In the latest dispatch from his North American travels, Pingu takes a look under the surface of Breckenridge, Colorado. Illustrations by Kieron Black.Breckenridge has been firmly planted in the consciousness of the British shredding populous by the triple-flipping feats of Billy Morgan, the GB Freestyle team’s training videos and the siren-like images of Parkway’s perfect jumps. However, rather than focus on what you know already, I would choose to characterise Breckenridge in three words: Bogies, Balls and Beer.
Bogies (or, “The Consequences Of Altitude")
Breckenridge is high. Not because Colorado has legalised the use of marijuana (pronounced - marry-joo-ah-nah, or gan-jaaah or w-eeeeeee-d), but because it is much closer to the sky than just about any other ski resort in the world. Breck village, which (at the risk of stating the obvious) is the bottom of the resort, is near-as-dammit 3000 metres above sea level – putting the pubs, art galleries, pool hall and snowboard shops some 600 metres above the peak of Avoriaz.
When people talk about resort altitude, it is usually in the context of a sub-Daily Mail gobshite dinner party debate about where will have the best snow during February half-term – namely the overly simplistic equation of Low = Bad, High = Good. But I don't make the point about Breck being nearly a mile closer to the sun than Morzine to contribute to that discussion, rather to highlight that you will, as a result of this altitude, experience the following:
Rich pickings – I have never, in my entire life, produced so many massive crusty bogies, ripe for picking and sticking on the underside of the chairlift safety bar, than I have in Breck. Combine this with the fact that your nasal capillaries are more likely to burst due to the low air pressure and extremely dry atmosphere, and you will start to the think that half your brain has come out every time you blow your nose. It can be scary when your frontal lobe appears to have attached itself to your forefinger, but fear not; in Breckenridge, you can keep picking and your nose will just keep on giving. Comparing morning bogeys with my kids has given me some huge belly laughs and enabled me to find new ways in which to bond with them at their level [sure, Pingu - their level...].
Being completely knackered just by standing up – Snowboarding, at least the way I do it, has not proven itself to be particularly demanding at 3900m above sea level (i.e. the top of Breck). However, brushing my teeth, taking orange juice out of the fridge and wiping my arse have taken my breath away. Prepare to be exhausted by the most menial of tasks, at the most unexpected times.
However, if you are a big fan of walking uphill and wearing a backpack (for which there is plenty of opportunity here, with some fantastic hike-to terrain accessible from Peak 9 and Peak 6), then you can properly wipe yourself out if not careful. I would consider myself to be fairly keen on fitness and thus confident about taking on an alpine ascent, but had a full-blown whitey after a 15-minute hike in the pursuit of some freshies. It was worth it, but I felt very, very weird a couple of hours after my exertion. All was rectified by a couple of gallons of Gatorade and a Macadamia nut cookie, but the altitude properly handed me a can of whup-ass that day.
"Prepare to be exhausted by the most menial of tasks, at the most unexpected times"
The mother of all hangovers, without even drinking - Everyone will know the sensation of waking up in a ski resort feeling like they have been wrestled to bed by a sweaty bear, with a mouth full of deep-shag carpet and eyes encrusted with guacamole and underpant gunk. It’s usually precipitated by several Mutzig, a clutch of Jagerbombs, some shouting, nudity and possibly some Greco-Roman head-locks with your mate – invariably whilst still in your snowboard boots.
You can get this very same feeling in Breckenridge without any of the expense or embarrassment of the aforementioned drinking/horseplay. Basically every day is a hangover day; irrespective of how much water you drink, you will wake up so badly dehydrated that you look like a cross between Ghandi after a week in the desert, and a monkey nut.
It would however be remiss of me not to highlight the flip-side of being high and dry; the snow here is incredible.
Stripped of all their moisture, the flakes in Breckenridge collaborate to create some of the lightest, fluffiest, floatiest powder you can imagine. If you have ever been to Whistler and experienced a foot of wet concrete falling out of the sky, or been rained on in the Alps, then you will be all the more appreciative of the mystic potion concocted by Mother Nature here in Colorado.
What’s more, for several days after a storm the snow will remain every bit as good as it was the day it fell (presuming that it hasn't been snaffled by someone on fat skis). I did get the sense however that the locals (or perhaps the ill-informed visitors) do somewhat take the quality and volume of snow for granted, because I overheard someone calling a twelve-inch dump “dust on crust" at one point. Whilst I was tempted to scoff, there was an element of truth to what they were saying - because the snow is so ridiculously light, it can be brushed or blown away with much greater ease than the stickier stuff you get back in Europe.
