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How Crested Butte’s first-ever extreme skiing contests birthed the freeskiing movement

Pioneering athletes transformed the resort industry with a push for wider skis and steeper terrain
Freeskiing legend Shane McConkey makes a grab over the cliff in the US Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte in 1997. (Flip McCririck/Special to The Colorado Sun)

MOUNT CRESTED BUTTE – “This place brings back some memories,” says Wendy Fisher, gazing up at the near vertical walls of snow and rock she just skied.

“Doesn’t it though,” says Rex Wehrman, pointing to rocky patches of snow with names like Body Bag Glades, Dead Bob’s Chute, Disgusting Trees and Sock It To Me. “Scary memories.”

Fisher and Wehrman launched careers as pro skiers on the north-facing slopes of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. They were among the first athletes to hurl themselves down the daunting steeps as part of the first U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships in the 1990s.

Former competitors in the US Extreme Skiing Championships, Wendy Fisher, right, and Rex Wehrman, middle, visit below Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s Staircase terrain in early March. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The athletes in those inaugural extreme skiing contests at Crested Butte changed their sport. The first U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships in Crested Butte in 1992 – a year after the first contest of its kind in Valdez, Alaska – birthed a new generation of skiers who were abandoning groomers for the steep and deep.

“The good energy took over,” says Fisher, a mom of two teenage rippers who now guides and teaches steep skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. “We gave skiing a jolt when it was definitely in a bit of a funk.”

Crested Butte Mountain Resort – or CBMR – opened its North Face Lift in 1987, ferrying skiers to hundreds of acres of snow-covered cliffs, bowls, chutes and glades the resort dubbed the Extreme Limits. Five years later, that lift enabled a radical idea that changed skiing. The contests that grew from that precipitous terrain seeded the most transformative moments in skiing.

Jack Hannan sends it during the US Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte in 1997. (Flip McCririck/Special to The Colorado Sun)

The U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships drew then-unknown athletes like Shane McConkey, Seth Morrison, Kent Kreitler, Glen Plake, Doug Coombs, Chris Davenport, Brant Moles, Dave Swanwick, Dean Conway, Dean Cummings, Kasha Rigby, Kristen Ulmer, Kim Reichhelm and Fisher. Those pioneering athletes would spark demand for wider skis that could float in deep powder. They fomented a grassroots outcry for resorts to open more steep terrain. They forged a path for generations of skiers who continue to chase powder and defy gravity with increasingly spectacular athleticism.

“No question it was one of the most influential events in the history of skiing,” says Aspen’s Davenport, whose first competition in the 1994 U.S. Extreme Skiing Championship at Crested Butte birthed a professional skiing career that continues today. “It changed everything.”

Back in the early 1990s, pro skiers were either high-profile ski racers or eking by in moguls competitions. They were on skis that had not really changed for 40 years. Snowboarding was cool and skiing was stagnant. The first-ever extreme skiing contests ignited what would become today’s freeskiing movement, with heliskiing, hordes of backcountry adventurers, Olympic contests and international superstars, some of whom returned to Crested Butte earlier this month to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships.

Former Olympian Wendy Fisher finished third in the US Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte in 1997. (Flip McCririck/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Crested Butte local, Wendy Fisher, is now a mother of two, a DJ and an on-mountain guide for skiers exploring the steeps of her home hill. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
‘Crazy or brilliant?’

Reichhelm had just won the inaugural World Extreme Skiing Championship in Valdez, Alaska, in 1991 when she joined producer John “Sandy” Santucci and approached CBMR’s marketing boss, the late Bob Gillen, with a proposal for the first extreme skiing contest in the Lower forty-eight.

“It was an easy idea to like,” says Gina Kroft, the former CBMR events coordinator whose support for out-of-the-box events at the end-of-the-road ski area would eventually elevate her as the godmother of the extreme skiing movement.

But it was not necessarily an easy idea to sell to the owners of resorts. The bread-and-butter for U.S. ski resorts back then were families and intermediate skiers and marketing focused on them, with promises of pretty views, nice restaurants and quality grooming.

CBMR’s owners, Ralph Walton and Howard “Bo” Callaway, had one response, Kroft says.

“Safety first and how are we going to pay for it,” she says.

Kroft went to work. Within months she had Budweiser on board as a sponsor. She’d later enlist Visa, Volkswagen, GoreTex, PowerBar, American Express, Saab, Coors and other heavyweight corporate sponsors for the event.

In those first few years, Kroft sent CBMR patrollers to Valdez to work with patrollers there in setting up competition venues. She financed a growing cadre of local skiers who traveled the world competing in nascent big-mountain competitions.

“Gina made it all happen. We called her Miss Wizard. She had the magic touch and none of this would have happened without her,” says Flip McCririck, whose celebrated career in sports photography began with shots of extreme skiing athletes.

“I don’t remember it that way. It was a team effort. I was just the events person,” says Kroft, who now lives in California. “Nobody else was doing this. We had the best ski patrol in the world.”

As if on cue, Barb Peters, who won the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships in 1992 and became known as “Big Air Barb,” comes up and gives Kroft a hug.

