Top 5 runs for expert skiers and riders at Vail Mountain
Not for beginners: A closer look at the most challenging terrain at Vail
Vail Mountain just wrapped up its one and only big mountain event of the season, a competition that examines how well skiers perform on the mountain’s most extreme terrain. Organizers sought out the most steep and cliff-laden terrain at the resort for the event — they settled on Lover’s Leap. But it brings up the question, “what are the other most difficult runs on Vail Mountain?” Here’s our recommendations.
Lover’s Leap/Iron Mask
In thinking about the most extreme terrain inbounds on Vail Mountain, the cornice and steep pitch on the Lover’s Leap and Iron Mask runs in Blue Sky Basin comes to mind first because it’s the area at Vail that most resembles a big mountain skiing venue like those seen on the Freeride World Tour.
It’s much shorter than those venues, of course, but at the top after taking the namesake leap off the cornice, the steep pitch and enormous rocks give it a big mountain feel.
When Olympian skier and Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy graduate Aaron Blunck returned home from Sochi in 2014, the first competition he took place in following the games was the big mountain event on Lover’s Leap. He won by performing a perfect backflip off one of the large rocks near the end of the run.
While a laid out backie like Blunck’s may be bigger than you’re willing to go, the rocks on Lover’s Leap can be treated like cliffs or jumps, depending on how comfortable you are with the area. It’s a fairly easy run to lap, only one lift ride is required to access it (chair 37), and it’s plenty visible from that chair if you want to scope out your line. It can also be accessed from Chair 38 if you find yourself at the bottom of Earl’s Bowl and in the mood for something steeper.
To truly experience Cheetah Gully, you have to spend as much time as you can riding through the actual gully. Otherwise you’re just not seeking the true spirit of the run.
Of course, there are plenty of places within the gully where continuous riding is just not possible. Downed trees create numerous log bridges across the gully — some can be ridden across in deference to the log riding culture at Vail and Beaver Creek, others can be ducked under as you cruise the center of the gully, but some will simply stop all access.
In these places you’ll find yourself riding the walls of the gully back toward the top, like a halfpipe rider leaving the transition and heading up the wall. The higher you go, the less difficult the run becomes. That’s why, for the purposes of this piece, when we say Cheetah Gully is one of the hardest runs at Vail, we’re talking about the actual gully.
It’s messy with branches and debris but when rode properly, it can be really fun for its untouched nature. It’s hidden in plain sight in Lionshead, with the Gondola running alongside it, yet you’ll feel like you’re in a remote area of the backcountry as you venture into a new world of Vail upon entry. Also, since it’s right there in Lionshead, it can be one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck powder stashes at Vail as it’s so easily accessible from Chair 8.
Give a hardcore rider 90 mins of free parking in Lionshead, and he or she can have quite a time in Cheetah Gully, improving with each lap as this untouched area of Vail starts to feel more familiar.
The Pump House
While the origins of its name will be obvious once on the run, getting to The Pump House through the proper gate has been made it more difficult than ever in recent years.
And that’s a good thing.
The opening powder field on The Pump House run — which can’t be missed from Gondola One — used to be easily confused as a continuation of Ben’s Face. The fact that you were entering a different, expert’s-only run was clearly marked, but it was still too tempting for those skiers of average skill who found themselves on Ben’s Face and had eyed The Pump House powder field on their way up the gondola.
The first part of the run is easy, but it takes a hard turn away from the gondola line and enters difficult territory in a run that is not at all visible from the lift. Anyone can handle the powdery terrain under the gondola, but once on it, you have no choice but to exit through the actual Pump House run, which puts the “stream” in extreme as a steep face leads to a stream crossing which has frightened and injured many tourists over the years.
The cool part about The Pump House is it spits you out onto lower Riva Ridge, just below Tourist Trap, and therefore can be used as a really fun way to get to Golden Peak from Mid Vail.
The Narrows/Mudslide/Frontside Chutes
Indeed, some of the most difficult terrain on Vail Mountain is the stuff right at the bottom.
The band of steep terrain that defines the mountain as it reaches the town is one of the great features of Vail — it makes the mountain extremely accessible from the valley floor, unlike so many other resorts where a long drive is required to access the lifts. That steep terrain is recognizable in runs like Giant Steps, Lindsey’s and Pepi’s Face in Vail Village, but those runs were cleared of rocks and trees by Vail’s early builders, who also evened out the runs a bit by burying dirt and fill into some of the tricky dips to create an easier experience for the average skier.
Head east to the Frontside Chutes area, however, and none of that took place. The runs aren’t cleared out at all and, while they’re on the trail map and enjoyed by many, at first glance it would appear that they’re not even meant to be riden at all.
Rocks, cliffs, standing trees, downed trees, unexpected ruts and dips and even a stream crossing will greet those who make their way over from the area just east of the Chair 2 loading station. The Narrows and Mudslide will send you out onto Mill Creek Road, while Frontside Chutes deposits you right next to the area where Giant Steps meets its end.
The Narrows is the most difficult of the three to access and must be cross-country skied for a bit before the steeps begin. The gate to that run is located off of Gitalong Road, while the Mudslide and Frontside Chutes gates are accessed from the road behind the Waffle House near the entry to the Black Forest poma and EpicMix Racing venue.
The first thing that’s difficult about the Teacup Glades is just finding a time when both the upper and lower glades are open.
We all know Sleepytime Road, it’s that enormous catwalk that can take skiers from the Top of the Mountain area — where Chairs 4, 5, and 11, meet — all the way to the bottom of Blue Sky Basin at Chair 37. But how and why an expert skier or snowboarder would ever find themselves on this road can seem like a mystery, until you reach the Teacup Glades.
If they’re open and you’re an expert, then you just may find yourself excited about the trip down Sleepytime.
Deep within the Teacup Glades a skier can find the biggest cliffs inbounds Vail, the type of cliffs that can easily kill a person. While a solo scouting run of the area is fine, attempting some of the natural features in Teacup Glade without a team that has your back would not be wise. Even if you land the cliffs just fine, you will find yourself taking a lot of speed into an aspen glade at that point, and the stakes are high. Above we mentioned the extreme terrain in the Frontside Chutes and Mudslide area, terrain where you can also find some big cliffs. If you have a mixup on the cliffs in that area, then it’s a quick sled ride out. In the Teacup Glades, however, you’re in for a tough trek back to the front side.
The gates are usually not open for very long in Teacup Glades on any given season. If they’re not open, then don’t go there. If they are open, then you’re probably experiencing some pretty good conditions — don’t blow your day by blowing your knee!
Vail Daily reporter John LaConte has been delivering the Vail Daily’s On the Hill video conditions report from Vail Mountain since 2012. See the latest reports at http://www.vaildaily.com/onthehill.
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