race course through the streets of a small mountain town (and to take full advantage of pre and post-race celebrations), it can be very helpful to stay within walking distance of the start line or to rely on public transit.
I had a wonderful stay at the Elk Mountain Lodge, just two blocks off Elk Ave, along with several other Alley Loopers. The home-cooked breakfast was delicious and the community style table around which it was eaten fostered conversation with the other skiers who had also traveled to Crested Butte for the event. Being so close to the start, it was also possible to get out for a warm up ski, then de-layer and stay warm inside the lodge until the last minute — totally clutch as temperatures had only reached the low teens by go time!
One final note on the race. At the start of the 21 k, a race official noticed the all-male start line and invited any female podium hopefuls to take a spot either in the front of one of the many start lanes or to start between two lanes staggered just behind the front row. As the double pole start turns quickly into a sprint to the base of a steep climb, early positioning is important, and as someone looking to race near the top of the field, I greatly appreciated this nod. Kudos to the Crested Butte Nordic Counsel for looking out for and supporting fast women! (The 21 k skate was won overall by APU’s Becca Rorabaugh.)
Back to the spirit of the Alley Loop, which is arguably the most compelling reason to make the trip. To better capture its energy and do justice to what it takes to pull off such a feat, FasterSkier spoke with head groomer Dean Davis.
“It’s just so cool to groom your town,” said Davis. “That is something that is just so unique, that not a lot of cat operators get to do. I love that aspect of it.”
That’s not to say that the process is easy or uncomplicated. Davis says he loses sleep over the Alley Loop in the middle of the summer, despite working it for 13 years. Some of the course in town is prepared up to a week in advance, and some of Elk Avenue (the town’s main strip) is laid two nights in advance. But because the final steps close down access to homes and businesses, a large amount of work must take place the night before.
“That all just happens in one fell swoop on Friday night and my heart is pounding. The amount of stress I go through on that night and the weeks leading up is through the roof.”
The majority of the snow, which is taken from piles of snow that were stashed around town after being removed from the streets during storms, is laid using two loaders and a grader. Sno-cats make the final passes to groom and set track where possible.
This machinery has its handling well-tested through this process.
“Our [sno-cats] barely fit down some of these alleys where there’s gas lines on both sides of you and there’s an electric line above you… I had one year, it was a pretty big snow year, where I was driving so close to a VW bug that was completely covered in snow that I was practically driving over it. Really, my track setter was just hitting the edge of the top of the roof even though there was two feet of snow on top. It didn’t hurt the car, but I had to be very aware of it.
“I’ve had years where there is so much snow that I am driving through the alleys and looking into people’s second floor bedroom windows,” he laughed. “That’s kind of crazy”
Aside from dodging obstacles, clear, frequent, and proactive communication with the town, its residents, and the local police department is essential to enforce street closures and parking restrictions. On top of other race preparation, the team at CB Nordic is going door to door two weeks before the race handing out reminders and placing them on parked cars.
Despite their best effort, the instructions are not always adhered to. This year, Davis estimated that an above-average 13 cars were towed.
What Davis loses the most sleep over, however, are the effects of Murphy’s law. His biggest fear is a sno-cat breaking down in the middle of the night.
“You’ve just got to look out for what could get in your way. Anything from ‘cats breaking down to ‘do you have enough snow that year?’”
Davis’ biggest fear is a sno-cat breaking down in the middle of the night. He explained that he has a local welder on call and ready to respond at any hour of the night, and that he is sure to stock up on hydraulic fluid, spare o-rings, and parts, which will hopefully remedy whatever issues that arise.
Mechanical problems aside, it is always an eventful night. At 2 AM, it’s the juxtaposition of the grooming team hard at work and the debauchery of those who have stayed at the bar until closing time. Davis recounted being flashed, mostly by ladies, and multiple occurrences of someone (who may be well past the legal limit) trying to drive their car through the course, only to become stuck.
“It sure pisses me off because I have to go fix [the course] after they do it, but it’s always entertainment for me.”
After surviving the late night shenanigans and setting a spectacular course, Davis likes to kick back with breakfast and a bloody mary at McGill’s Restaurant near the start on Elk Ave. In his words, he is “so psyched to be done [grooming] and can just watch the costumes go by.”
For him, this is the true magic of the event.
“For the most part, everybody loves it. People that don’t even do it come out just to watch all the crazy costumes. It really brings the community together on that day. A lot of people do it for the seriousness of the race, but most of the community just does it for the good times. The bacon stands in the alleys and the people rooting you on. People will set up whole parties in the alleys in back of their house — it’s just so fun to barbecue and listen to everyone laughing and having a good time.
“I’m definitely grooming for the true racers, but the real fun of it for me is just to see all my friends just try to chug around the course. Some of them haven’t been on skis all year and they do the 5 k in a suit they can barely walk in.”
As a parent himself, Davis finds that the kids races, in particular, tug at his heart strings.
“I love watching the kids just doing their best out there.”
The Alley Loop offers a 1 or 3 k option for little ones. The kids events are seen off by Murray Banks, a CB local who became a motivational speaker after a robust career as a celebrated teacher and champion triathlete turned ski-racer. Banks is deeply rooted in the local cross country community and coaches both the youth and masters programs.
“He always leads the kids on in the morning and his enthusiasm is something to die for… his attitude is just so positive and the kids just love him. It melts me.”
So whether you’re looking for a family-friendly weekend in the mountains, a pre-Birkie altitude camp and tune up race, or a rowdy weekend on snow with friends, Crested Butte has something for you at the Alley Loop. Put Saturday February 6th, 2021 on your calendar. I’ll see you there!