Sky’s the limit at Breckenridge ski resort
All is white with the world at Colorado’s Breckenridge ski resort
LEE Sky’s destiny was written all over the mountains. Driving from California to Colorado along the Interstate 70 two decades ago, he looked up to see avalanche chutes carved into the mountainside that stood between him and the one-time gold mining town of Breckenridge. Taking the path of least resistance, eons’ worth of snow had gouged out trees and loose rocks, creating three valleys that roughly spelled out this Australian’s name: S-K-Y.
“If that’s not a sign I don’t know what is,” he says. “I came into Breckenridge and thought, ‘this is a nice town, I think destiny’s calling’. And I have never left.” Now Sky stands astride this mountain, surveying the valleys below that have been cut right off from the rest of the world. It’s deep winter in Colorado, and storms have pounded the Front Range overnight. Just over 40cm of snow has fallen at Breckenridge; the powdery deluge has closed the Interstate, whited out the terrain above the tree line and spilled off the mountainsides and into the valleys.
Sky eyes me pointedly, readying himself for take-off. “You can consider yourself among the chosen few,” he says, “because this is epic.” And then he is gone, shot like some human bullet onto the ski run that fans out below us. Its breadth has been reduced to almost nothing by a blur of dancing snowflakes and the boundaries that de- marcate the neighbouring Aspen groves have been smudged by mammoth snow drifts.
Sky aims straight towards the bottom of the run, gaining precious momentum that will propel him through this treacle-like snowfall. I follow, making slower progress. I’m an inexperienced skier, impeded by this cascade of snow, for my body doesn’t yet trust it to regulate my speed as I progress down the mountainside. Sky is waiting patiently for me at the bottom of Peak 8.
“We might have to do black runs just to get momentum,” he says. “Otherwise I’ll need to push you.” I turn to face the mountain. The snowstorm has doused the landscape so thoroughly our world is now nothing but a tiny, crystalline snow globe. Beyond the whiteout, five distinct peaks stand tall and proud, encircling these valleys and cupping within them innumerable ski runs.
These are the icy filaments that thread their way up and down and back and forth and across the mountainsides, burrowing into ever further reaches, urging skiers upwards and onwards. In the early mornings I’ve heard the distant boom, boom of avalanche prevention bombs released in unstable snow-pack by the Breckenridge Ski Patrol. It’s towards these distant ranges – the extreme terrain of Peak 8’s summit, which stands at almost 4000m – that we’re now headed.
The snow is still falling as we roll off 6-Chair lift. The lift expels us at the head of a latticework of black runs that sit at the base of the innocuously-named Snow White cliff face. Sky – did his name foretell a love of lofty, expansive places? – is in his element. “It’s going to be treacherous, challenging – and awesome!”
But despite this apparent bravado, I’m in perfectly safe hands. Sky has been teaching skiers for the past 20 years, and these days he’s responsible for training Breckenridge’s ski instructors. He’s also part of the Breck Guide program, which takes small groups to remote parts of the mountain where they’re introduced to avalanche awareness, snow science, slope identification and the joys of high alpine skiing.
But I’m one of Sky’s tamer customers; just getting me onto a black run has been a challenge. He must sense my fear for he eschews a run known as Psychopath in favour of the slightly less portentously named Adios. The run is almost empty, one of the benefits, Sky tells me, of unnavigable roads. In the days that follow, Denverites will flock to Breckenridge, passing along the Interstate, with snowcaked buffalo and deer and the faces of stunned prairie dogs emerging from the whiteout, to partake of the skiers’ manna that has fallen so liberally from heaven.
But for now we practically have the mountain to ourselves; even those skiers who’ve managed to make it up this far are but ghostly figures dissolving into the squall. As we set off along this black run I recall the words of the waiter down in Breckenridge last night as I scanned the menu in its entirety before ordering my first course. “There’s a proverb in life,” he said, intuiting my desire for sweetness. “Eat dessert first, for the future’s uncertain.” The future had felt uncertain as the lift carried me up towards the summit of Peak 8, cloaked as it was in boiling grey skies.
As I gather momentum along Adios it seems all too clear: ahead of me are great big waves of foamy snow, cresting and breaking all along the slope. I’m buried up to my waist in powder, and it cocoons me as I sail earthwards at a speed too temperate for this mountain’s steep incline. Sky was right: the powder has slowed me down enough so that I can see champagne flakes twirling before my eyes and sense the ridge of the mountain guiding me home. Tonight I’ll stroll through icicle-encrusted Breckenridge, past the absinthe bar and the oxygen lounge and the little dogs swaddled in woollen coats and booties, feeling almost certain I’ve touched the sky.
Snow-covered houses at Breckenridge, top left; downtown, top right; a skiier gets air, above right; and the thrilling way down