Charles Agar: The cirque: Land of fairies, unicorns and deep powder
Winter Park, Colorado
I like to get a little scared sometimes, and there’s nothing like approaching the edge of something steep in a place I’ve never skied that lends every breath a little more meaning.
I guess it’s fear ” the euphoric emptiness in the pit of my stomach ” that points my skis down the steeps in winter, and on Sunday I got my fix of those life-affirming butterflies on my first run down the Alphabet Chutes on the Vasquez Cirque at Winter Park.
I kept hearing about the cirque and the great steeps and trees accessed by a long traverse from the Panoramic Express lift, but the area hadn’t opened up once yet this season, and to me the reports of waste-deep powder and 50-degree steeps were starting to sound as likely as a land of fairies and unicorns.
I have a tradition of getting out to ski on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s one of those great days like Christmas morning, New Years Day and Easter when the slopes are often deserted.
I was out for what I thought would be an afternoon of groomers. So, when I skied off the top of the windy Panoramic Express lift, I was surprised to see people skating, side-stepping and boot packing up to the gated opening for the cirque.
A patroller stood guard at the entrance and gave a short lecture to each skier before they were allowed to pass. He told how it was about a 25-minute uphill hoof ahead and that getting down meant steep, rocky drops with sparse coverage and lots of obstacles. His warning sounded more like poetry to me, and I barely let him finish.
I skated most of the way up the first rise, then took my skis off to hoof it. At the top of the first ridge ” my face already frozen into a mask of snotcicles and pre-frostbite ” I stopped to take in the high alpine moonscape just long enough to catch my breath before trudging on.
The hike did me good. Never mind the whipping wind or the fact that the soft snow meant sinking with every step ” I was excited for some new terrain and happy to get my heart pumping.
I kept peeking over the side at the steep drops marked by closure ropes, and a massive cliff band ahead flanked the length of the ridge. I wondered if I was getting in over my head, but I just trudged along with the handful of other skiers and boarders.
A patroller stood at the open entrance to South Headwall, a spot about halfway along the ridge. He said it was safe to go down there, but when I pressed him for advice he said that if he’d hiked this far he’d go on to the Alphabet Chutes (progressively marked A, B, C and D the farther out you go).
Huffing and puffing, I made it to C Chute, where another patroller gave the OK to go down one at a time (in case of avalanche). That was the payoff: A wide, steep expanse of fresh snow. It was a little wind-crusted and heavy in spots, but I just bounced my skis through the thick stuff and had about 10 blissful turns to the bottom.
Well worth the hike, but it wasn’t over yet.
Like the mythical city of gold the area’s named after, El Dorado trees in the valley below the headwall was full of treasure. I skied far left as the patroller suggested and made solitary tracks in the steep glades where the trees are set just enough apart and the thick snow was perfect to slow me down so I could pretty much point them straight.
Emerging from the trees, I followed the long, flat traverse to the Eagle Wind chair and out of the other world of the cirque. I didn’t find any fairies or unicorns in there, but the cirque was all that I could imagine in my own version of utopia.
” Charles Agar believes in fairies and he will clap his hands or do whatever it takes to bring Tinkerbell back to life or conjure cumulus clouds on a weekday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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