Iced Lightning: The slippery slope of walking in a winter wonderland

Crested Butte’s icy sidewalks present challenges…

 “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” —Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings


Many find Crested Butte’s double black diamond and extreme terrain intimidating, but even more people think navigating the icy streets and sidewalks of town is comparably treacherous, if not downright more dangerous.
Winter in a high-country ski town can be harsh when seasonal snowfall often reaches well over 300 inches and the mercury registers subzero temps—but being essentially snow farmers, this is the bumper crop we want.
The ice and snow build-up on streets and sidewalks is inevitable and a prime concern for the safety of both locals and tourists. While it’s true that winter conditions have an unavoidable risk factor at 9,000 feet that requires awareness, preparation and a certain degree of common sense on the part of town, property owners and pedestrians, can go a long way in preventing injury and generating tourism dollars.
The town of Crested Butte regulations state that the sidewalk—defined as “only the concrete portion of a pedestrian way fronting or adjacent to any private property”—is to be maintained by the property owner, and more specifically dictates that the owner must clear and remove “snow or ice from a path of at least 5 feet in width from so much of the sidewalk as is adjacent to said premises.”
Rather than deal with constant shoveling and imminent ice, some property owners have taken the initiative and incurred the expense of installing heated sidewalks. There are arguments for and against heated downtown sidewalks. The pros: the obvious safety factors, the benefits to tourism and the tax revenues those dollars add to the coffers. The cons: the carbon footprint such an energy expenditure incurs and the need to validate the tougher-than-thou mountain folk mantra.
The ice melting systems used today are far more energy efficient and safer than those used a few decades ago, as remembered by Aspen resident and journalist Lorenzo Semple. He recalls that in the early 1980s, the Aspen Club was testing its newly installed electrically heated sidewalk.
Just as the contractors flipped the switch, a large dog walked onto the sidewalk and was immediately, and tragically, electrocuted.
Systems used these days in most towns, including Crested Butte, are not electric but natural gas-fired boilers that heat conduits of antifreeze-filled pipes. Semple’s opinion is, “Heated sidewalks [in Aspen] are seen as a sign of excess and wastefulness and general uselessness and are frowned upon by grizzled, jaded locals like myself. That is, of course, until someone takes a fall on an off-camber-tilted skating-rink of a sidewalk and shatters their elbow.”
That sentiment is shared by many of our own locals as well.
Fifth-generation local Bill Lacy installed heated sidewalks on several of his Elk Avenue properties about five years ago and feels that the benefits of having a safe environment for his business tenants’ patrons outweigh the costs.
“There’s technology out there that will allow you to walk on the sidewalks in the wintertime without falling down. We were the first to propose it,” he says, after researching other resorts. He also concluded heated sidewalks were the most efficient and safe method to deal with ice.
“We wanted to do what was best for our tenants and if our tenants are successful then we are too. We’re a ski resort town,” Lacy contends. “Most of our revenue is generated from sales tax and in order to get that sales tax you’ve got to get people into those businesses, and to do that you have to make it welcoming.
“People want to walk, they want to shop and look at the windows,” Lacy continues. “The best way to keep them there is to make it comfortable for them to be there.” Back when Lacy put in his first ice melting system, he witnessed a town council that was not in favor of heated sidewalks. Lacy says the council even wanted to charge excessive fees in addition to the already exorbitant costs owners paid to have their walks cleared.
Now, Lacy sees a change in attitude, “The council today is much more pro-business. This council is asking how it can help business owners,” he says. He suggests giving tax credits as an incentive to install the ice-removal systems and offset the costs.
And indeed, it appears the town council may be open to the idea. Crested Butte mayor Aaron Huckstep reports that the town is planning repairs to certain sections of the sidewalks next year, and if business owners are interested in heating the sidewalks in front of their businesses, then the town is proposing to provide the labor and demolition work to help defray the costs.
Letters were sent out to affected businesses last week informing them of the opportunity. Huckstep said, “We can do more to help the situation. In theory, removing the snow banks on Elk Avenue helps, too. On sunny days the melting snowbanks create more ice.”
