How Breckenridge Ski Resort prepares high-Alpine terrain for opening |

How Breckenridge Ski Resort prepares high-Alpine terrain for opening

With a high point of 12,840 feet, Imperial Express, the highest chairlift in North America, opened after extensive avalanche mitigation work was done.
Courtesy Breckenridge Ski Resort

BRECKENRIDGE SKI RESORT — On Dec. 20, Breckenridge Ski Resort announced on its social media channels that Imperial Express, the highest chairlift in North America reaching 12,840 feet, was officially open for the season. It came with the caveat that opening such high-Alpine terrain is “no small task.” 

While skiers and riders are eager for more terrain following a big storm — like the one Breckenridge got the week prior to opening Imperial — Breckenridge Snow Safety Supervisor Duke Barlow explained that the process for opening a high-Alpine lift takes a lot of avalanche work. 

“Everything is more challenging up there, and it takes an extraordinary effort from a number of departments, from snowcats establishing a route up a ridge to enable lift mechanics to access the top of the chair via snowmobile, to ski patrol conducting avalanche mitigation work safely in a high-Alpine environment,” Barlow wrote in an email.

Avalanche work needs to be done in lower areas of the mountain before opening, as well, but the high-Alpine terrain brings more extreme weather conditions that make work difficult, Barlow said.

The actual process of preparing the terrain for skiing starts off with a “bang,” as Barlow said once there is adequate snow coverage, avalanche mitigation begins with explosives.

“Our snow safety team will complete multiple ‘avalanche routes’ in which they test the slopes with explosives from a safe distance before venturing onto the terrain themselves to probe and dig in the snow to further assess stability,” Barlow wrote.

Barlow said that once avalanche mitigation work is done, ski patrol shifts to other preparations like trail work — installing signs, ropes and lift tower pads — and rescue preparation, which includes stocking ski patrol huts with medical and technical rescue gear. 

“Patrol makes the determination to open a parcel of high-Alpine terrain when snow coverage is adequate, we’ve conducted necessary avalanche mitigation work and we feel the slopes are stable, we’ve completed trail work including adding markings and padding, and when we feel we can safely conduct a rescue response within that terrain,” Barlow wrote.

However, Barlow added that conditions in terrain above timberline can quickly change and that patrol can make the decision to close the area if weather conditions raise the level of avalanche danger.

“Our team regularly performs avalanche mitigation work throughout the season, and we continuously monitor and evaluate terrain as it relates to ever-changing snow conditions as well as weather patterns and forecasts,” Barlow wrote.

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