Expedition: Kirkwood plans tours of The Cirque | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Expedition: Kirkwood plans tours of The Cirque

Axie Navas
A group of skiers and snowboarders stand in front of a snow cat on a powder day while cat skiing at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, California.
Rachid Dahnoun |

Kirkwood Mountain Resort’s terrain is about to get even gnarlier.

The resort plans to offer guided tours down The Cirque possibly starting next season as part of the Expedition: Kirkwood program, according to Brand Manager Kevin Cooper.

If you haven’t skied The Cirque, you’re not alone. The insanely steep, cliff-ridden face that plummets about 1,000 vertical feet to the valley below could be considered a suicide wish for a skier or rider without the right abilities. Freeride World Tour professionals compete on it and patrollers ride it, but the terrain is closed to the public.

That could change in the next few years. Freeskier Magazine teamed up with Kirkwood in January to offer a skier the chance to fulfill a pipe dream — be the first person to navigate The Cirque on an Expedition: Kirkwood guided tour. Competitors uploaded a photo of themselves skiing a rowdy line and listed their qualifications for skiing the resort’s steepest terrain, according to the Freeskier Magazine website.

Expedition: Kirkwood picked Utah skier Ben Woodworth as the winner. He hit The Cirque earlier this month, possibly the first in a line of clients who will get the chance to test their mettle on the treacherous slope.

It won’t ever be a route to be taken lightly though. Expedition: Kirkwood American Mountain Guides Association certified personnel would lead the tours and skiers or riders would need to have at least an AIARE — an acronym for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education — Level 1 certification.

“What we’re figuring out is what it’s going to take on our side,” Ski and Ride School and Expedition: Kirkwood Director Jon Copeland said. “It’s pretty rowdy terrain. It’s on the high end of expert terrain and we need to make sure people are qualified … With this kind of terrain, we want to make sure we have our ducks in a row.”

Copeland said Expedition: Kirkwood guides need to map out rescue plans, safety protocol, qualification guidelines and the best lines to the bottom before they move forward with the public tours. Snow permitting, Expedition: Kirkwood staff will scope out routes and spend more time getting familiar with The Cirque next season before clients get to give the slope a shot. How much those tours will cost has still to be determined, Copeland said.

In the meantime, Expedition: Kirkwood will continue doing what it’s done for the past decade — teaching advanced skiers and riders how to safely recreate in the backcountry. The program offers multiple avalanche education courses, beacon training, powder cat tours, clinics and a variety of camps.

“We were looking for something beyond ski school,” Cooper said. “We started noticing a lot of people entering the backcountry but they didn’t necessarily have the education.”

Guiding The Cirque would be an evolution of the niche market Kirkwood tapped into with the program, but the tours won’t go forward until all details are in place, according to Copeland.

Copeland said he sees Expedition: Kirkwood continuing to build on the programs that already exist while guides initiate research reconnaissance missions next year on The Cirque.

“I think (The Cirque) is an area that everyone who skis the resort gets to see. Everyone wants to go up there,” Copeland said. “We want to go at it very cautiously. So we continue seeking input from guests. We just want to get the message out there that the real focus is on the education component and cat skiing.”

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