“This is all because of you, Gina,” she says. “I remember you gave me a check for $200 in 1993 to help me pay for my trip to Alaska for the Worlds. You made all of this happen.”

Soon Kroft and her team launched snowboard, telemark and junior extreme events on the same steep terrain.

Brant Moles during the competition in 1997. (Flip McCririck/Special to The Sun)

Crested Butte positioned itself as an adventurous skiing destination in the 1990s, says Scout Walton, the son of Ralph. Even though most skiers were not necessarily heading over to the steep and gnarly terrain, they liked that it was there, Walton says.

“We needed those intermediate skiers, but the presence of that terrain, it helped them go back home and tell our story, about a place they could share with the best skiers in the world,” he says. “They didn’t necessarily go over there but they would see it and they would go back and tell everyone they went to Crested Butte and saw some of the most extreme skiing in the country.”

Walton says there was dissent in the ranks when Kroft and her team started championing CBMR as the steepest, most extreme ski area in the West.

“There was some resistance,” he says. “It wasn’t obvious. Gina always asked us ‘Is this crazy or is it brilliant?’ We wanted to be bold and we straddled that line between crazy and brilliant, I think.”

A one-of-a-kind lift that changed everything

The promotion of CBMR’s expert-only terrain began in the late 1980s. Skiers were shouldering their skis and hiking up ridgelines at the ski area for many years when then marketing boss, John Norton, proposed building a surface lift to access the hundreds of acres of steep terrain on the resort’s northern boundary.

“I was bitching and moaning about the need to expand and I proposed the idea of a lift-served north face to Ralph Walton. He said ‘Well, John, if you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you pay for it with your marketing budget,’” Norton says. “I went back to my office and came back after a couple hours and said ‘OK, I’ll do it and we will rock the world with this one-of-a-kind lift.’”

The North Face Lift – a used Poma platter purchased from Ski Broadmoor in Colorado Springs when it closed – opened in 1987. Today, the North Face and High Lift access more than half of CBMR’s acreage, offering one of the deepest collections of double-black-diamond terrain anywhere in the country.

“It was an immediate hit and it changed everything. The focus of the industry went from family-friendly to ripping families,” says Norton, who left CBMR for Aspen Skiing Co. in 1991 and returned in 2002 to serve as CEO before the Waltons and Callaways sold to the Mueller family. “It made our skiing so exciting and it added the challenge and awe that came to define Crested Butte Mountain Resort.”

Judges and the crowds watch as skiers compete off cliffs during the US Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte in 1998. (Flip McCririck/Special to The Sun)
Skiers check the scoreboard during the US Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte in 1998. (Flip McCririck/Special to The Sun)

CBMR opened its freeskiing contests to juniors in 1999 and today, the number of junior competitions in steep terrain at resorts around the country exponentially outnumber the pro-level contests. Eric “H” Baumm, a 30-year ski patroller at CBMR who traveled the globe helping other resorts set up freeskiing venues and contests, credits Norton and Kroft for enabling the athletes who pushed the sport out of stagnancy.

“The ski industry really evolved after the North Face lift. The skiers who came here, they were tested and they were schooled,” says Baumm, who now works as a catskiing guide for The Eleven Experience at Irwin above Crested Butte. “They were the athletes who ultimately helped change the sport.”

Vail Resorts takes the reins

Vail Resorts acquired CBMR from the Mueller family in 2018. The largest resort operator in North America has spent the past three seasons catching up on deferred maintenance and figuring out where the Gunnison County ski area fits into the marketing and operation of 37 ski areas in the U.S. and Canada.

Tara Schoedinger, the former mayor of Boulder County’s Jamestown, started as CBMR’s first female general manager in June. She said she recognizes the challenges the previous owners at the steep ski area faced: attracting families and intermediate skiers while promoting the terrain that draws experts.

“It’s definitely a balance and it’s one that will take a bit to work through, but it’s one I’m committed to and certainly my team, who has been here much longer than me, is committed to,” Schoedinger says. “There is something really special here. You can feel it in the air. It’s around this mountain and it’s around this amazing town. I want to focus on bringing everything together to celebrate what we have here that is so amazing.”

Back at the bottom of the precipitous Staircase run, Fisher and Wehrman are sharing stories about their contest experiences. Back then, two panels of judges would be set up below different sections. Skiers would be scored cumulatively on five or even six runs across three or four days. A single fall could not only wreck your body, it could ruin your score.

Summit County’s Rex Wehrman won the US Extreme Skiing Championships twice. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Wendy Fisher, in front, skis with CBMR ski instructor David McGuire, at right, on the slopes of Crested Butte ski area earlier this month. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“It was exhausting,” says Summit County’s Wehrman, who competed in several U.S. Extreme Skiing contests, winning two titles, before serving as an event judge. “It was hard to show up for that second run. So nerve-wracking. You had already expended all your adrenaline. It was dangerous. Why would you go back and do it again, you know?”

Wehrman and Fisher ski into the woods at the bottom of Sock It To Me, hollering over their shoulder at a waiting crew. It’s time to do it again. The allure of the high-consequence terrain remains high, even as the still-ripping pros enter their 50s.

“If we hurry,” Fisher says, “we can get another lap on the North Face.”

And we hurry.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.