Why Western Colorado University is the Best School for Skiing and Riding

Dominic Gawel | | Featured ArticleFeatured Article
Credit: Kate Wasson

Brought to you by Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism

Western Colorado University is hands down the best school for skiing and riding. Western is located in Gunnison, Colorado, 30 miles from world-class skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Crested Butte is famed for its vast acreage of extreme skiing, sunny weather, and classic ski town culture. From several competitive skiing teams, unique academic offerings, the tight-knit culture of the school, a free bus to Crested Butte, and more, Western is the school for any hardcore skier or rider.

Western is a small school with over 100 areas of study and about 3,000 students between graduate and undergraduate students. It has an average class size of 16, which keeps a high quality and personalized education. Also, 71% of faculty have the highest degree of study in their field. Many professors choose Western for the same reasons students do – its unique location, specialty areas of study, and small class sizes. 

The school’s remote location in the Rocky Mountains facilitates specialty areas of study like the Outdoor Industry MBA, M.S. in High Altitude Exercise Physiology, and the new Paul M. Rady School of Engineering. The new engineering school is in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder. This new school expanded Western’s campus with an $80 million facility spanning 75,000 square feet. It offers students the chance to earn a degree from the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science while studying at Western. For the future ski designer, the Outdoor Industry Engineering pathway gives students the tools to design and improve outdoor gear. This first-of-a-kind pathway is in partnership with Blister Labs and allows students to learn from designers and engineers throughout the industry. You can learn about many more of the school’s unique programs on its academics page.

The University’s Freeride Ski Team and Mountain Sports Program

The freeride team lines up for a photo after their home competition at Crested Butte. Credit: Kate Wasson

What makes Western the best school for skiing and riding is the Freeride Ski Team. This is one of the nation’s only organized collegiate freeride ski teams that allow student-athletes to train, travel, and compete. The Freeride Ski Team is part of the Mountain Sports program that offers a variety of disciplines of skiing and other mountain sports. 

The team travels to compete in International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association (IFSA) Freeride World Qualifying (FWQ) events. Throughout the Spring semester, Western Freeride travels around the country and internationally to compete in these events. The team has traveled to Snowbird, Taos, Kicking Horse, Breckenridge, Eaglecrest, Crystal Mountain, and many more ski areas. Most travel costs are included in team dues, although athletes must pay for lift tickets and competition registration fees. 

Senior Lee Bullock does a flat 3 off a wind lip at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Credit: Kate Wasson

The Freeride team can give the opportunity to access a sport that is challenging for many to start or continue. Senior Emma Latta went from a beginner to podiums at FWQ events. 

“Western Freeride has given me the opportunity to try a sport that I never had access to growing up in Oklahoma. I was able to walk onto the Freeride Ski Team despite having no experience in the sport. All of the coaches in the Western Freeride department are nondiscriminatory, and gave me all of the resources I needed to succeed as a freeride athlete. In addition, Western Freeride has given me the opportunity to travel all across the United States to compete in the Freeride World Qualifier, at an affordable price too. On these trips, I was able to learn how to compete in a freeride event while getting to explore resorts I had never been to. Above all, the Western Freeride team has made me comfortable with being outside of my comfort zone and it has helped me improve dramatically as a skier, and that is what I am most grateful for.”

Addy Jacobsen skis a steep line down Big Chute at Crested Butte Mountain Resort on a powder day. Credit: Kate Wasson

All Mountain Sports athletes must study as hard as they ski or ride, maintain a high GPA, and pass all their classes. It can be challenging to balance school, training, and travel to compete in freeride events. The Mountain Sports Program also offers a variety of scholarships for student-athletes who need help funding their collegiate ski career. 

As a double major in Pre-Medicine and Spanish, I am constantly juggling my time between school and my mountain sports teams (Freeride and MTB). Both teams offer multiple practice times a week to ensure that I am able to attend practice with my rigorous school schedule,” Latta reports. “There have been times when I have been in other states to compete and my coaches have proctored exams for me to help me stay on track with school. They do everything they can to ensure my success as a student athlete.”

The Freeride team also offers a community for freeskiers at Western to have fun, make friends, and ski outside of practice. “The coaches and the athletes are very supportive of each other, making the team feel more like a family than anything,” according to Latta. “Everyone on the team is there to improve, but most importantly, they are there to have fun!”

On-snow practice is anywhere from one to four days a week, depending on the student athlete’s academic schedule, and starts in late fall until the end of ski season. At practice, the team divides into small groups with various experienced coaches. It can include anything from early season drills on groomers to mock competitions in the Crested Butte extremes. During the fall, the team has dryland practice to get student-athletes strong for the upcoming season. The Freeride team is perfect for anyone who wants to take their skiing to the next level, whether they grew up competing in junior freeride events or are a recreational skier looking to take things to the next level. 

Joey Salat tele skis down steep powder in Bakery Trees at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Credit: Kate Wasson

Why else is Western the best school for skiing?  

Even if you are not an aspiring competitive freeride athlete, Western still offers plenty of opportunities for skiing or riding. With a discounted college pass, many students take advantage of the easy access to Crested Butte every weekend during the ski season. It is part of the campus culture, filled with ski-oriented students and professors. You can always find friends on the mountain to ski with! There are few places where you can ride the chairlift with your professor and know them on a first-name basis. 

The Gunnison Valley Regional Transport Authority offers a free bus from Gunnison to Crested Butte. The bus adds an unparalleled level of convenience and accessibility – students can go to school near a world-class ski destination and don’t have to own a car to get there. You can take the free bus from campus directly to the ski area. It is free, frequent, and an excellent option for everyone. Spend the ride studying or taking a post-ski nap.

While Crested Butte is the main attraction for skiing in the valley, several other ski opportunities exist. Monarch Mountain is located 43 miles to the east on Highway 50. Gunnison also hosts its municipal ski area, Cranor Hill, where you can take some midwest style laps off a poma lift. Western also hosts an on-campus rail jam every year, and the rails are often left up after the event and allow for some jibbing between classes. The backcountry ski scene in the area is also bustling with endless terrain to explore. Western truly has a limitless amount of ski opportunities.

Jared Farley skis a technical drop on a powder day at Crested Butte. Credit: Kate Wasson

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