Guided skiing in the heart of Colorado
Three hours of hiking followed by a playful line through a gladded, 37-degree pitch on the north aspect of Snodgrass Mountain had me feeling energized and confident. It was a self-assurance I wasn’t sure I’d find on this ski trip; I’d been so intimidated coming in. We put our skins back on and began hiking up the same slope of perfectly spaced trees, ready for another lap. It was day two of my first-ever guided ski trip, and I was feeling good.
Four days earlier, I was sitting on my bed at home in Boulder, Colorado, and nervously laughing at the email from my future ski guide. “Next order of business is the renaming of this camp,” Evan’s quick, introductory note to the group read. “Powder can sometimes be a mystical/elusive creature in Colorado and that will be the case next week. We will seek out powder, but along the way, we’ll ski every kind of snow surface in-between … the first new name I’m coming up with is Shred Camp.”
The name change was welcomed. I was ready for the Irwin Guides Backcountry Powder Camp, or Shred Camp. Or whatever
My mission: find out what guided skiing is all about. A 25-year-old, Colorado girl, born and raised, skiing since age two, and I had never officially been guided skiing. From following my family’s meditated turns at a young age to evolving into a casual backcountry skier with a budget. A guided trip had never seemed like an option.
It wasn’t until I caught wind of Irwin Guides’ Backcountry Powder Camp, consisting of five days of exploratory, off-piste ski missions in the Elk Mountains that surround Crested Butte, that I realized how accessible a guided ski trip could be.
As we met at the Irwin Guide’s headquarters in downtown Crested Butte on day one, I learned I’d be the only woman and the youngest person in our group. This gender dynamic was nothing new for me, but it added to my trepidation nonetheless.
We were encouraged to pack our pockets with high-end energy bars made up of things like unicorn dust, lentils and natural sugars, while we introduced ourselves and discussed what we each yearned to get out of the camp. I was prepared to meet skiers from far and wide but was happily thrown for a loop to learn everyone in our crew was hailing from Colorado.
Roger, “Italian Mike” (who’s Italian last name gave us reason to give him this title) and I had driven in from the Front Range. Another Mike, who we dubbed “Crested Butte Mike,” was a new-to-town Crested Butte resident, just looking to learn about the region’s hidden ski treasures. And Evan, our trusty, local guide.
After introductions, our team made its way up the incline from the Red Coon Glades trailhead and began ascending nearly 2,500 feet in vertical. We settled into a comfortable pace and talked about things like Roger quitting the lack-luster tech world to join the outdoor industry, Italian Mike expecting his first child, and we collaborated to convince Crested Butte Mike to join Facebook, while also praising him for resisting for this long. Friendships blossomed.
As we traversed to the summit, visible from the town of less-than 2,000 people, we looked down into Coon’s Bowl. Evan explained how this crescent bowl is generally not someplace he trusts due to either a lack of snowpack or an unstable one. But the current no-new-snow conditions were ideal for skiing what would normally be high-consequence terrain.
I stood at the top, watching Italian Mike, a three-year camp veteran, as he pushed off and turned tactically through the punchy snow. Crested Butte Mike went next and sped down the vertical wall effortlessly. Roger followed steadily. I hadn’t had a problem keeping up with the guys on the uphill, but I knew the downhill would be a little different.
Nip ran through me. I was shaking from the high alpine cold. I scooted over the edge and began to focus on breathing, planting my poles and turning down the outline of a gully that lined the center of Coon’s bowl, thanking God for every squat I’d done in preparation. My pace was leisurely compared to the guys, but no one seemed to care. Evan followed up the rear in his wunderkind fashion. Everyone was stoked, and I felt relieved.
We hooted, hollered, ate some of our fancy bars and threw our skins back on to keep moving. We made our way up and over to finish the day on the “Climax Chutes,” a series of steep drainages resting on the back shoulder of the bowl. We were completing the good ol’ “Coon-Climax Combo,” as Evan liked to call it.
Taking turns skiing each pitch of the steep chute, we made sure to stay along the rib and not cut into the slide path of the hairy terrain. My legs were worn from hiking. Roger, the Mikes, Evan and I picked our way down what felt like a never-ending channel, one kick turn at a time. We were fatigued and laughing hysterically about the current slipshod state of our “survival skiing.”
Evan balanced supervising and giving us a hard time like a big brother. All the while still coaching us. The skiing was hard but the mood was light.
Recollecting as much grace as possible to make it to the end of the snowfield and to the road, we looked back up at what we had just tackled, feeling gratified and full of high fives.
Day one was a wrap and had packed ample evidence that guided skiing does not have to include some long pilgrimage to British Colombia, Alaska or to another continent. There’s plenty to be had in my own backyard.
We closed day one with rosy cheeks, cold beers and hot wings. A friendly local who had attended the camp with Evan two years before gave us a “cheers” at the bar. “Irwin Guides does it best,” he said. I smiled and nodded my head. After one day, I already understood what he meant.
Colorado’s backcountry is a beast worth trading in your ego to ski with someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. Guides are ski bums-turned-professionals who know the stashes and how to keep you safe. Had I not been with Irwin Guides, I would never have had the guts or the knowledge to complete the Coon-Climax combo or really any of the objectives that were skied later that week. With the highest number of avalanche-related deaths in the U.S. taking place on the continental snowpack of Colorado, having a guide like Evan wasn’t just for funsies. It was smart.
My stint with Irwin Guide’s didn’t just refine my taste in granola bars, but it made me a stronger, more confident skier. From a big bowl and steep chutes to 13,000-foot., no-fall terrain to blowout, low angle trees, my “usually-conservative-in-the-backcountry” status was pushed. With each day, I became more courageous and bold in my skiing. And that is what “Shred Camp” is all about.