Back in January, we asked if you wanted to be among the first to ski the Cirque at Kirkwood. This famed slice of terrain has been a permanent closure within the resort’s boundary for years, often gazed upon by locals and visitors alike, who wished for a chance to ski it. Among the few people who do get access to it are Freeride World Tour competitors. “The Cirque is a skier’s dream,” says 2011/12 FWT winner and Kirkwood local, Josh Daiek. “It has everything you’d ever want—steeps, chutes, hucks and more. There are a lot of dangerous areas, and people need to know their limits.” With the expansion of Expedition Kirkwood (EK), the resort’s expert guide service, the dream of ripping the Cirque is now within reach, as they eye the zone as a potential destination for clients.
In the contest we hosted with Kirkwood—offering a lucky individual a chance to be the first to take a guided tour of the Cirque—Kirkwood received 64 entries. Our staff along with representatives of Kirkwood Resort narrowed that pool down to five. From there, the guides at Expedition Kirkwood selected Ben Woodworth of Salt Lake City as the lucky winner, worthy of the VIP trip.
Expedition Kirkwood’s rental fleet.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, located 45 minutes south of Lake Tahoe, is not known for posh amenities but for it’s wild terrain, and Expedition Kirkwood is the premier tool for getting acquainted with it. The EK office is located right in the middle of the small base village and includes a classroom, retail space for all your backcountry gear and rental fleet if you’d prefer to try it out first or not travel with all your own.
The classroom is where Ben spent his first day as he began his three-day AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Level 1 certification, a prerequisite for skiing the Cirque. This training begins in the classroom and teaches the essential elements of backcountry travel, including the use of required tools, evaluating terrain and safely navigating your way through it. Education is a primary focus for EK, which offers everything from basic beacon training and backcountry awareness courses, right up to AIARE Level 2 certifications. Days two and three for Ben were spent in the field digging snow pits, practicing with safety tools and honing in travel techniques.
Once training was complete, it was on to the big show: skiing the Cirque. I happened to be in Kirkwood covering the Freeride World Tour just a few days before Ben was scheduled to cash in on his prize, and was lucky enough to receive invitation to join in on the adventure. I happily obliged and prolonged my stay.
Come Friday morning, I found myself alongside Woodworth at EK headquarters in a meeting with Jon Copeland, director and lead guide. Jon went over the plan for the day and then, it was on to the lift.
Left: The Cirque at Kirkwood Resort. Right: Woodworth stands atop The Cirque.
From the top of The Wall, or Chair 10 as it’s commonly referred to, it’s about a 15-20 minute hike to the Cirque. As this part of the program was not only new for Ben, but also the resort, we were escorted by members of Kirkwood’s ski patrol, who were more than happy to ditch their usual morning duties in favor of skiing the Cirque with us, as well as Sam, the general manager of Kirkwood’s Ski and Ride School. On the stroll up, I listened as patrol and EK explained how they are still fine-tuning guided skiing through this terrain and working to get all the right elements in place—such as rescue equipment and anchors for belaying in case of emergency—in order to make this a more viable option for the guided service going forward.
After evaluating the snow conditions and choosing a route, we dropped one by one into a steep couloir at skier’s right, with Jon leading the way. Chalky snow in the chute gave way to softer conditions down below and we were all smiles as we made our way down each segment. You can tell how amazing the terrain is by just looking up at the Cirque, but once you’ve dropped into it you really get a feel for the possibilities. The numerous entry routes, combined with rocky features and chutes all over the place create endless options. It’s no wonder the zone gets used as a venue for testing some of the world’s best skiers every year. With the FWT having wrapped up just a few days prior, we were able to get a look at, and ski, some of the competitors’ lines close up–gnarly to say the least.
Jon points out the vast terrain just beyond the resort boundary
After a successful completion of lap number one, it was back down to Chair 10 for round two. At the patrol shack up top, ski patrol rotated in two new escorts who were happy to tag along. We skied the same entry couloir and then veered left into some even better snow for our second lap, finding a few things to jump off of in the process. While part of us wanted to lap it all day, there is so much good terrain surrounding the resort that we decided to venture out to another area. We skied back down to the EK HQ, refueled and geared up to head out of bounds.
Back outside we hopped on the Cornice Express, a.k.a. Chair 6, and headed to the top. From there, we hiked west, toward Glove peak and traversed around to Thunder Bowl, a huge bowl with many different options depending on the snowpack. The main part of the bowl funnels into a number of different chutes and after some evaluation we (Jon) picked the best route down the exposed face. The sun shined on us as we descended the soft snow at the top. While we enjoyed the turns, we made sure to remember that this was a no-fall zone, as the wrong move could send you tumbling over some less-than desirable terrain. We made our way through a hairy choke at the center of the face that gave way to soft and creamy turns down below.
As we shed some layers in preparation for the skin back up to the ridge, we admired the bowl and all the options it offers, including the wall adjacent to our route. While the resort itself has amazing terrain, it’s gems like this, just beyond the gates, that many people don’t often see. The skin back up to the ridge was a quick 20-minute trip and as we looked around we imagined how much fun the tree’d runs around us would be to descend also. We had just seen the tip of the iceberg.
Thunder Bowl, just outside the resort boundary
If you want to explore some of this terrain for yourself, head over to expedition.kirkwood.com to check out all the programs they offer. You can also call Expedition Kirkwood at 209-258-7360 to discuss options and make reservations which are highly recommended.