Crested Butte: Big Drops and High Speeds

 

I was standing on the vertiginous slopes of Crested Butte’s double-black North Face with my son and his ski team this past February. Accessed off the North Face T-Bar, the area is like an enormous rumpled-up sheet, filled with steep cirques, cliffbands, benches, ledges, and chutes that plunge through the trees. I was urging prudence, given the fact that my son was in the middle of quite possibly the most important ski race of the season. “If you can’t see over it, don’t ski over it,” I warned.

After the races, we took the kids to the Headwall. It’s always a good idea to tuck a pine bough in your goggles before tackling the steeps.

So, while I was advocating a cautious approach to the cliff-riddled slopes, my son’s coach was pointing his pole toward a very large hunk of granite. Looky-looky. He and my son made a beeline to the top of it, and the coach jumped off. My son stood at the top, peering over the edge. It was about an 8-foot drop onto a steep apron of snow.

“If this ends badly, I’m going to kill that coach,” I said to myself.  Across the slope, the coach called up to Aidan, “Your mom’s going to kill me if you don’t land this.”

He dropped it and stuck the landing like a pro. I breathed out. The coach lived to ski another day.

Aidan was assigned Team Australia. It took an entire roll of blue duct tape to make this cape.

In the last week of February, the speediest 12- and 13-year-old ski racers in the state of Colorado descend on Crested Butte for the annual Dan Prater Memorial Cup. It also happens to be the most fun race on the schedule and one of the best opportunities for parents to get in some white-knuckle skiing of their own in between watching race runs. The event also has an intriguing backstory that’s wrapped up in Crested Butte history.

The race is a memorial for Dan Prater, whose daughters, Stephanie and Criss Prater, now spearhead, bringing an element of whimsy that is otherwise absent at ski races. Kids are assigned a country (Austria, Poland, Japan…) and a Prater Passport. Throughout the weekend, teams are tasked with amassing Prater points, which they can get for affixing country flags to their jackets, for spraying country flags on the snow with watered-down food coloring, for skiing to all ends of the resort on a scavenger hunt, and for picking up dirty plates at the barbecue.

Stephanie Prater flanked by the brothers Puckett (Casey at left; Chris at right.)

Some kids turn white pillowcases into flags that are worn like capes; others wear bathrobes with country flags drawn on the back. Helmets, shin guards, and pole guards are duct-taped with flags. How anybody cuts the Canadian maple leaf out of red duct tape, I’ll never know.

In the late 1960s, Dan Prater brought his family on ski trips to Crested Butte from Wichita, Kansas. Dan’s childhood babysitter happened to be Dick Elfin, who along with Fred Rice, co-founded Crested Butte Mountain Resort in 1961. “We’ve been a part of this valley for a long, long time,” says Stephanie.

Dan Prater, the event’s namesake, living life to the fullest.

Dan was instantly smitten with the remote Colorado outpost. He bought a house off Elk Avenue, where Stephanie has since raised her daughter, Raven, and still lives today. The whole family didn’t move out permanently until later, as Stephanie and Criss wanted to finish high school in Kansas. “Once my dad moved out, he stayed,” she says.

In his heyday, Dan was known to frequent the town’s watering holes and, wearing his signature horse-hair coat, jump up on stage with local bands, playing his bumbass—a  drum of sorts with tambourine, wood block and a cowbell on a stringed stick. “It’s a crazy instrument,” says Stephanie. “He sure loved his scotch.”  Dan Prater soon became an institution in Crested Butte.

At the T-Bar Lift, a framed and signed picture of Telly Savalas, star of the 1970s tv show Kojak, greets skiers. The lifties say you should touch the picture for good luck.

Then, in October 1979, Dan choked on a hunk of steak at Slogars. The community was devastated.  He was only 42. “His motto was to live every day like it’s the last,” says Stephanie. “He lived every minute like that, without a doubt.” To honor his memory, the Dan Prater Memorial race was established in 1980, and it’s been going strong ever since.

In a neat twist, this year’s top racer in the men’s division was a young teen named Cooper Puckett—and bear with me on this—whose dad is former U.S. Ski Teamer and Winter Olympian Chris Puckett, whose dad is Paul Puckett, who was Dan Prater’s attorney in Crested Butte in the 1970s. “Paul and my dad were close,” says Stephanie. Not coincidentally, Paul’s wife is Peggy Puckett, who was an Olympic hopeful for the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble.

Dan had always supported the mountain’s burgeoning race team—including Chris Puckett and his brother, Casey (also an Olympian). “My dad had a 32-foot Winnebago that he would drive around as a support vehicle for the racers,” says Stephanie. “The CB ski club kids would come in, get warm and he’d give them hot chocolate.”

Stephanie (at center) is the grand marshal of the Prater Cup.

The Prater sisters have carried on the tradition of supporting ski racing with the Prater Cup. Over the course of the four-day competition, they dole out milk and cookies at the opening ceremony, pizza at the mini-golf party, and hot dogs at the barbecue. Stephanie mans the grill herself. At awards time, Stephanie hands out gear from the sponsors she’s been hound-dogging all year. Oakley, Giro, and Bolle goggles, Dakine backpacks, Hestra gloves, POC helmets, and Spyder jackets.  “It’s not a ski race,” she says. “It’s a snow festival.”

 

 

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