Slopes Less Taken: Going to Great Heights

A rich blue sky envelops me. Sun streams onto my face. The air holds still and clear. Nothing invades my space — no trees, no structures and no people — just the sky and pristine snow, soft under my ski boots and thick on mountains as far as I can see. I’m on top of the world . . . or at least on top of North America.

This starkly beautiful world provides the perfect start to dramatically long vertical drops. When I push off the ridge, I’ll fulfill a personal quest to glide down a slope less taken.

Atop Peak 8 at Breckenridge Ski Resort, just two feet shy of 13,000 feet above sea level, I arrived by climbing the knob above the top terminal of Imperial Express Superchair. The lift begins at 11,901 feet and ends at 12,840 feet. It’s the highest ski

Breck's Imperial Express, the highest lift in North America, unloads skiers and riders at 12,840 feet.

resort high-speed quad chairlift in the world, opened just three years ago. Ride time on Imperial is less than three minutes, a huge difference from the 45 minutes hikers used to spend to reach the same area.

Backcountry purists objected to the easy-ride invasion of their private high-alpine stashes — 600 acres of the best terrain on the mountain. But now the rest of us who want to expend our energy going down, not up, can reach the entire ridge lines of Peaks 8 and 7, and thus the steep chutes and bowls below them: Art’s Bowl, Peak 7 and North Bowls, and Whale’s Tail on skier’s left; Imperial Bowl, under the lift; and Lake Chutes and Snow White on skier’s right. Up here, skiing is sweet. Silky snow lasts long into spring. And the views? Like an Andean condor, you can see forever.

Breck’s pioneering firsts go back to 1981 when it installed the world’s first high-speed four-person chairlift on Peak 9, starting the industry’s high-speed quad revolution. Now all major resorts feature this type of lift in their transportation systems.

Other resorts have corralled their highest terrain by perching their upper terminals on the highest real estate around.

Loveland Ski Area tops out at 13,010 feet on the Continental Divide. Its Chair 9, built in 1998 to 12,700 feet, was the world’s highest lift until Breck’s Imperial. Loveland’s Chair 9 stops shy of the peak, but hikers can gain another 310 feet for spectacular views in every direction. Loveland catches snowstorms early enough in the season that it’s often the first ski area in the nation to open.

A-Basin claims the highest skiable terrain in North America and its uppermost lifts reach 12,472 feet.

Two years running, though, its neighbor Arapahoe Basin — at 13,050 feet, another high-altitude area over the pass — captured the honor. (This year A-Basin and Loveland opened the same day, Oct. 15.) A-Basin claims the highest skiable terrain in North America. But its uppermost lifts — Lenawee and Zuma — reach only 12,472 feet, making them both third in line for the highest designation.

The Legend, as A-Basin is known, opened in 1946 with a rope tow that skiers reached in an Army weapons carrier pulled by a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Last year, A-Basin unveiled its largest expansion ever, Montezuma Bowl — 400 acres of cornices, chutes, glades and wide-open bowls on the mountain’s backside.

Winter Park Resort entered the highest-lift sweepstakes last year with Panoramic Express. With its top terminal at only 12,060 feet — still lower than Imperial, Chair 9, Lenawee and Zuma — why is it a contender? It is the highest six-person chairlift in the world. Six-packs are the newest in detachable chairlifts. The country’s first double-loading six-pack (loading from two sides), the Quicksilver6, was introduced at Breckenridge during the 1999-2000 season.

Panoramic Express sits next to the bottom of Sunnyside chairlift on the Mary Jane Mountain of Winter Park. Now it takes only seven minutes to reach the summit of Parsenn Bowl and, after a short traverse along the ski area boundary, the steep chutes of Vasquez Cirque. It provides a slick and quick path to the highest expert skiing and riding at the resort.

Colorado native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning ski and travel journalist and the author of the book “Women Ski.” She writes for local, national and international publications.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.