Mountain Jackpot Editor Offers Best Springtime Slopes For Glory And Disaster
By Rick Langenberg
Well, with all the snow invasions, there is no need to fight the dark weather forces any longer.
In fact, keep those baseball bats and golf clubs in the closet for a little longer.
It may just be time to hit the ultra, ski high country to show off your bravado, courage or lack of grace. And yes, it’s the end of the season (or maybe not, with plans for an extended ski period) so display a little guts and try some challenging black terrain. That is a repeated slogan you will undoubtedly hear from friends and enemies.
As the season enters the final month, here is my official TMJ Guide to Terror Skiing. It is mainly designed for intermediate “slopesters” who probably have no sane reason to challenge an expert hill but want to defy the experts anyway. A couple of words of advice: Don’t ever follow myself or video producer CR Chambers on your exploits, as we both have been banned from our role as mini-ski guides. That’s another story entirely.
But regardless of questionable reputations, try these slopes this spring.
Imperial Express, Breckenridge. Head onto the top of Peak 8 at Breckenridge and ride briefly the highest chairlift in North America, Imperial Express. It’s a short several minute ride and takes you to an area, just shy of 13,000 feet.
Here, on a clear day, the skiing is fantastic for any intermediate-skilled downhiller or telemarker or snowboarder, if you can grasp enough air. Yes, the altitude can be daunting, so don’t freak out when the air gets thin. The Imperial Bowl is a real trip, with only a few crazy moguls and a superfast, ego boosting run. Then, you can hook up to some of the moderate, black bowls on Peak 8.
If you want to be a real idiot, then exit off the Imperial chairlift and do a little hiking to such disasters as Whale’s Tail and the dreaded Snow White bowl and the Lake Chutes (rated as one of the steepest runs in North America) and buy yourself a bed in a nearby hospital or mental psychiatric ward. The only disadvantage of the Imperial Chairlift and accompanying bowl is the weather and occasional lines.
Back Bowls Of Copper Mountain. These, in my opinion, are some of the underestimated gems of Summit County skiing. However, my track record isn’t too good as one out-of-town guest suffered altitude sickness there, while another companion incurred a broken arm. That’s why I have a bad reputation.
But regardless, this area, near the top of the Storm King T-Bar in the central part of Copper, provides access to the Tuck Mountain Snowcat excursion above the base of the Mountain Chief Chairlift. The cat ride is free and runs on a space available basis from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. This takes skiers to real powder heaven spots on Tucker Mountain, but can pose some definite challenges if you aren’t used to deep powder.
The back bowls of Copper, accessible also by American Flyer and the Rendezvous chairlifts, are probably about as much as any intermediate can handle. They are as hard or rigorous as you want them to be, depending on the route you pick, or what moguls you want to conquer, or the downhill strategy you pursue. The only downside is this part of the mountain can be hard to access and the chairs in this section are quite slow. I recommend the Blackjack lift.
Pallavicini, Arapahoe Basin. Alright, I am not going to lie to you. At this time of year, it’s time for a little ski torture and humility, and a trek down the evil, triple, black rated Palli will provide you all those ingredients of disaster. Unless you are an expert skier, the grand Palli will kick your butt. But as you approach A-Basin, or even ride the lift, you are tempted by her innocent, beloved and majestic look. Well, looks are deceiving. But as the saying goes, you have not skied in Colorado until you have attempted to conquer Palli and have discovered real ski humility. In any case, the Palli is a source for 19th-hole bar stories. My sister Sue got a 30-minute wedding toast based on her experiences with me at the Palli, which displayed her ugly face and devoured our bodies with powder on an ugly April day.
If you want a more daunting challenge, try Palli’s ruthless sister, the Gauthier, which resembles a full cliff. A-Basin is known for some of the most challenging skiing in the state.
Ski Cooper, Chicago Ridge. Ski Cooper is a great spot for families, beginners, cross-country fanatics and telemark skiers, and yes, snowcat buffs. The Chicago Ridge Snowcat tour takes skiers to secret jewels of 2,600 acres of powder bowls and glades. You are equipped with the full avalanche equipment and a guide. It is quite the trip, as I did this once for half a day. That is plenty, believe me. Caution: This can be tough for those not used to deep powder, so go slowly at first as you have to almost undertake a gliding motion. Getting up from a fall can be a hassle with all the deep snow. It’s almost like climbing out of a pit.
