It's the middle of the day, but I can't see a thing. Skiers in full face masks—myself among them—unload from the Imperial Express and disappear into a wind-whipped maelstrom. Visibility is close to zero, the worst I've ever skied. The sky, ground and even the air—swirling with wind-blown snow—are white. Forget scouting a line, this is skiing by feel. I drop down the fall line and try to follow the lift towers, but they come into focus only at the last second—like ships emerging from a fog. The powder is more than a foot deep, and it's impossible to judge my speed. I stop to gain my bearings and fall over, unable to see which way is downhill.
Welcome to North America's highest lift-served terrain, home to deep snow, violent weather, thin air and—on clear days—stunning views. Imperial Bowl, a 400-acre snowfield atop Breckenridge's Peak 8, has been open only to hike-up skiers in the past. The Imperial Express SuperChair, installed last year, changed all that.
Construction took only three and a half months but followed years of opposition from backcountry skiers and a lawsuit by conservationists. The $4 million detachable quad is a milestone, usurping Loveland Ski Area's claim to the continent's highest lift. At 12,840 feet, it allows all comers to experience the thrill of skiing way above treeline. The Imperial Express ranks with Aspen Highlands' Deep Temerity as one of the nation's great new lifts.
"There is an absolute 'wow factor' up there," says Breckenridge mountain manager Rick Sramek. Imperial Bowl is rated double-black-diamond, although this is due more to the extreme weather and elevation than the slope's difficulty—which on a clear day is advanced intermediate. "We're making sure people realize it's a different ballgame up there," Sramek says.
On days like today, there's no liftline. The next day, however—under bluebird skies—the line is frustratingly long. The snow also gets worked. Thus the local nickname for Imperial Bowl: "the world's highest bump run."
"I love how wide open it is," saysWendy Gruenberg of Denver. Bald Mountain, Boreas Pass, the Never Summer Range, Mount Werner and the Collegiate Peaks loom in the distance.The view is among the best in the West.
Building a lift this high took some serious elbow grease. Lift towers and infrastructure had to be carried by helicopter or on workers' backs. An excavator was dismantled, flown to the summit, then reassembled. Lift towers were engineered to withstand major avalanches. Last winter, the Imperial Express had a top capacity of 600 skiers per hour. This season, the addition of extra chairs bumps it to 1,200.
Not just at the exclusive service of Imperial Bowl, the lift opens new lines across the upper mountain: Ride the ridgeline to skier's left and drop over the other side into Contest Bowl's trees. Or hike the Stairway to Heaven boot path up an extra 150 feet to the summit of Peak 8, then head across the Whale's Tail saddle to Peak 7 Bowl. (The old T-Bar, previously Breckenridge's highest lift, is now a local favorite for fresh snow in Horseshoe and Cucumber bowls late into the day.)
"The new lift will push people to see Breck as a place for extreme skiing," says Boulder high school teacher Mary Jensen. It used to take Jensen 45 minutes to hike to the summit from the top of the T-Bar. "It's distressing to see so many people up here," she says, "but now you can do laps in the Lake Chutes."
The Lake Chutes—50-degree extreme terrain on skier's right from the summit of Peak 8—used to involve a strenuous hike. No longer. With names such as Nine Lives, Crazy Ivan and Vertical Cornice, these rocky chutes are for experts only. Patrollers close them on low visibility days, with good reason: In extreme conditions, avalanche control is nearly impossible. Says avvy technician Rick Sandstrom: "You could walk right off the cornice."
The Imperial Express is also a challenge for patroollers. Novices who never could have made it up to the Lake Chutes in the past get stuck midway."Sometimes people just panic," says snow safety director Bob Tierney. "They can't go up, they can't go down." They're called "cling-ons," and patrollers have to rappel down to rescue them. "It's a lot easier for us when they just roll all the way to the bottom," deadpans one.
Warming himself near the stove in the patrol shack after shoveling the unloading zone, Sandstrom takes a breather as the snow keeps falling. "We have to do everything by hand," he says, because snowcats and snowblowers don't work this high up.Three gas-powered stoves have already broken due to the low oxygen, and the shack itself is being crushed from the pressure of snow piled up and over the roof.
So is the Imperial Express worth the fuss? "Absolutely," says Tierney. "It gives people the chance to ski their dreams."