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Extreme areas easier to ride

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Special to the DailyBreckenridge's Imperial Express lift is the highest in North America and takes skiers to expert terrain that had only been accessible via a long hike.
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BRECKENRIDGE (AP) – For countless winters, a small band of energetic thrill seekers used to take off their skis or snowboards at the top of the highest chairlift at Breckenridge Ski Resort and hike uphill to reach a sheer wall of fresh powder known as the Lake Chutes.”It was a lung killer, climbing uphill in deep snow for 45 minutes to 13,000 feet,” said Dave Miner, a veteran snowboard instructor here. “But the Chutes were so wild, people would make that climb just for one run down.”This season, in contrast, getting to the Lake Chutes is a snap. Overcoming considerable technical problems, the resort has just opened a lift that takes customers to the top of the Chutes in about three minutes. “You could ride that wall all day and never have to hike a foot,” Miner said happily.In one sense, the Imperial Express lift is unique: Topping out at 12,840 feet above sea level, it is the highest ski lift ever built in North America. But the new four-person chair here reflects the hottest trend at major ski areas throughout the United States and Canada – the drive to offer “extreme” or “backcountry” experiences to ordinary lift-ticket holders.The combination of better instruction and high-tech improvements in skis and snowboards has created consumer demand for access to the most severe sections of the slopes, often above timberline. The chutes at the top of Breckenridge are typical: steep downhills covered with wind-whipped snow and punctuated by outcroppings of sheer rock that add considerably to the degree of difficulty.

Every run extremeThe resorts’ effort to meet this demand reflects a significant change for the ski business, said Seth Masia, editor of the trade journal Ski Industry News.”It’s not so long ago that ski companies were emphasizing how easy it was on their slopes,” Masia said. “You know, accessible to anybody. Now, they’re all promoting the thrill-ride factor. The promise is, they’ll get you to the toughest, gnarliest stretch of untracked powder you’ve ever seen.”So many resorts have opened extreme sections of the slopes this season that the industry has adopted a new symbol to mark the toughest runs. In addition to the traditional green circle (for beginner runs), blue square (intermediate) and black diamond (expert), trail maps this year label some slopes with double black diamonds bearing the letters “EX,” for extreme.In the Colorado ski mecca of Aspen, the Aspen Highlands opened 180 acres of “EX” terrain this year, served by a new lift, Deep Temerity.In Montana, Moonlight Basin, on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, built a new chairlift to serve the Headwaters, a series of chutes as steep as a waterfall that were previously open to skiers who were willing to hike uphill for an hour. Several resorts now offer shuttle trips via “snowcat”- something like a hay wagon, with tank treads to navigate the deepest drifts – to carry skiers into forest glades where the lifts can’t go.

The summit of the extreme skiing is probably Silverton Mountain, in southwest Colorado near where the state meets Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Silverton is so committed to the new wave that it doesn’t offer beginner, intermediate or expert slopes. Rather, every run at the resort is extreme, with some hills rated at a 50-degree slope–about twice as steep as an expert slope at most ski areas.’This is way burly’Industry leaders say the extension of lift-served terrain to back-country cliffs is probably an outgrowth of the trend of the 1990s at major resorts – the development of playgrounds, or “terrain parks,” where youthful skiers could hone their skills on jumps, rails and half-pipe formations.”I think people got so good on the man-made obstacles in the parks that they wanted to get more of the challenges nature can offer,” said Roger McCarthy, Breckenridge’s chief operating officer. “We saw our customers climbing up to the high alpine, the extreme stuff. So we put the lift in to get them where they want to go,” McCarthty said. “We have the ski patrol on those slopes. We do avalanche control up there.”One risk to the backcountry boom is that some of the skiers boarding the new lifts may not be ready to handle the steep, ungroomed runs at the top of the mountain.



“We try to tell people the terrain doesn’t get any easier just because a lift goes to it,” said Miner, the snowboard instructor.But this is less of a concern for ski areas than it used to be because the legislatures in many mountain states have made it considerably tougher for injured skiers to win a lawsuit against a resort. Colorado’s Ski Safety Act, for example, bars legal action for injury stemming from “inherent dangers or risks of skiing.” Courts here have said that losing control on a steep run is an “inherent risk” of the sport.In any case, injury seems to be the last thing on the mind of the primarily youthful skiers and snowboarders riding the continent’s highest chairlift to the Lake Chutes.As he strapped into his binding at 12,840 feet, a chin-pierced snowboarder named Jay offered his generation’s highest term of approbation for the newly opened terrain: “This is way burly, dude. I’m going for major air up here.”This story came from the Washington Post. Vail, Colorado


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