After hibernating for eight long winters, Colorado’s snowiest resort reopens December 15 with an upscale identity as fresh as its 600 annual inches of powder.
Situated in a meteorologically blessed section of the West Elk Mountains 12 miles west of Crested Butte, Colorado, Irwin has never struggled in the snowfall department (it topped 1,000 inches in ’07-’08). But management has been a different story: The old Irwin Lodge, a giant, rustic cabin that included a 20-room hotel, restaurant and bar in addition to a basic catskiing operation, became a local’s favorite outpost to party and ski, but it shut down in 2002. Despite subsequent attempts to revive the ski area, its Forest Service permit eventually expired.
Enter CS Irwin, a new catskiing company with a permit encompassing about half of the terrain used by the old operation. Beginning its first full season after three years of planning and a soft opening last spring, Irwin’s absurd snowfall hasn’t changed—it’s already tallied 150 inches as of early December—but its reputation as a no-frills operation has been replaced with a new luxe persona.
“We’re trying to create a bit of an anonymous getaway for high-end people that would like a retreat,” says Alan Bernholtz, CS Irwin’s mountain operations director.
A day at CS Irwin begins at 7:30 a.m., when a brand-new custom snowcat, featuring plush leather seats, silvered barn-wood walls, glove warmers and 360-degree picture windows, picks up the day’s 10 skiers in downtown Crested Butte. It totes them 40 minutes to CS Irwin’s rustic 10,400-foot base cabin, an old employee housing building converted into a cozy warming hut, après lounge and lunchroom for a catered gourmet midday meal. From there, skiers outfitted with Wagner Customs designed for Irwin’s conditions board another brand-new cat, which ascends the 2,100-foot vert of the surrounding terrain. A typical day includes eight to 12 untracked powder runs on the resort’s 1,000-plus acres of intermediate-to-expert glades, chutes and bowls. The price tag? $450 per person, per day, or $4,000 for a private cat. Though CS Irwin doesn’t currently offer lodging accommodations (the old lodge now stands empty), it plans to open a renovated eight-room hotel downtown in the summer.
Market research indicated that Irwin would be a good candidate for an upscale catskiing operation, Bernholtz says, and so far, it seems to be true: nearly two weeks before opening day, CS Irwin was already 30 percent booked through late April.
“We’re definitely piggybacking on a legend,” says Bernholtz, who has lived in the area since the late ’80s and last year finished a four-year term as Crested Butte’s mayor.
Though CS Irwin’s chic direction is a conscious departure from the old Irwin, Bernholtz seems determined to stay true to the spirit of a place where three-foot dumps are unexceptional and blasting through knee-deep powder is as commonplace as carving hardpack elsewhere.
“We’re just skiing,” he says. “We’re not doing anything different. We just put nicer sheets on the bed.”