As Breckenridge Ski Resort releases its new ‘Above Treeline’ documentary, local C.J. Mueller reflects (podcast)
Skier says resort’s high-alpine terrain spread across its five peaks serves as the crown jewel of it all
At his mountain home perched at 9,800 feet just outside of Breckenridge’s downtown, the recurring dream C.J. Mueller has been having brings him back to the place where he’s found the most thrills in his 67-year-old life: Breckenridge Ski Resort’s high-alpine terrain.
In the dream, Mueller skis down from the top of the hike off of Breckenridge’s above-tree-line Imperial Chair. He’s there, same as he ever was, christening a new day with first tracks in this legendary section of the Tenmile Range.
“And the run is always a little bit longer,” Mueller said. “The snow is always a little bit deeper.”
Over the past few decades, Breckenridge Ski Resort has evolved from the family-centric mountain known for its smooth groomer runs on Peaks 8 and 9 to a truly expansive skiing and riding experience with myriad options for thrill-seekers. If you ask longtime locals like Mueller, the resort’s high-alpine terrain spread across its five peaks serves as the crown jewel of it all — the pulse of the iconic ski town’s winter ethos.
“To be on the Falcon Chair on Peak 10 and look to Peak 6 and see all that access,” Mueller said. “… It’s just — it’s really fun to see people that I don’t even know, I’ll be riding up the lift, and you see people coming down up there, and people are having the time of their lives.”
Mueller is one of the central figures profiled in Breckenridge Ski Resort’s new documentary, “Above Treeline,” which chronicles the rise in popularity of high-alpine skiing and the expansion of the resort’s above-tree-line options. The resort will screen the full documentary as part of “The Winter Kickoff” event on Friday evening at 7 p.m. at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge.
LISTEN: Our unabridged conversation with C.J. Mueller, who speaks about several topics related to Breckenridge’s above-treeline skiing and riding, including the story of how some of the high-alpine runs got their names.
These days in Breckenridge, the heartbeat of the adventurous, outdoors-crazed community centers around the kind of backcountry and in-bounds, high-alpine skiing many locals adore. For some people, a day does not begin without first having skinned up in the backcountry or on one of the resort’s runs.
Nearly a half century ago, when Mueller first came across Breckenridge’s high-alpine skiing community in 1972, there was no super-light ski-mountaineering gear. There were no splitboards and there certainly were fewer rules and regulations with regards to above-tree-line skiing. But there definitely was an above-tree-line community that permeated Breckenridge, particularly on Fourth of July.
During the summer of ’72, Mueller’s first full summer in Breckenridge, he and a friend decided to hike up to the 12,998-foot summit of Peak 8. Once they got there, they looked across the valley to Peak 10.
“Where there were all of these people partying,” Mueller said. “So we walked all the way over there.”
Over the ensuing years, Mueller would join that annual Fourth of July ski party again and again, becoming a fixture in Breckenridge’s skiing community all while being in the conversation for “fastest man on skis” as a racer.
Unlike most ski racers, Mueller took the opposite route: from ski bum to ski racer. His journey paralleled the resort’s so much that when Breckenridge decided to name and map its above-tree-line terrain north of Peak 8’s summit, Mueller and his ski buddies were the consultants. Hence runs such as “Debbie’s Alley,” “Y Chute” and, of course, “C.J.’s.”
A few months ago when Mueller was shown an early edit of the “Above Treeline” documentary, he was joyed to see the filmmakers used quite a bit of his vintage footage of skiing with his friend “Larry The Lump” at what is now the resort’s Peak 7 area. It was during a 1-foot powder day in the ’70s and back then it was far more common for locals like Larry and C.J. to have the area to themselves.
Over the years, Mueller says powder weeks have become powder days, which have become powder hours. Still, he commends the resort’s ski patrol and workforce for taking on the challenge of expanding operations.
The process of creeping northward to today’s lift-serviced, above-tree-line Peak 6 terrain might have been slow. But, in Mueller’s mind, it was carefully accomplished the right way. Thanks to pioneers like him and Breckenridge’s management and on-mountain workers, resort visitors are now provided with the opportunity to ski what is seemingly endless above-tree-line terrain.
Taking it all in, Mueller is unsure if even the most enterprising of skiers could hit it all in one day. Alas, wherever they end up, Mueller knows that being above tree line at Breckenridge means they’ll be in quite the playground.
“People have just discovered it,” Mueller said of high-alpine skiing. “And it’s a really great way to spend your day — spend your life.”
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