CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - I am not in a ski movie, but the extreme terrain suggests otherwise. It is gut-wrenchingly steep in the high-elevation bowl with cliffs, tight trees, rock-laden chutes, and bumps.
Nor am I waiting for a director to shout "action" to start the adrenaline-packed run.
Instead, over the pounding of my heart I hear the reassuring Aussie lilt of Angie Hornbrook. An experienced ski instructor and a judge in the US Extreme Freeskiing Championships, which take place about 100 yards from where we are, Hornbrook knows extreme terrain.
"Take it one turn at a time," she advises me and my partner, Jan Duprey. "Use the bumps to help you turn."
One at a time, we make a beeline across the Headwall, not trusting ourselves for that first, fast turn. Gingerly, the awkward turns are made, the forgiving bumps conquered. We resume breathing the thin Rocky Mountain air and ski to the T-bar lift to do it again.
For the New England skier or snowboarder who has wondered what Tuckerman Ravine might be like with lift service, the answer is Crested Butte. Set in the beauty of Gunnison National Forest and the jagged peaks of the Rockies' Elk Mountain Range, the resort about 230 miles southwest of Denver has a base elevation of 9,375 feet.
Its 121 trails provide well-manicured groomers for cruising and enough mountain panoramas to fill a memory card. The East River express serves up incredible vistas with fast-moving runs like Black Eagle and the half-bumped Resurrection. Bushwacker under the Teocalli lift is a wicked rolling run. Paradise Bowl is wide and easy, leading to some black diamond fun on Jokerville and signature International. Stop for a beer at the on-mountain Ice Bar restaurant and finish with a frosty apr??s-ski beverage at the chalet-style Avalanche at the base.
Free shuttle buses make the 3-mile trip from the mountain to the grid-style streets of the onetime mining town. Galleries selling paintings and ceramics abound. Sushi is flown in fresh for the dark and swanky Lobar. The skillet-served huevo rancheros at Paradise Cafe are filling, the tamales at tiny Teocalli are tasty, and beer flows at the rustic Eldo with its outdoor deck overlooking Elk Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare.
There is a New England connection to the resort, which averages more than 300 inches of snow per season and last season had a record-breaking 421 inches. It is owned by Tom and Diane Mueller, owners of Vermont's Okemo and managers of New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee.
Skiing the Rockies and walking the Wild West streets are certainly draws, but the area's Extreme Limits terrain is the big lure. Billed as some of the "steepest and most difficult skiing terrain in North America," our goal was to survive the Peel, a chute under the rocky Pyramid Peak. I was told it was difficult, but a good goal for advanced New England skiers seeking the steeps.
We first skied with a guide, took the Extremes with Ease lesson, and talked to as many death-defying locals as possible.
Frank Konsella, a thirtysomething soul-patched dry waller by summer, knows the steeps. He has finished in the top 10 in the Extreme Championships a few times and he showed us around the trails. We started on the easy groomers, increasing the difficulty until we were on one of the two T-bar lifts serving the chutes. The North Face lift was the ticket to the wide and steep Rachel's, a nice starting point. Following Konsella, with some trepidation, we explored the bowl and an area called the Glades.
"I've been here 11 years and there is still lots of in-bound backcountry skiing here," Konsella said. Though he prefers more challenging areas like the Spellbound and Phoenix bowls, he was patient with us and informative. And when we were done, he said he thought we could handle Peel.
Not every day was about the steeps. There was much fun to be had on groomers and darting into the bumps and trees under a fresh few inches of snow. We met plenty of locals who were somewhat nonplussed about the extremes, which they skied every day.
During the session with Hornbrook we gained confidence.
"Go with your comfort zone," she would say when we seemed nervous. "It is a little mind over body."
On our own, we returned to the adventurous spots we skied with Hornbrook and Konsella, but we didn't venture beyond that.
The last day I reminded Jan about Peel, next to Banana and Funnel, the 2,000-foot vertical drop, narrow chutes easily seen from the Silver Queen lift. When we got off the lift, a sign indicated portions of Peel were closed because a bear and two cubs had emerged from a den. A detour would have taken us to even more extreme terrain.
For the last run of our stay we decided to try the thrilling International. We boarded the Silver Queen with a helmeted stranger who was Peel-bound until we told him about the bears. His plan changed to Funnel and after we told him about our lessons, he agreed to take us along.
He led us past danger signs and into the land of chutes, rocks, and gullies. We cautiously followed a narrow plunging line into the Funnel with its bumps, trees, and exposed rocks. Sidestepping was key. We took one turn at a time. He watched our combined three falls, including a spectacular cartwheeling with skis flying off. The man was patient, waiting as we exited the final compression, navigated a gully, and reached horizontal ground under wonderful aspens. Clearly this was a run we could not have handled without help.
In thanks, we offered to buy him a drink but he never showed.
We later learned he was Gary Keiser, a candidate for Town Council. When I e-mailed him to thank him for his generosity, he replied that he was sorry he had missed the drink, but he just couldn't resist two more runs.
Marty Basch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.