The Outsider: Riding Breck’s Imperial Chair, an elevator to the crown of the Kingdom
Thursday was one of my best powder days of the season, and I hardly left the shadow of Peak 8.
Around 10:34 a.m., I loaded Imperial Chair with two fellow powder hounds for our first trip to the upper terminal at 12,840 vertical feet, which everyone by now knows is the highest lift in North America. Call it clever marketing or a marvel of engineering or simply a sign of hubris, but still, it’s easy to forget just how remote that four-chair is until you load and are blasted with wind and snow and biting cold. You’re on an express elevator to the Colorado high alpine — an intimidating place that demands respect and awe — and only after you’ve spotted the upper terminal from downtown Breck does it finally sink in: You rode a chair suspended by cables to the summit of an almost 13,000-foot peak — the crown of the Kingdom — then dropped 3,000 vertical feet and nearly three miles to a cozy hideout with coffee or beer and fireside slippers. It’s surreal, and it never gets old.
As my group of two hunkered down for the ride, the solo skier who joined us was anxiously rocking back and forth, back and forth, whipping his head from side to side and pointing wildly with poles like a teenager battling a twitchy case of ADD. He wasn’t a teenager.
“I cannot wait to get up there,” he said to me, or maybe to himself. I asked if it was his first time on Imperial that morning and he shook his head. His face and nose and eyes were buried behind a mask and mirrored goggles, but I could still hear giddy excitement over the banshee scream of blowing snow.
“No way man, they just opened this…,” he looked at the clock in the liftie cabin as we passed, “Only four minutes ago. We’re on one of the first chairs, man.”
I’d hardly noticed, what with the white-out conditions and all, but it was true: there were no tracks on the snow below us, and we were nearly to the fifth or sixth lift tower before dots of dark started popping in and out of the snow, leaving behind whoops and hollers and deep, luscious streaks in more than a foot of windblown powder.
“Yeeeeah buddy!” the skier yelled to the people below, or again maybe just to himself. “That’s your Crested Butte powder shot. Look at that.”
He pointed to the breathing dots charging through the powder, first two, then another two, then three or four more, each one tracing a separate line on the face of Imperial Bowl. This doesn’t happen often, especially in the middle of spring at a busy resort like Breckenridge.
“I’ve been to the Alps and this is what it’s like,” the skier said, this time obviously talking to me, or someone, or probably the entire chair. “Open lines, everywhere you go.”
By then we were almost to the upper terminal, some 200 vertical feet higher than the summit of Aiguille du Midi (12,605 feet) in Chamonix, France, and nearly 2,000 feet higher than Mont Fort (10,919), the peak overlooking Verbier in Switzerland. The towering-yet-rounded terrain in this slice of the Rocky Mountains is also much different than the jagged peaks of Switzerland and France, but for a moment, the amped-up skier next to me was transported back to his memorable European trips. We unloaded and went our separate ways, he disappeared into the white while I waited for my group to get ready.
By the time we dropped, the snow in Imperial Bowl wasn’t quite a blank slate — close, but not quite — and by the second run it was crisscrossed with dozens and dozens of trails, each left by some hollering powder hound, maybe our lift mate, maybe not. So it goes when you’re one of the lucky first few on an express elevator to the Kingdom.
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