Challenging Cirque terrain opens early at Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Challenging Cirque terrain opens early at Snowmass

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With a halo around the sun, Liz Maher of New York City, rides the Cirque Lift to the top of Snowmass Tuesday morning. The poma lift had its earliest opening of the season since it's construction in 1997. Paul Conrad photo.

The teenage snowboarder wouldn’t let go.

He had fallen a third of the way up the Cirque poma lift, and was now getting dragged up the track on his stomach while clinging to the plastic disc on the end of a metal pole.

He was sliding along face down, with his knees bent and his board up over his butt, trying to keep it from jamming sideways into the snow and tossing him about like a fish on a line.

He was leaving two kneecap impressions in the snow as he was pulled up the slope. They looked much like a ski track.

After several tries at lunging higher on the pole and trying to get to his feet, only to get thrown hard back on the snow after catching an edge, he finally let go and kneeled on the side of the track.

“That’s like something out of a spy movie,” he said breathlessly as the skier behind him went by up the hill.

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The Aspen Skiing Co. has pledged to create epic runs for its customers, and at least one snowboarder had a memorable adventure on his way up to the top of the Cirque on Tuesday.

It was the earliest opening day ever for the Cirque poma lift at the Snowmass Ski Area. The earliest the lift on the upper slopes of Mount Baldy had opened was Jan. 3.

Once at the top of the lift, at 12,500 feet, skiers can either opt to cruise down the expansive intermediate Rocky Mountain High trail or head into the Cirque Headwall, which also rarely opens in December.

The conditions yesterday in the Cirque can politely be called “exotic,” as the wide-open bowl was filled with a breakable crust of snow on top of an often hollow snowpack.

“It was breakable,” said Rob Baxter, the mountain manager at Snowmass. “Fat sticks and snowboards would probably have had the best time on it versus regular alpine skis. That’s why we had a warning at the top.

“But if you were looking for challenging skiing, it was there.”

The conditions were a bit tricky, but that didn’t deter a steady stream of skiers and snowboarders from riding the poma lift and then voyaging into the expansive Cirque, which can seem like a different planet from the busy scurryings down on Fanny Hill at the base of the ski area.

One skier and his friend were about halfway down the slope, digging for a lost ski.

“How deep do you think the ski could have gone?” he asked, before a passer-by found his ski about 10 feet up the hill from where he was digging.

The Cirque lift also provides ski-in access to AMF, which may stand for Adios My Friend. This steep chute about a quarter of the way up the vast Cirque was flat and firm yesterday. A recent avalanche, the result of control work, was piled up at the base of the run, and large chunks of snow littered the landscape.

Just down from AMF, the narrow entrance to Gowdy’s looked untracked at 2 p.m. with a light snow falling. It too was flat and firm, if a bit narrow in spots between barely covered rocks.

All three runs, the Headwall, AMF and Gowdy’s, dump out into a narrow, undulating gully that provides nearly as much challenge as the steeps.

But for some skiers, they were just glad to be in the area so early in the season.

“If we can get this open now, as exposed and as high as it is, that’s a real acknowledgement of the kind of snow year we’ve got going,” said Baxter.

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]