“It changed everything”: How Crested Butte’s first-ever extreme skiing contests 30 years ago birthed the freeskiing movement
The pioneering athletes competing in the first U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte transformed the resort industry with a push for wider skis and steeper terrain.
“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.
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.
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.