Irwin, Colorado, has seen better days. In the early 1880s some 5,000 people lived here, and the town, high in the West Elk Mountains, boasted hotels, shops, churches, dancehalls, a post office and the only brass band in Gunnison County. Prospectors poured in from as far away as Scotland, and the mines in the hills surrounding the town – with names like the Forest Queen, the Bullion King and the Ruby Chief – churned out some $2m in silver.
The newly arrived miners felled trees to build their cabins, and added lengths of stovepipe to their chimneys to keep them free of the mounting snow. When the spring thaw came, some found that they had chimneys 20ft high. Spirits were kept up by the 23 saloons. The story goes that the first mayor, Edward Travers, enjoyed his liquor so much that one Fourth of July he suspended the law banning shooting so that he and an Irish saloon keeper could play a game: one would spread his fingers against the wall while the other shot at the gaps.
The high times didn’t last. By 1884 the falling price of silver and the rising costs of extraction tipped Irwin into decline. Buildings were dismantled, the materials carted off to other boom towns. A 1920 census recorded just nine residents. Soon all that remained were a few ruined cabins and the lonely gravestones in the abandoned cemetery.
Almost a century later we approach across snowy pastures in a high-tech, caterpillar-tracked vehicle named “the Tucker”. It’s brightly lit, heavily insulated against the cold and carries canisters of oxygen should we suffer the effects of the 3,170m altitude. It could be a submarine approaching an ancient wreck on the seabed – but this isn’t an expedition intent on historical research. Inside the vehicle, our group of 10 is watching ski movies on a large flatscreen while rock music blasts from the speakers. For the snow that was the bane of the early settlers’ lives is now the area’s key asset, and Irwin is in the process of being rediscovered and reimagined as one of the world’s most exclusive ski retreats.
A new, no-expense-spared operation called Eleven Experience is offering the slopes around Irwin as a private resort for skiers who could afford Aspen or Courchevel but prefer something a little more adventurous and under-the-radar. The owner is Chad Pike, vice-chairman of investment and advisory group Blackstone Europe, who is building a portfolio of super-luxe holiday properties around the world – a country estate in Wiltshire, a colonial beach house in the Bahamas and so on. Guests stay 12 miles from Irwin, at Scarp Ridge Lodge in the town of Crested Butte.
Built in the 1880s, the building was once a miner’s saloon and meeting house for immigrant Croatian workers. Today it costs at least $13,500 a night and sleeps up to 18 in high style – with cinema room, swimming pool, roof-top hot tub, bar and so on. The interior is beautifully designed but it’s more like a fantasy home for a ski nut than a five-star hotel. Guests can help themselves in the kitchen and bars; there are copies of Powder magazine beside The New York Times on the coffee table. Service is exceptional but low-key: instead of a suited concierge, there’s a guy called Moose in a checked shirt and baseball cap.
For trips to the town’s bars and restaurants, guests can choose between a chauffeured 4x4 or one of the funky fat-wheeled bikes in the racks outside. Then in the morning they can ski with the public at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, or take the Tucker to their own private mountain.
Reaching Irwin, we clamber down the Tucker’s metal steps and into the Movie Cabin, our base for the day (so called because it was used as the main set for the 1979 film Mountain Family Robinson). In some ways it’s an archetypal mountain cabin – rough-hewn log walls, corrugated-iron roof, blazing fire – but like everything about Eleven, it has been injected with as much luxury as possible. So there are trays of homemade cookies and cakes, an espresso pot on the smart stove, a fully stocked bar and a big screen that drops down from the roof for viewing photos and film of our skiing exploits, captured by the professional photographer who comes as part of the package.
Steve Banks, the head guide, gives a safety briefing and then we are back outside, not to ride cable cars and chairlifts – there are none – but to board another custom-made, caterpillar-tracked vehicle to take us to the slopes. This is “cat-skiing” – skiers are ferried to the top of the mountain by a special vehicle, they ski down, then are collected at the bottom of the run and taken back up. Traditionally it’s been seen as the poor man’s alternative to heli-skiing, but there’s nothing poor about this. Most cats have basic bench seats in a Portakabin-style box on the back of the vehicle. Eleven’s have more in common with limousines: there are upholstered leather seats, picture windows, a sound system and onboard snacks and drinks.
The real draw, though, is the snow. Though few have ever heard of it, Irwin gets more snow than any other resort in the state – an average of 600in (15.2m) per year – and double that of Crested Butte’s own slopes just down the road. At the summit, we wait for the cat to chug away, then pause to enjoy the total silence and far-reaching views. But yahoo tendencies soon win out. I’ve piggybacked on a group of high-end travel agents brought in to see the new operation at work, and a party atmosphere continues all day. We dive into the powderfields and carve through forest glades, gradually getting used to being the only skiers on the entire mountain. At the bottom we pile into the cat to compare notes and laugh at the biggest falls until we’re back at the top and ready to do it all over again.