Pikes Peak, Devil’s Playground. Yes, just wait until May or early June, and this annual nutty tradition will ensue again. This is unsupervised skiing at its best or worst near the top of America’s favorite mountain, depending on your point of view. Skiing on the Peak is legal, and is an “at your own risk” endeavor that is not encouraged or frowned upon by the owner/operators, the United States Forest Service and the Colorado Springs Utilities. For hearty downhillers or backcountry buffs, it’s worth a try a couple of times in your lifetime.
Get a group of people and take a drive up to the Devil’s Playground pull-off, about three fourths of the way to the top. And no, don’t even think about skiing the infamous Little Italy, unless you want to add your name to the list of fatalities. At least three people have died on the Peak while skiing in recent years and a popular local news producer even suffered brain damage from a tragic fall. A more frightening element of these disasters is that all of these people were expert skiers.
But if you take the slope that runs parallel to the Pikes Peak Highway, just off the Devil’s Playground pull-off, the trek between Devil’s Playground and Glen Cove isn’t too bad. Another nice route abounds if you hike for a short bit around the back side of Devil’s Playground to the left from the pull-off. You then come to a meandering slope that takes you down to the Glen Cove area.
However, there is no way to sugar coat this reality: You are on your own at the Peak. There are no ski patrol personnel here, and the natural mountain is not groomed. It is also a prime spot for avalanche training. People that ski there can either take turns driving up and down the mountain, with a designated driver picking up skiers at Glen Cove. Or don’t hassle with putting a strain on your vehicle, and just hitch a ride up from Glenn Cove, which is rarely a problem. Tourists love picking up wayward skiers, listening to their stories and giving them business cards for the nearest shrink office.
Outside the Region
North Face, Crested Butte. If you want to travel out of this area, Crested Butte in the central part of the state is a prime spot. Here, I would highly recommend an uncomfortable journey up a T-Bar, which allows you to access the infamous North Face. You can take a tame route down, or enter the land of the North Face. Most choose the North Face, which in the old days could only be accessed on foot, often taking an hour journey to complete.
The North Face is the spot for many highly televised international mountain competitions
The good news is that you won’t encounter too many nasty moguls due to the steep terrain. The bad news, you are dealing with huge 50-foot drop-off points and mini cliffs. Don’t think about falling, as you may be headed for a 200-foot tumble. But the views are incredible and the snow is generally quite amazing. You just have to keep your wits about you and concentrate on making solid turns or else….
Aspen Highlands. My niece Laura said to me a number of years ago, “let’s just get off and not talk to any crazy people,” once we exited the top chairlift at the peak of Aspen Highlands, at the base of the Highlands bowl. But she learned one cruel reality instantly: This is the land of the crazies. Normal people don’t ski up here, where most slopes are triple-rated, with strict warning designations. An impressive plaque and shrine honors a several ski patrolmen, who died more than 30 years ago, while doing avalanche control work. Is this a sign of the fate that awaits you?
While mountains like Snowmass and Aspen garner all the publicity, the Highlands is where the locals go. This is another great source for 19th-hole ski stories that get embellished more than TMJ news stories.
Despite the obvious fears, the Highlands mountain is worth the torture, or if anything, it is worth taking the chairlifts to the top for the views of Maroon Bells. Just use a little common sense, and hit the blues if you are unsure on top of the peak lifts. On the upside, the black monsters are fairly short and provide good access to more normal runs. If you want to really show your bravado, take the free snowcat to the infamous Highlands Bowl, and start praying for mercy.
The Plunge, Telluride. I thought I would save the best for last. The Plunge is probably the most famous black slope in the state. It has been described by one ski writer as “an upside-down egg carton turned vertical.” This is a 3,140-foot vertical plunge from the top of the mountain to the town of Telluride. Mess up, and you get booed or cheered by riders of an adjacent chairlift, who aren’t afraid to tell you, fret not, you only have 300 more moguls to grapple with and 45 minutes of Plunge ecstasy.
Over the years, the Plunge has been commercialized slightly, with parts of the hill groomed, so you can make it as difficult as you want. It is often how many skiers end their day’s adventures.
But if you really want the real deal, try to tangle with the Plunge’s beloved sister, Spiral Stairs. There are no groomed sections at the Spiral, only death-defying moguls that could probably eat you for dinner. My experiences at the Spiral haven’t been pretty and one time, I waved a white surrender flag and was forced to walk down practically a mile.
Enjoy and Happy skiing this spring!