Cross-Country Skiing in Crested Butte

Gary Sprung co-founded the Crested Butte Nordic Council and invented the Alley Loop ski race.

Skiers race down Sopris Alley in the second running of the Crested Butte Alley Loop. –photo by Gnurps

I had three clear reasons for choosing Crested Butte as my new home in 1979 and “cross-country skiing out my backyard” was one of them. The alpine ski area was setting half-decent cross-country ski tracks, but discontinued that program by 1981. Though we still had outstanding backcountry skiing right next to town, CB also needed developed, groomed ski tracks. To groom ski tracks, you need at least one piece of machinery heavier than your typical snowmobile. (Although I know that the Western State College ski team used to human groom with teams of snowshoers and skiers.) After some intermittent experimentation, a group of us organized the Crested Butte Nordic Council (CBNC) and convinced the CB Town Council to give us money to buy a heavy, Alpine Ski-Doo capable of towing a grooming sled. With that machine, we started making tracks on “The Bench” just south of town.

Around that time I saw a couple photos in Cross Country Skier magazine of towns in Europe where skiers skied snowy streets. Hmm… Maybe Crested Butte is snowy enough for that… We’re pretty much the snowiest municipality in Colorado. CB has lovely alleys in between its standard grid of streets. At that time, they were never plowed and held three to six feet of snow. Quaint shacks and sheds, some occupied by lower-income hippies, lined the alleys. We could definitely set tracks in those alleys. I came up with the name “Alley Loop”, thinking of the old “Alley Oop” newspaper comic about a caveman.

So I proposed it to my CBNC board and they encouraged me to go for it. I asked permission from the CB Town Council and they were psyched. We needed to connect the alleys to each other, which meant temporarily moving snow onto parts of active streets. The town volunteered some use of the town’s front-end loader, which normally moves snow off the streets.

Gary skiing Elk Avenue during the Alley Loop
Gary skiing Elk Avenue during the 30th Alley Loop. He and wife Carolyn Hales went “all natural”: wool sweater, hat, and pants; wood skis and poles.

We posted fliers and took out some local ads and held the first Crested Butte Alley Loop ski race in 1986. It has been held every year since and it has grown into the oldest, largest cross-country ski race in Colorado. My standard promotion of the idea: “Unlike normal cross-country ski races where the racers quickly disappear from the start and into the woods, the Alley Loop brings skiers right next to people’s homes and businesses.” So locals have parties in their yards and even distribute food and drink, including liquor, to the racers. Many participants liven up the party with fun costumes. All sorts people participate: fast and slow, young and old. Elite ski racers travel from afar to compete in this “Birkebeiner qualifier”.

I’m proud to be called “the father of the Alley Loop”. When I register for it, CBNC has given me bib #1.

CBNC has now grown into a mature, vibrant, non-profit organization that sets about 30 km of track, operates a fine nordic and ice-skating center with rentals and lessons, and holds many fun events. I’m so grateful to the people who have continued to build the Crested Butte Nordic Council. Thank you!

  • Early brochure for the Crested Butte Nordic Council with map and photos by Gary
  • Article by Gary in early newsletter published by Crested Butte Nordic Council
The start of the first Alley Loop ski race, at First and Elk in Crested Butte. –photo by Gnurps
Gary being interviewed during the race
Gary served as race director for the first three Alley Loops.
Vertical shot of racer skating down the alley south of Elk Ave.
Racing down the southern Elk Ave. alley, 1988. — photo by Gnurps