Irwin isn’t the only Colorado ghost town enjoying a new, and remarkably luxurious, lease of life. Four hours’ drive south, my next stop is a mining camp founded in 1879, the same year as Irwin, by a prospector called Horatio Dunton. For a city-dwelling European, approaching it by car is an unnerving prospect. I turn off a minor road 10 miles north of Cortez, to begin a 30-mile drive up a remote dead-end valley beside the west fork of the Dolores River. The tarmac turns to gravel, then the gravel to snow. There is no traffic and nothing to see but beautiful, forest-covered hillsides and glimpses of peaks far above. I worry I’ve taken a wrong turn and will have to perform a teetering three-point turn in the snow, but then finally the road emerges from the trees into a riverside clearing, where a dozen cabins stand among drifts of sparkling snow. Plumes of smoke puff from the chimneys.
Butch Cassidy reputedly holed up here after robbing his first bank, in Telluride, just over the mountains to the north. That was in June 1889 but it still feels like a hideaway, and the cabins look little changed. I park the car and crunch across the snow to the saloon, its windowsills covered in a jumble of antlers, old coloured glass bottles and horseshoes; its door is protected from snowfall by a rusty corrugated-iron lean-to.
Inside, though, things feel rather different – a blend of Wild West and a more metropolitan sensibility. There’s a polished wooden bar covered with names of previous customers (including Butch), signed with pocket knives. But there are also large works of art by photographers Jane Hilton, David LaChapelle, Terry Evans and William Eggleston. The dancehall next door has Terry Allen’s photographs of Francis Bacon’s studio.
Today, Dunton – it took its founder’s name – is owned by Christoph Henkel, a London-based, German-born businessman, whose family firm Henkel AG employs some 47,000 people worldwide and whose brands include Persil washing powder, Schwarzkopf shampoo and Loctite glue. Since the 1990s he has been restoring it with his wife Katrin, an art dealer, and they live some of the year in a modernist villa hidden among the trees nearby.
Paths lead out through the snow from the saloon to the guest cabins. Back in the 1970s these were rented out to singers, poets and visiting bikers for a few dollars a night; today they cost between $600 and $1,800. They are immaculately done, keeping their rustic feel while also housing an eclectic collection of art and antiques. One cabin houses a cosy library, another a gorgeous pool fed by natural hot springs heavy with minerals. Dunton can sleep up to 44 but is usually far quieter – when I visit there are just two couples staying, so the place has a suitably forgotten feel.
Again there are no lifts here. Instead, there is cross-country skiing and ski touring from the door, or heli-skiing (the helicopter comes over from Telluride to pick guests up). Many, though, come just to enjoy the peace.
Next morning, after blueberry pancakes, I leave for the area’s best-known resort, Telluride. It was never completely abandoned but was thought of as a ghost town after the mining boom collapsed. The cheap housing left behind helped create a thriving hippy scene, boosted by the arrival of ski bums when the first lifts opened in 1972. The Grateful Dead came to town for a series of shows in 1987, and the following year town councillor “Rasta Stevie” Smith was interviewed in the classic ski film The Blizzard of Aahhh’s, explaining his vision for its future. “I’m trying to prevent Telluride from becoming this world-class, snooty, ritzy place,” he said. “We’re not a posh place for people to come and buy fur coats and dilly-dally in fancy restaurants. I hope it will stay cool and funky.”
For better or worse, Rasta Stevie’s plan comprehensively failed. There’s still a “freebox” for people to exchange unwanted clothes but the main street is lined with estate agents, and the once-crumbling Sheridan has become a beautiful boutique hotel. A “European-style” village and multimillion-dollar chalets have been built on the slopes, which have been expanded to offer some of the best skiing in the US.
Telluride’s little museum tells a fascinating story of its changing fortunes, but visitors who want to see the mining and hippy heritage up close don’t have to go far. At the edge of one of the pistes, I meet my guide Matt Bowling, who is waiting with a couple of skidoos. He shows me the controls and we’re off, whizzing through the snowdrifts until we come to the ghost town of Alta Lakes.
It operated from 1878 right through to 1940, so many of the buildings are still standing. Bowling points out the boarding house, the manager’s home (which still has its fireplace), several bungalows and the remains of the tramway used to haul ore from mine to mill. The cost of getting coal up here was so high that the owners introduced electricity, making this one of the first towns in the US to do so.
Our goal, the Alta Lakes Observatory, is set beside a snow-covered lake just beyond the ghost town. A large cabin that sleeps 10, it was built over three summers in the 1970s by a Vietnam veteran and a crew of hippies. The 1941 army truck they used to haul supplies still sits beside the lake, half-buried in snow. For the next four decades it became a venue for parties and wedding receptions, before being bought in 2011 by Bowling, a former equities trader, and his two brothers. They have carried out renovations but it hasn’t lost its rustic character. A huge moose head stares down from the wall; ski boots are dried by the fire.
The “European-style” village, cod-Italian restaurants and celebrity-owned chalets are just beyond the ridge, but guests at the Observatory are alone amid memories of the Wild West. Rasta Stevie, Horatio Dunton and old Mayor Travers would fit right in.
Tom Robbins was a guest of British Airways (www.ba.com) and Colorado Ski Country (www.coloradoski.com). Scarp Ridge Lodge (www.elevenexperience.com) costs $13,500 per night for 10 people, including cat-skiing, guiding, equipment and transfers. Dunton Hot Springs (www.duntonhotsprings.com) has cabins for two from $600 per night, all inclusive. The Observatory (www.altalakes.com) costs from $700 per night for up to six. BA fly daily from London to Denver, from £652 return