Cirque Sled offers faster easier access to Winter Park’s side-country
Sky-Hi News contributor
For some, earning your turns is overrated.
Winter Park skiers wanting the thrill of the backcountry without all the risks have a new mode of transportation. Winter Park’s 48-person Cirque Sled pulls skiers and riders to terrain previously only accessible on foot.
The sled tops out at about 8.5 mph, but that feels like a fast clip compared to the parade of hikers trudging alongside the snow cat track. Sled riders sit in relative comfort on metal benches for the eight-to-10-minute ride.
The Cirque Sled debuted during the 2013-14 ski season. The one-way ride disembarks near the South Headwall. The sled is well-worth the price of admission, according to some guests.
Tim Hanna, a skier from Smithville in upstate New York, was on his first ski trip to Winter Park. He paid $20 for the cirque sled upgrade to his season pass, sight unseen.
“It sure beats walking,” he said. “Skiing this area is the highlight — going down that bowl. The snow is really nice in there. It makes you feel like you’re doing something different.”
According to Steve Hurlbert, the resort’s director of communications, the sled was added to enhance access, but also to put this unique area on more skiers’ radar.
“The idea of adding the sled was to enhance access to the area and raise awareness for a side-country, big mountain experience that a lot of visitors didn’t even know existed at Winter Park Resort,” he wrote in an email.
With easier access arise concerns that skiers and riders lacking the necessary ability will end up over their heads, both figuratively and literally. But both Hurlbert and Alex Reynolds, the Cirque Sled operator, say that hasn’t been a big problem. Signs clearly mark the area as “experts only.”
“You get a few beginners out here,” said Reynolds. “They ask me where to go and I tell them the easiest way down is south of the West Headwall.”
The Cirque’s safety record is near spotless, according to Geoff Anders, ski patrol director at Winter Park Resort.
“We’ve had injuries out there but no one’s been hurt in an avalanche,” he said. “A couple of the patrollers have gone for a ride, but they’ve come out OK.”
Fear of avalanches is one reason side-country areas like the Cirque are so attractive to skiers, because some of the danger is mitigated by ski patrol.
But no safety system is foolproof. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, five of the 41 Colorado avalanche fatalities since 2010 were side-country riders.
The Cirque is maintained by a very select crew of highly trained patrollers. Previously, all of the work was done by blasting and boot-packing. The Cirque traditionally opens mid- to late-January because of the extensive preparation to make it safe for the public.
To alleviate some of the intense manual labor, the resort added a cirque roller device to their grooming equipment this season. The roller attaches to a winch that is augured to the top of a face and is operated by a remote control. It compacts the snow to make it safer.
“The hope being that by relying less on patrol to physically be out there boot-packing, we can open the territory earlier and keep it open longer,” said Hurlbert.
Traditionally, the Cirque is open mid-January through March, or for as long as conditions allow.
Doug Laraby, planning director for Winter Park Resort, played a key role in the original Cirque expansion, the resort’s largest after Mary Jane.
In the mid-90s, interest in “side-country” — an industry term to indicate off-piste terrain accessible from lifts and often a short hike or cat ride — was growing. Winter Park resort saw the Cirque as its opportunity to enter that type of market.
“We didn’t have that kind of terrain, really, maybe a little in the chutes,” Laraby said.
The Cirque’s creation was not without controversy.
“We did lots of studies up there with the Forest Service. We spent lots of time up there with biologists. We looked at wetlands, soils, and the fish habitat,” said Laraby.
The environmental concerns surrounded the cutthroat trout habitat in the Little Vasquez watershed . But part of the alarm was a misconception that the egress being built was a road.
“We didn’t build a road. We just cleared some trees,” said Laraby.
Laraby means that literally — he and six others with chainsaws cleared the trees for the egress — all by hand. That was in September 1997, after the environmental assessment was complete. The Cirque opened for skiing later that season.
Vasquez Cirque is only a portion of Winter Park’s permit area. The resort’s 2005 Master Plan includes a “Vasquez Main Mountain” plan that would expand an additional 602 acres northwest. Five additional lifts would service mostly intermediate terrain.
However, no further expansion is forthcoming, according to Laraby. The total permit area for the ski resort is over 7,000 acres, of which they currently use about 4,000. The master development plan is a requirement to operate with a U.S. Forest Service permit, but is subject to evolve and change.
Laraby’s role in the Cirque’s creation is a point of pride, especially since he enjoys skiing there.
“It’s a beautiful place. It adds to the experience of Winter Park. It’s just something really different,” he said. “You go to the terrain park you hear music; you go the cirque you hear nothing.”
Cirque Sled passes are still available for $20. For the hard-working, hiking remains an option.
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