Balls (Or, To Be Less Sexist, Bravery)
It is almost impossible, in the context of our cosseted modern world, to fathom just how tough the people were who built the town of Breckenridge during the Victorian era. Whilst they were admittedly possessed by Gold Fever – knowing that Breck’s winding Blue River and the surrounding geology contained an abundance of man’s most precious metal – the risks to which they exposed themselves in the pursuit of a better life are practically beyond comprehension for someone who arrives here in an air-conditioned SUV before a bellboy takes their bags to their condo.
"The balls-out, shit-or-bust spirit still echoes around the slopes of Breckenridge - even if in some parts the resort do their best to quell it"
Can you imagine leaving your family behind with little more than the woolly shirt on your back and a half-decent pair of leather gloves, taking yourself into one of the most inhospitable places on the planet – where the air is so thin that you literally bleed uncontrollably from your face and the oppressive white cloak of winter locks the land away for months at a time – and then hiking up to the top of a mountain with a pick axe or a small pan to scrape out a living?
With the fairy lights of Breckenridge’s town lightening the spirit, the regular bus service and the muffled jazz notes squeezing out through the Victorian window frames along Main Street, it’s easy to forget just how brutal this environment is. The sheer balls and commitment of those original settlers is something that I really struggled to wrap my head around during my time here, especially when I was trying to find a suitably fashionable neck gaiter in one of the on-mountain shops to keep out the -25 degree wind chill that was bothering me at the top of Peak 6.
But, in many ways, the balls-out, shit-or-bust spirit still echoes around the slopes of Breckenridge - even if in some parts the resort do their best to quell it. Here are three balls-related areas of note:
The parks – the sculpted kickers here are as challenging and as thrilling as anything I have hit in my 25 years of slipping sideways on snow. You need to channel the spirit of those original settlers and raise your game to the very limit to hit the Freeway Park on Peak 8, which is a genuine pro-level set-up that will have your sphincter twitching faster than a cocaine-fuelled touch-typist taking notes from an ADHD boss as he snorts his cocktail of Pro Plus and Red Bull. These are jumps where you almost have to stall your 1080s, and – in their own way – the shredders throwing big spins off these kickers are pushing themselves every bit as much as those original gold-diggers, in their pursuit of social-media-likes glory.
"Even the 'medium' Park Lane isn't a place to come if you are not confident in the durability of your testicles (or your knees, more to the point)"
The adjacent Park Lane terrain park is considered “medium", but by the standards of most resorts I have been to still has some pretty beefy hits, and your cheeks will be flapping by the time you hit the bottom booter. There are also myriad of rail-based features that could keep you entertained for a whole season, let alone a holiday.
The standard of riding in both parks is incredibly high, but there remains a supportive and genuinely encouraging atmosphere. You do of course get the odd dick who disses someone for flailing when attempting a new trick, but in general I didn't find the place too “vibey" or intimidating. But even Park Lane isn't a place to come if you are not confident in the durability of your testicles (or your knees, more to the point), or get freaked out when twelve-year-olds drop in ahead of you and throw 900s.
There is another smaller park on Peak 9, but there is a big step up between this and Park Lane. Breck, therefore, it isn't the easiest place to rock up and learn new tricks, or for kids to progress beyond the basics. You won’t feel like doing much stuff you haven’t got absolutely dialled on the bigger hits, unless the snow is very soft (in which case the jumps are often closed anyway, due to the potential for knuckling) and you are feeling particularly ballsy. My kids were freaked out by Park Lane, but outgrew the baby parks pretty quickly - so something in-between would be a great idea.
The pistes & hors piste – Breck isn’t a particularly steep resort, so you can actually leave your balls cooling in a bowl of jelly in the fridge at home if you are just hitting the pistes, but it does nevertheless have some great runs on which you can bust out some high-speed turns. Peak 10 is home to multiple black diamonds - which are actually just solid red runs by Euro standards, which means you can hit some decent velocity without ever splatting a ski school kid who is crossing the piste on a cat track. If you love a eurocarve, I’d head to Peak 10 on the first lift and soak up the corduroy for the best part of each morning.
Now, here comes my gripe. Many of the runs with the greatest potential - namely those with contours, rollers and fun stuff to pop off - are shackled by their “slow zones" (or “no fun zones" as we christened them). As an old guy riding with my kids, I should be in the market for some well-controlled low-speed zones where I don't have to worry about a spotty teenager on blades taking out one of my beloved groms. But even my seven-year-old daughter was bemoaning the “no jumping, no straight-lining, go-fast-lose-pass" banners which fill your field of vision at every turn.
"Whole areas of the resort are literally policed by dudes with speed cameras"
It reminded me of some of the shitter B&B’s I have stayed in over the years (invariably on stag do’s in seaside resorts) where there are little laminated signs everywhere saying “don’t boil kettle after 9pm, no shoes in lounge, please keep TV volume below 6…" Such controls not only make you want to break the rules, they leave a sour taste in the mouth. Ski resorts are supposed to be places where you bezz around really fast; that’s the whole point.
