A GLANCE INTO HISTORY
The Crested Butte Ski Area is famous for having the first extreme skiing within ski area boundaries in the United States. It was not always that way. The ski area began during the winter of 1961-62. Seven years later, an event took place that would shape the ski area forever.
During the winter of 1968-69 Mountain Manager Vic Dennis and Snow Ranger Shammy Somrak began studying aerial photographs of Crested Butte Mountain and determined that there were huge open bowls adjacent to Paradise Bowl.
A party of skiers was put together to climb out of Paradise, cross the ridge and look at the bowls they had observed in the photographs. On a clear February day patrol leader Mike Burns, assistant leader John Burns, patrolman Forest Ekblad, along with Dennis and Somrak made their way to the top of a ridge that looked north.
The five men observed three giant and very steep slopes which ended almost at the East River. Explosive charges were thrown into the top bowl and nothing slid, so the five all skied the first bowl without incident. The skiing was sensational. Steep, great powder and a perfect fall line.
The skiers then threw explosive charges again and cut the second bowl. There was one step or bowl left to the bottom. Looking at that very steep section, Somrak told the other four men, “Boys, we better not ski that ‘last steep,’ otherwise it’s going to be a long walk out.” And that is how the Last Steep restaurant on Elk Avenue got its name.
The five men then cut left into the trees and returned to the Crested Butte Ski Area. Four days later, patrolman John Burns went back to the North Face with three ski instructors to show them what had been found. When they arrived at the top of the first bowl, they saw that the entire slope had slid all the way to the bottom of the Last Steep. Not a word was said. The four did a kick turn and silently skied back to where they had come from. No one went back for the rest of the year because the skiers knew the area would not be skiable.
During the next season,1969-70, only one trip was made to the North Face. Late in the season, two patrolmen, Cotton Harris and Rick Buzzell, came to Mike Burns and asked if they could climb to the top of the North Face, ski all three steeps and then work their way around the mountain back to the base area. Burns agreed and went with them.
When they reached the top, Burns threw a one-pound explosive charge. Nothing happened and Burns said, “Well, boys, take a cut across the slope.” Buzzell stepped out on the slope and started his cut when everything below him fractured across the entire steep, three feet deep. With a tremendous roar, it slid all the way to the bottom of the Last Steep. Buzzell quickly turned out of his cut and once again, not a word was said as the three men skied out.
The events of the winter of 1968-69 and 1969-70 were the beginning of extreme skiing at Crested Butte. In the early 1970s when the North Face was opened, about 15-20 of us skied the top two bowls and then traversed out because of no lifts below. The skiing was fantastic. Steep terrain, deep powder, no bumps and only a few skiers. There are great extreme runs today at Crested Butte, but the first and greatest of them all was the fabulous North Face. Ah, memories!