A rich blue sky envelops me. Sun streams onto my face. The air holds still and clear. Nothing invades my space — no trees, no structures and no people — just the sky and ultra white pristine snow, soft under my ski boots and thick on mountains as far as I can see. I’m on top of the world ... or at least on top of North America.
The starkly beautiful world that awaits skiers and riders at the top of America’s highest ski lifts with good weather provides the perfect start to dramatically long vertical drops. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, skiing and snowboarding can become an adventure. A daring skier or rider slipping off any of these lifts is fulfilling their personal quest for the extreme and gliding down a slope less taken. It can make all the difference.
Atop Peak 8 at Breckenridge Ski Resort, just two feet shy of 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I arrived by climbing the knob above the top terminal of Imperial Express Superchair. The lift begins at 11,901 feet (3,627 meters) and ends at 12,840 feet (3,914 meters). It’s the highest ski resort high-speed quad chairlift in the world, opened just two years ago. Ride time on Imperial is less than three minutes, a huge difference from the 45 minutes hikers used to spend to reach the same area.
Backcountry purists objected to the easy-ride invasion of their private high alpine stashes—600 acres of the best terrain on the mountain. But now the rest of us who want to expend our energy going down, not up, can reach the entire ridge lines of Peaks 8 and 7, and thus the steep chutes and bowls below them: Art’s Bowle, Peak 7 and North Bowls, and Whale’s Tail on skier’s left; Imperial Bowl, under the lift; and Lake Chutes and Snow White on skier’s right. Up here, skiing is sweet. Silky snow lasts long into spring. And the views? Like an Andean condor, you can see forever.
Breck’s pioneering firsts go back to 1981 when it installed the world’s first high-speed four-person chairlift on Peak 9, starting the industry’s high-speed quad revolution. Now all major resorts feature this type of lift in their transportation systems.
Look for more resorts to corral backcountry terrain into their in-bounds areas by perching their upper terminals on the highest real estate around.
Loveland Ski Area, Colo.
Loveland Ski Area tops out at 13,010 feet (3,965 meters) on the Continental Divide in Colorado. Its Chair 9, built in 1998 to 12,700 feet (3,870 meters), was the world’s highest lift until Breck’s Imperial. Loveland’s Chair 9 stops shy of the peak, but hikers can gain another 310 feet for spectacular views in every direction. Loveland catches snowstorms early enough in the season that it’s often the first ski area in the nation to open.
Arapahoe Basin, Colo.
Two years running, though, its neighbor Arapahoe Basin — at 13,050 feet (3,292 meters), another high-altitude area over the pass — captured the honor. A-Basin claims the highest skiable terrain in North America. But it’s uppermost lifts — Lenawee and Zuma — reach only 12,472 feet (3,801 meters), making them both third in line for the highest designation. The Legend, as A-Basin is known, opened in 1946 with a rope tow that skiers reached in an Army weapons carrier pulled by a four-wheel-drive vehicle. At the end of this year, A-Basin will unveil its largest expansion ever, Montezuma Bowl—400 acres of cornices, chutes, glades and wide-open bowls on the mountain’s backside.
Winter Park, Colo.
This year’s entry in the highest-lift sweepstakes is Panoramic Express, set to open mid-December in Winter Park, Colo. With its top terminal at only 12,060 feet (3,676 meters) — still lower than Imperial, Chair 9, Lenawee and Zuma — why is it a contender? It will be the highest six-person chairlift in the world. Six-packs are the newest in detachable chairlifts. The country’s first double-loading six-pack (loading from two sides), the Quicksilver6, was introduced at Breckenridge during the 1999-2000 season.
Panoramic Express sits next to the bottom of Sunnyside chairlift on the Mary Jane Mountain of Winter Park Resort. Now it takes only seven minutes to reach the summit of Parsenn Bowl and, after a short traverse along the ski area boundary, the steep chutes of Vasquez Cirque. It provides a slick and quick path to the highest expert skiing and riding at the resort.
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The four-season resort of Gulmarg in the Indian Himalayas just put up the world’s highest gondola. The Poma-made six-person enclosed cabins climb from 8,694 feet (2,650 meters) to a mid-station and restaurant at 10,007 feet (3,050 meters) and continue to the end station at an altitude of 13,058 feet (3,980 meters). Skiers offload onto ungroomed slopes in a harsh high-alpine environment from where it’s a half-hour hike to the peak of Mt. Apharwat at 13,530-foot (4,124 meters). The resort thinks you should hire a guide to ski these routes.
Tochal Ski Resort
It takes only 45 minutes to get from the capital city of Iran to the top lift station of Tochal at 12,631 feet (3,850 meters) on the longest cable-car system in the world. Riders pass six main stations and eight small stations before reaching the top. A few chair lifts stand along the way, but none reach any higher than the cable-car summit.
Sadly, Chacaltaya’s bragging rights to the world’s highest working ski lift melted along with the glacial snow. The Bolivian ski resort faces a snowless future, according to the New York Times. Scientists attribute the demise of the spartan ski area about a mile high above La Paz directly to global warming, and say that skiing there could disappear entirely in a just few years. Its lift that used to carry skiers to an unbelievable 17,388 feet (5,300 meters) closed recently, leaving skiers the option of hiking 30 minutes to Chacaltaya’s only run.
Claudia Carbone is a contributor to skisnowboard.com as well as skisnowboardeurope.com. She is the author of WomenSki (World Leisure, $14.95), available through Amazon.com.