Peak 8 powder day with Breck Guides, an expert-only adventure program
What: A private or semi-private adventure session (limited to six people max) with a PSIA Level 3 instructor on Breckenridge’s extreme terrain at Peak 8 and Peak 6, with sessions ranging from a half day to a full day
Season: December to April
Features: Avalanche awareness, snow science, transceiver and probe instructions, high-alpine skiing for Breck’s summits and hike-to terrain, introduction to secret stashes in trees and at bowls
Requirements: All skiers must be PSIA Level 8 or 9 (able to ski advanced terrain confidently with advanced technique)
Cost: $575 for half day, $745 for full day
Beyond Breck Guides
Breck Guides isn’t the only way to get your adrenaline fix out there. At most local resorts, snowcat tours take private and public groups to alpine terrain, both in and out of bounds. Just remember: these trips or for advanced and expert riders only.
Tucker Mountain snowcat at Copper: There’s plenty of alpine terrain at Copper, but only the fabled Tucker Mountain and nearby Copper Bowl get the snowcat treatment. Every Friday through Sunday, the resort offers free (yes, free) cat rides from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. from the base of the Mountain Chief lift. The line can get lengthy (it’s first come, first serve) and cat ops depend on conditions, but the rewards are more than worth it: chutes, cliffs and wide-open bowls. All you need is a lift ticket.
Ridge Cat at Loveland: This is how you ride the Continental Divide in style. From now until closing day, Loveland offers free cat rides Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for anyone with a pass or ticket and the required waiver. Sign your waiver at the Basin ticket office, then catch the cat from the top of Lift 9 (gate 1N) for access to Field of Dreams, Velvet Hammer, Tickler, 13,010 and Marmot. Rides are first come, first serve when conditions allow.
Keystone Adventure Tours: A boutique sort of backcountry experience, and not only because it ends with champagne. For $275 per person, groups of up to 12 get guided cat-skiing tours to roughly 1,500 acres of maintained backcountry terrain on the eastern edge of Keystone Resort, including Independence Bowl, Bergman Bowl and Erikson Bowl. The day includes demo skis, catered lunch (it’s delicious) and post-powder bubbly. KAT also provides $5 first come, first serve cat rides from the top of Outback Express to North Bowl on weekends. For more info, see http://www.keystoneresort.com or call the KAT clubhouse at (970) 496-4386.
Patrick Guilbert has the goods.
It’s about 11:30 a.m. on a late-March powder day and I’m standing with another snowboarder at the top of the Breckenridge’s T-Bar lift, bundled up against a typical spring squall that dumped 11 inches the night before and was still busy wildly blowing snow across the slopes. At times we could see the surrounding peaks and Main Street far below, at other times they faded into solid white, but nothing was stopping our group with Breck Guides from finding even more of that untouched fresh.
The group of three — guide Guilbert, resort communications specialist Ashley Smith and I — had just taken the ridge from Imperial Bowl to the T-Bar patrol hut in search of powder. The day was already filled with bottomless turns, and earlier that morning, about 30 minutes before Colorado SuperChair started spinning for the public, our group joined the morning ski patrol meeting at patrol headquarters in Vista Haus. It’s when Guilbert (and the rest of us) got the inside scoop on what would open, when it would open and how we could be first in line when it did.
Now, just before lunchtime, the gate to North Bowl still wasn’t open. We could see a blank slate just a few skates away from the T-Bar lift house, but when an access gate is closed there’s no getting around it. As a ski patroller once told me long ago, “If you see a rope it’s there for a reason.”
As Smith and I yell-talked to each other over the howling wind, Guilbert was busy getting updates from a patroller just outside of the wind-loaded shack. The two mouthed words soundlessly for a minute or two, pointing once at the gate, then to us, then back to the gate. Ski patrol was still concerned about wind and weather slabs at and above North Bowl, so the expected opening time of 11 a.m. was pushed back until all dangers were mitigated. It can be a long, slow process, especially when the weather just won’t let up, and it’s the sort of process that can’t be rushed. Mother Nature’s timeline is hers and hers alone.
Guilbert and the patroller talked for a few more seconds before he met us at the gate. They were still doing control work out there, he told us, but the gate should be dropping at any minute. Did we want to wait in the wind and weather?
Smith and I didn’t mind. In less than half of a day, we’d already taken eight runs on Peak 8, including two gate drops: one at Way Out near 6 Chair with no one else in sight, the other for Whale’s Tail at the top of Imperial Express with a massive group of powder hounds. What was another few minutes for the third rope of the day?
