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Arapahoe BasinSki, Snow and Terrain

Written by Karl Sander • Photos by Greg and Heather Burke • Last updated Oct 21, 2017

Of Arapahoe Basin’s three main ski areas, the front side tends to be the first to open and last to close. The highlight here is the terrain off the Pallavinci Lift, some of the premier in-bounds steep skiing in Colorado, but the front side is also where most of the mountain’s beginner and intermediate runs are. The backside is also a treat, with a good mix of groomed intermediate trails and advanced to expert off-piste terrain. And then, there is the East Wall which gives A-Basin its reputation. It is on the eastern boundary of the resort where the terrain goes nearly straight up like the wall of a giant cathedral, with spires reaching to the sky. It often won’t open until mid-winter, and even then on any given day could be closed till almost mid-day as ski patrol conducts avalanche control. This part of the resort has A-Basin’s highest terrain, with the hike-to Upper East Wall run beginning just below the 13,050 foot summit, and the most aggressive steeps in the resort and possibly all of Summit County – an area with no shortage of gnarly steeps!

East Wall on the left

The Lifts

A-Basin has eight total lifts to access its terrain and its 109 trails. Only one of these, the Black Mountain Express, is a high speed quad, but regulars don’t seem to mind. Considering the low ticket prices, it might just be a fair trade! Lifts mostly open at 9:00am, except for Pallavinci and Black Mountain Express which open at 8:30am on the weekends. The upper mountain and backside lifts, as well as Molly Hogan on weekdays, close at 3:30pm, while Black Mountain Express runs till 4:00pm (along with Molly Hogan on weekends).

Take the Black Mountain Express to reach mid-mountain

Aside from the learning area serviced by the Molly Hogan lift and two conveyor belts, all the rest of the resort’s beginner runs along with a few blues are found off Black Mountain Express. The Lenawee Mountain Lift, a fixed triple, and the Norway Lift, a fixed double, access several intermediate runs as well as entry to the Montezuma Bowl and gates to the East Wall. All of the terrain you can get to off of Norway is also accessible from Lenawee, so don’t be surprised if Norway isn’t running unless the mountain is busy.

View of the Norway Lift
On the Lenawee Mountain Lift near the peak

Pallavinci - or Pali - accesses mostly advanced and expert runs along with a couple intermediates. Previously out-of-bounds areas on the backside of the ridge at the top of Pali and beyond the west boundary have recently opened for hike-to skiing and riding. These areas are called the Beavers and the Steep Gullies, respectively. In the 2018-19 season, a new quad chair will open in the Beavers, offering access to an additional 339 acres of above-treeline bowls, blue groomers, trees, glades, and chutes. But you can check them out now as a preview of coming attractions!

Terrain off Pallavicini Lift

Zuma Lift is the only chair on the backside, so occasionally it gets crowded (though it’s pretty rare to see crowds at A-Basin). As you explore this part of the mountain, be sure to pay attention to where you are, though – there’s in-bounds terrain below Montezuma’s Revenge and Lightning Traverse that will require a hike back up to the base of the chair. Be sure to pay attention to the time –you don’t want to be miss the 3:30pm closing time and be stuck having to hike back up to the top!

Top of Zuma Lift at the summit of A-Basin

The resort is small enough that if it’s crowded, the crowds will be hard to escape. Since it doesn’t tend to draw many beginners, though, some of the green and blue trails will sometimes have some empty space unless it’s a holiday weekend. The Montezuma Bowl and mid mountain areas (the top of Black Mountain Express and base of Norway and Lenawee Mountain Lifts) fill up quickly, but the Lenawee Mountain Lift moves quickly and the different choices of runs from the top tend to space out the crowd.

Crossing between Areas

You can get from the front side to Montezuma Bowl either right from the top of Lenawee Mountain Lift or off the ridge-running Zuma Cornice, which you get to by turning right off the Lenawee Mountain or Norway Lifts. There are two ways to get to the East Wall, both from Lenawee Mountain Lift. Turn left off the lift and stay high to get to the North Pole Hiking Gate, or ski down a bit to the gate that accesses the East Wall Traverse which allows you to drop into Land of the Giants and Lower East Wall. The Traverse also takes you to spots where you can hike up to access a handful of exhilarating chutes. Runs off the East Wall will drop you off at either the base of Lenawee Mountain Lift, or on a long green that will give you a chance to catch your breath on the way back to Black Mountain Express.

Where to Ski - Beginners

True beginners will want to start out on the two magic carpets and the Molly Hogan Lift at the base area. The learning area is a nice, small slope, perfect for working on your pizza and French fries while the revelers at the Beach work on their burgers and sausages. After getting the hang of it here, beginners can move over to the Black Mountain Express where all the rest of the mountain’s green runs are. Wrangler is the longest, with several broad and gentle turns through the trees and a nice bit of quiet isolation from the busier intermediate trails. Beginners don’t really need to plan that much, just lap the greens of Black Mountain Express… and stay away from Pali.

Intermediates

Black Mountain Express is also a good place for intermediates to start in order to get a good look at the terrain and all the various choices A-Basin offers. Take a few laps on any of the blue runs to get your bearings, then head up above the treeline on Lenawee Mountain Lift and take your pick of any of the intermediate ways down through the upper mountain bowl.

Lenawee Face off Lenawee Mountain Lift

Eventually, you’ll want to head into Montezuma Bowl from the top of Lenawee and savor its long groomed intermediates like Larkspur and Columbine.