Beaver Creek Resort has calculated the risks and weighed the environmental factors, determining that heated ice-removal systems have less of a carbon footprint than the sum of all the factors involved in removing snow with machines and began installation in the early ‘90s. Their gas-fired boilers circulate a glycol liquid that is more environmentally friendly if a leak occurs, according to Jerry Hensel of Beaver Creek Resort public works. He explains, “Beaver Creek has 350,000 square feet of snow-melted sidewalks, plazas, roads and driveways. There’s no snow removal… it’s a much cleaner and safer environment. You can wear slippers on it.” He adds in all seriousness, “All it takes one slip and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit to make it worthwhile, and aesthetically it’s much nicer because there’s no machinery, no slip and fall. You’d have to use machinery to clear all the snow and ice here and that leaves a bigger carbon footprint than heating the areas.” Beaver Creek Resort Company funds the snow removal for the village.
Jake Jones, director of Crested Butte’s Department of Parks and Recreation, acknowledges the challenges of helping to keep the sidewalks safe. “We’ll try to get out in the afternoon and plow but on a crowded sidewalk after a certain time of day, it’s too crowded and the risks are too great. “
Jones explains that the town’s smaller Bobcat that is used to clear the sidewalks creates a dangerous situation with pedestrians present. “We have to wait until as early as possible in the morning to get the bus stops and town park cleared in order to move people through town and get kids to school. There’s a lot going on the morning when it snows and there are two machines going. I believe the town’s getting a pretty great service as far as snow removal and service. I can’t imagine how we can do more.”
Public works director Rodney Due assured, “We keep Elk Avenue, the bus stops and emergency routes plowed down to pavement. All crosswalks in town are plowed as part of the street and we sand the intersections on a regular basis.” When asked about the perilous mid-street crosswalks on Elk Avenue, like the notorious slip-n-slide from the Princess Wine Bar to the post office, Due agreed and set a new course of action: “I think we can address sanding the mid-street crosswalks and add them to the list.”
Yes, some of our visitors are sporting slick western boots and high heels and are obviously unprepared for the vacation clime they chose, because for some it’s their first experience with snow or winter. They may not even know such essentials as YakTrax exist. Those who are savvy about winter tourism trends suggest giving the ice-gripping shoe attachments as part of the package to incoming tourists. Some locals have smirked while cackling the “Toughen up Buttercup” credo, even going so far as to suggest tourists and locals who can’t do the dicey dance should leave for warmer climes.
Many feel that business owners and the town should be more proactive in snow and ice removal. Although the vintage photo of Tony in front of his Conoco shows him meticulously shoveling and chipping ice in the dark to ensure a safe walkway, the truth is, the town has changed quite a bit since those days when there weren’t as many residents slogging around, certainly not as many tourists, and downtown wasn’t bustling as it is today. The “toughen up, deal with it, love it or leave it” attitude isn’t really viable in Crested Butte anymore, not if we want to continue as a viable tourist destination.
Long-time local Lynda Petito summed it up best when she said, “As somebody who came here in the ‘70s when I was in my early 30s, I really don’t feel like I should have to move when I’ve invested a life here. Now my body doesn’t work as well as it did, it’s harder to balance, etc. I’d like to see those not-so-hot spots, like the entrance to the post office, easier to navigate. I know this is a tough place, which actually does make it cooler to be part of, but it’s also difficult to get old here.”
And it’s not just aging hippies and baby boomers who sustain icy sidewalk injuries—there have been kids, pregnant moms, grandmothers and even the gnar shredders, not to mention the disabled who could use some better conditions for maneuverability.
Yes, we choose to live in a winter wonderland and we are elated when it dumps gloriously deep, powdery white stuff. It’s why our winter tourists spend all that money just to get here, whether they understand what they’re actually getting into or not. Perhaps if tourists felt safer walking on our sidewalks, they’d leave their cars and ride the bus more often, and even walk—and fewer cars in town makes things definitely safer for streets and pedestrians and makes way less of a carbon footprint.
Perhaps since we’d all benefit from spending more time on the slopes by reason of less shoveling and fewer injuries from taking that spill on greased lightning walks—just maybe having heated sidewalks isn’t something to snarl about.

Until then… Please dress sensibly—you’re in the mountains—avoid wearing high heels, don’t walk with your hands in your pockets since you’ll never get them out in time to brace a fall, and be aware of ice. Dress warmly, because being cold will make you tense up and that means less balance and control. Use common sense and don’t run on slick walks or streets, EVER, not even to catch the Mountain Express shuttle because there’s another bus in 15 minutes and besides, you’re on Crested Butte time, so relax and enjoy. Most important, invest in a pair of YakTrax or similar ice gripping cleated spikes for your boots and shoes.

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