Ski school for experts
On the surface, Breck Guides is a private ski and snowboard school program for expert riders who know the technique but not quite the mountain. The program, limited to six people per group, runs from December to April and begins with the best of the best: nine instructors like Guilbert, all certified at the highest level through Professional Ski Instructors of America. This select group also has at least a Level 1 Avalanche training course — our guide recently earned his Level 2 avy cert — plus decades of combined experience on the snow and an intimate understanding of Breck’s terrain.
Then comes the ski patrol connection. Unlike a typical ski lesson, every Breck Guides program begins with the morning patrol meeting at PHQ. There, clients get a behind-the-scenes look at everything patrollers do to manage hazards on the slopes: avalanche mitigation, daily weather updates, even case studies from recent slides in Summit County, like the recent Montezuma-area avalanche that technician Hunter Mortensen used to explain exactly why Lake Chutes most likely wouldn’t open that day.
“The wealth of knowledge we have on patrol is inspiring,” Mortensen told me after his patrollers headed out into the cold. “For me, it’s more about getting the right people out there as soon as we can to mitigate hazard and have it open for you guys, for the locals. If you go to T-Bar on a day like today, you’ll see the same four guys already standing there waiting to load. That’s what I want — I want to have it open for them.”
The program has also bolstered the relationship between ski patrol and ski school. The two now regularly collaborate for trainings, and Guilbert said it has inspired him to continue learning.
“People really like that element of getting closer to patrol,” Guilbert said. “They see, ‘Wow, there is so much that goes into getting this mountain open.’ So many people associate patrol with the trauma element. That’s a responsibility, but I would hardly say that’s their primary responsibility.”
But those elements are just the marketing pitch. Behind the paperwork and pamphlets, Breck Guides is an ingenious avenue for anyone — visitors and locals, skiers and snowboarders — to make the most of Breck’s extreme terrain. With the addition of Peak 6 for the 2013-14 season, nearly half of the resort’s 3,188 acres are above tree line, including chutes, steeps, bowls and more, all reached by express lifts or short hikes through backcountry access gates.
Thing is, increased access doesn’t always mean increased knowledge, and that’s where the patrol connection is vital. The mountain’s terrain can be just as intimidating as it is inviting, and Breck Guides gives adrenaline junkies the inside scoop on every secret stash it has to offer — plus the know-how to enjoy it safely today, tomorrow and far into the future.
Look at two of Guilbert’s favorite locations for his groups: Lake Chutes at Peak 8 and the hike-to terrain at Peak 6. Both are filled with legitimate double-black runs — think grades of 30 to 40 degrees — and both are maintained by patrol during the season. This means the avalanche danger is far lighter than true backcountry terrain, yet the thrill and excitement and “we-just-skied-that” awesomeness is no different. Plus, skiing with a guide nearly guarantees you won’t waste an hour hiking out of an unexpected meadow or gulley. No, Guilbert saves bootpacking for the goods found high, high on ridges overlooking his favorite terrain.
“I love hiking with clients,” Guilbert said earlier in the morning. “That’s when people really feel like they’re getting an experience — earning their turns and the like.”
No hike, no problem
Only there would be no hiking through the storm. Lake Chutes was closed that day and so was the hike-to terrain on Peak 6, so we stuck to the fringes of popular routes on Peak 8: 6 Chair, T-bar and Independence Express.
Hit pause. If you’ve been skiing Breck for years and years, our itinerary might sound like just another expensive day on tired terrain, the sort of runs that get beat to death by 10 a.m. on even the deepest powder days.
It was anything but. We had to skip a warm-up run before the morning patrol meeting — “People love doing that on a powder day,” Guilbert said — and loaded T-Bar after the line was already weaving past the queue ropes. That’s when I discovered one of the biggest perks of the Breck Guides concept: no waiting for powder. Groups have access to the ski and snowboard school line at all lifts, and when every run you take is on extreme terrain, clients rarely even wait behind instructors and group lessons. It’s how we notched 11 runs between 9 a.m. and noon, all while making a few new friends when Guilbert pulled singles into the line with us.
But, for now, we were willing to wait for the North Bowl gate to drop. It didn’t take long: Just minutes after Guilbert talked with patrol, we were allowed to duck the rope — it dropped for the public just 30 seconds later — and skate down the road to the top of Pika. The upper portion was bony and wind-scoured, but by the time we dropped into the lower section it was like floating through a dream, with untouched goods on all sides. What a way to do Breckenridge.
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