Top of Zuma Lift, looking down Larkspur

Veteran intermediate skiers can make a long adventure out of top-to-bottom runs on both the front and back by skiing down the front side via Dercum’s Gulch (get there by taking either Humbug or Lenawee Face) to High Noon, then back up to the top and into Montezuma Bowl, down to the bottom of Zuma Lift. Once back at the top, head down Norway Face and Ramrod to the base area.

Advanced / Expert

They call it “the Legend” for a reason – and advanced and expert skiers and riders will definitely find out why! It’s a true paradise for black diamond aficionados! If you’re feeling up to it, you can start off on Pali – if we could only ski one lift for the rest of time, it might be this one! It has steep trees, massive bumps, cliff drops, cornices, bowl skiing, chutes, and fast, steep big mountain turns – all off an old school double chair where it’s easy to keep track of your friends or make new ones. It’s close enough to the parking lot to grab refreshment out of your car if you need it, and the insanely steep lines are all visible from the lift so you can enjoy the spectacle of people trying their luck to the vocal delight of on-lookers. Of course, when it’s your turn, you can expect to hear it from the chair lift and parking lot the whole way down, too – it’s all part of A-Basin’s unique personality! The North Glade is a classic run, and if the snow is there, the Alley area along the ski area’s west boundary is worth the trip out along Pali Cornice. If you visit in April, you can considering doing the Pali Enduro, an annual day-long event where teams of two see how many laps of the iconic lift and its leg burning terrain they can do in a day.

If you like the idea of burning legs but want to earn your turns, you can head out to East Wall and its breathtaking steeps. Hike up the ridge from the North Pole gate, and if the weather’s clear take in the view across range after range of mountains. Then, drop into the chutes and hang on! The wall is a very exposed area so in foggy weather or a snowstorm it’s likely to be closed, but often you’ll still be able to drop into the powder-filled bowl below the traverse. The farther you go along the traverse, the more untracked pow you’re likely to find .There are a couple of other hiking points along the Traverse, one that takes you to Upper East Wall and your choice of the Corner Chute or Willy’s Ride, and one that takes you to North Y and South Y Chutes, and Tree Chutes 1-8. You’ll get a good view of it all as you head up Lenawee.

In Zuma Bowl, if you stay high and to the right you’ll find plenty of chutes, steeps, and cliff jumps. If you stay high and go to the left, ambitious intermediates and advanced skiers will find deep trees and untracked powder with a bit more moderate of a pitch than the front side.

For one of our favorite runs, start with some “warm up” on the Beach before heading up Pali (make sure you holler at everyone you see!). At the top of the lift, turn right and head down Main Street. Put on a good show for the folks on the chair who will be hollering at you as you make your way through the bumps. About halfway down duck into the Timber Glades for a taste of the trees, followed by a trip through the Rock Garden to weave your way though some of the bigger boulders before getting spit out onto Poli Wog on the way back to the bottom of the lift.

For Families

Families with differing ability levels will do best off the Black Mountain Express. There’s a couple advanced runs for those who can hack it, a handful of intermediate runs, and the resorts longest beginner trails. One of the terrain parks is just below the top of the lift in case you have any budding freestylers. The base of the lift is also right next to Molly Hogan and the magic carpets, so if you have any first-timers, they won’t be far away!

Terrain Parks

Arapahoe has two permanent terrain parks, both in the middle of the ski area. The Treeline Terrain Park is near the bottom of Norway Lift, also accessible from Lenawee Mountain Lift and Pali. Of the two, it has bigger jumps and more advanced features.  The High Divide Terrain Park, near the top of Black Mountain Express, has features that are more basic. Additionally, there’s usually a ‘floating’ beginners terrain park for newbies that moves around the mountain as snow conditions (or snow-making) dictate.

Off-piste and Backcountry

A-Basin is famous for steeps, chutes, moguls, and deep trees so it’s no surprise that a large portion of its terrain is off-piste. It’s all easily accessible from the Pali Chair, Zuma Lift, and Lenawee Mountain Lift. Montezuma Bowl has some of the best bowl skiing and tree runs on the mountain while, Pali has the big bumps, steep faces, and narrow chutes. The East Wall is where you go to scare yourself silly on the near vertical chutes dropping you from the heavens into big bowls below.

The biggest challenge in finding the fresh stuff is how fast you can make a lap, because the hard core local powderhounds aren’t going to be wasting any time. They’ll be out early after a storm, bee-lining for their favorite stashes in the glades and steeps. There will be plenty of fresh snow to go around – but only if you can keep up! On a big day, expect to see folks lapping Pali until East Wall opens; then, there will be a mad dash to the traverse to head into the expansive bowls in Land of the Giants and Lower East Wall.

You can still find pockets the day after a big dump if you keep exploring. Head up to the top of Pali, then over to Lenawee Mountain Lift and head for Montezuma Bowl. Keep to your right as you leave the top to get on the Zuma Cornice and look for stashes of soft snow, or bear left and either tuck into Northern Spy or follow the Mountain Goat Traverse to the deep glades – and surviving powder stashes – of Bierstadt and Grays. These two are often the last places to get tracked out.

Backcountry access is straightforward. There are gates at the far end of the East Wall Traverse, and at the bottom of the terrain below Zuma Lift. You can also drop down the far side of Pali Cornice and frolic in A-Basin’s next expansion area, the Beavers and Steep Gullies. Finally, since Arapahoe Basin is at the bottom of a pass, you can ski that, too. Catch a ride with a local heading over the pass and ask them to drop you off at the top. A short hike leads you to where you can make a long ski down to the resort parking lot. It’s best to follow a group that’s done it before, so you know where to go. Of course, you should only venture into these areas if you know how to read the snow, operate in the backcountry and are properly equipped (shovel, probe and beacon). Go with a partner, make sure people know where you’re going, and make smart decisions!