I can understand the policy being applied at the end of the day when the pistes get busier, or near the lift queues/on the green runs/in genuine beginner zones, but you have whole areas of the resort where the terrain is ripe for just ripping but that are literally policed by dudes with speed cameras. Juxtaposed with the what-the-fuck spirit of the Breckenridge founders, it all seems a little bit anodyne, corporate and, frankly, grumpy. Not cool.
When it snows, pretty much anywhere high is good for pow-pow in Breck. Whilst it might have been specific to the prevailing direction of the weather/wind during my stay, it appeared that Peak 6 generally got more snow - and had some great runs which took you through wide open bowls, glades and then eventually tight little tree lines. We would often hit Peak 10 first, then head over to Peak 6, which typically only opened up a little later (usually around 11am, after the avalanche control was done) and hike to the top of the ridge to get the best freshies.
All in all, a great resort if making turns is your thing, but could be absolutely epic with a slightly more liberal policy towards speed.
The fashion – By definition, anything that a 40-year-old man thinks is cool, isn't cool. I am 40, so if you are under 25, ignore everything I now say. If you are my sort of age, you will get this.
Some of the ballsiest moves I saw in Breck actually related to the on-slope sartorials of the park rats. In general, most of the snowboard fashions in the last five years seem to have involved the appropriation of styles that would have once only been seen on the biggest dweebs. Mittens are now de rigeur, whereas for at least two of the last three decades they would have seen you laughed out of town as a gaper.
"In order to get everyone else to think that wearing salopettes is cool, you have to be one smooth motherfucker"
This douchebag chic has now seemingly extended to encompass salopettes worn over the top of coats (like a beginner ski-schooler or fat snow-ploughing Mum), trousers that are rolled up over the top of your boots (like a French ski weekender from Reims), beanies over the top of baseball caps (lost for words here) and those neon headbands that are worn by topless women on 1980s French ski resort postcards.
Whoever initiated these looks must have been really, really ballsy - or an incredibly good shredder - because in order to get everyone else to think that wearing salopettes is cool, you have to be one smooth motherfucker. I can’t imagine anyone looked at my kids or the 70-year-old guy pootling down a green run (both also wearing salopettes), and thought “that is the future of snowboarding fashion", so hats off to the first guy or gal who rocked them and was also able to do a 900.
I must therefore congratulate Breck for being on the edge between ridiculous and cool. Thats what keeps snowboarding fun/alive/looking dumb five years later. Long live dumb balls.
Beers (And Other Things That You Have With Beers)
If it weren't for the fact that the altitude hangover is bad enough, I would have drunk way more in Breck. The local brewery has some fantastic craft ales, which are served liberally in all the bars and restaurants (thankfully, usually accompanied - without any need for awkward ‘soft lad’ requests - by a pint of water).
Again, I am looking at this through 40-year-old lenses, but it is a real joy to be able to sample genuinely tasty beer, rather than just generic European fizzy lager in a ski resort. At the risk of turning this review into a beardy CAMRA missive, I can heartily recommend Breckenridge Brewery’s Nitro Vanilla Porter and their Avalanche Amber Ale. There are myriad other opportunities for melting your head with beers which roll in at 10%+ , but I steered clear of those knowing that it would precipitate a week-long geule de bois, and bring forward my death by about five months.
"I just wish I had been here twenty years ago when I could fight off a hangover in hours rather than millennia, even at 3000m above sea level"
There are heaps of great restaurants that will fill your belly and those of your family - Ollie’s, Fatty’s, Mi Case, Kenosha, Extreme Pizza… just take a stroll down Main Street and follow your nose and you won't go wrong. I should warn you however that most of the restaurants appear to compete on volume, and having ordered the “Pig Out Combo" at Kenosha, I had the meat sweats when I was barely into the meal. As an upstanding British person, I refused to take a doggy bag and manfully completed the feast, and thus later discovered hitherto unexplored levels of flatulence, feelings of self-loathing and porcine-induced night terrors. If I so much as catch a glance of another rib, brisket or slither of pulled pork I could have a heart attack on the spot.
I didn't tear into the discotheques, so can’t really comment with any authority on the late-nite emporia, but the Gold Pan bar had some great live music playing most nights and the pool hall on Main Street enabled us to find new ways to compete about things that don’t matter. I just wish I had been here twenty years ago when I could fight off a hangover in hours rather than millennia, even at 3000m above sea level.
So…to cap it all off, Breck is a place of extremes - extreme dehydration, nose bleeds and bogies. Extreme balls to throw down in the park and rock your particular sub-species of douchebag steez. Extreme consumption in the form of mind-crumpling beer and intestine-busting food. I loved it, my wife and kids loved it, and I will most definitely be back – this time with an oxygen canister, my dad’s old salopettes, and a doggy bag.