The patrol hut atop the new Kensho SuperChair on Peak 6 (that’s Peak 5 of the Tenmile Range in the background) is one of only two structures built as
The patrol hut atop the new Kensho SuperChair on Peak 6 (that's Peak 5 of the Tenmile Range in the background) is one of only two structures built as part of the 543-acre expansion. (Scott Willoughby, The Denver Post)

BRECKENRIDGE — Think of it as vertical integration.

Peak 6, the long-awaited, 543-acre expansion on the northern flank of Breckenridge Ski Resort, is scheduled to open to the public Wednesday. More than six years after the idea was originally sketched out, skiers and snowboarders will finally learn what all the fuss was about as they learn a new way to ride one of the most popular ski areas in the Western Hemisphere.

"It's going to be awesome for the way this mountain skis, opening up some really good terrain for people to go out and explore a bit," said Russ Pecoraro, communications director for Vail Resorts' mountain division. "The biggest challenge at Breckenridge is just that slope density. There's a ton of people out here at any given time on any given day, both on the slopes and in lift lines. This really is going to spread people out, I think. We're going to see it all across the mountain where it's an overall better experience."

Breckenridge snow safety supervisor Will Barrett points out some of the new terrain of the Peak 6 expansion.
Breckenridge snow safety supervisor Will Barrett points out some of the new terrain of the Peak 6 expansion. (Scott Willoughby, The Denver Post)

If you ski in Colorado, odds are you have skied at Breckenridge. The resort sprawling across the southern sector of Summit County's Tenmile Range has been ranked the most-visited or second- most-visited ski area in the country for several years now, drawing about 1.6 million visitors annually. It competes for the top spot in number of skier visits with Vail Mountain, a resort that boasted more than double the terrain of pre-expansion Breckenridge.

The Peak 6 expansion adds 23 percent to Breck's skiable acreage, including three new bowls served by two new lifts designed to increase uphill capacity by 3,000 skiers per hour. For a resort that often sees its comfortable capacity of 15,000 riders per day wedged by as many as 20,000 on peak days, the growth to 2,908 acres is significant on a number of fronts.

"This is the biggest thing to happen in the ski industry for a long time," Pecoraro said. "You just don't see a true expansion like this anymore."

Indeed, Colorado's last terrain expansion of note (about 400 acres) occurred at Arapahoe Basin's Montezuma Bowl in 2008. Telluride added 200 acres the same year. Breckenridge last broadened its boundary line to include Peak 7 in 2002, followed by the addition of the Imperial Express lift to access inbounds hike-to terrain atop Peak 8 in 2006. It took years of planning, redesigns and an 800-page environmental impact study for Peak 6 expansion approval.

The result is a sort of hybrid of the Peak 7 and 8 additions, increasing the mountain's scope both horizontally and vertically. Whereas the linear alignment of the ski resort now spanning five peaks of the Tenmile Range is conducive to base-area bottlenecks, Peak 6's lower Zendo Chair, a quad, should help thin crowds at the base while the six-passenger Kensho SuperChair expands much-needed access to upper-mountain terrain. Next year calls for a fourth high-speed six-pack replacing Peak 8's overburdened Colorado SuperChair.

"T-bar, Imperial, 6-Chair and (Kensho) would fall into the category of 'upper mountain terrain,' " mountain operations director Gary Shimanowitz said. "This is really going to change the way people ski here at Breckenridge. Say, for instance, on one of our powder days, where people traditionally always went to the T-bar, 6-Chair or Imperial, they'll be able to come (to Peak 6) right away. This chair is going to be open at 8:30 a.m., and they'll be able to get some intermediate bowl skiing in while patrol is doing avalanche control work to get the upper terrain open."

As an appeal to the masses, Peak 6 is heavily promoted for its quantity of intermediate skiing, including above-tree-line-bowl skiing not found anywhere else on the mountain. Eight trails below treeline round out the 182 acres of new intermediate terrain, cut to retain stands of legacy trees that serve as a progression to gladed tree skiing for the uninitiated. A tool called a "masticator" was used to grind down stumps and tops of rocks in order to smooth the slope surface and enable an earlier opening of terrain on a shallow snow base.

(Click to enlarge)

But it is the expert and double-black-diamond "extreme" terrain found in Beyond Bowl, Serenity Bowl and The Six Senses that stands out most in the expansion area. The new Kensho lift knocks about 1,500 vertical feet and 45 minutes of uphill hiking off the formerly popular sidecountry stashes, leaving just a 15-minute climb up 280 vertical feet from the top of the lift to the peak's 12,580-foot summit.

From there, an additional 143 acres entice to the north and south, growing progressively more difficult moving southward to the steep, rocky cliffs of The Six Senses area bordering Peak 7.

"Most of the terrain in Serenity Bowl is rated double-black diamond," said Will Barrett, snow safety supervisor at Breckenridge. "The Six Senses area is about 50 degrees at the top, which gives it the 'EX' (extreme terrain) designation. The overall slope angle in that area is about 45 degrees. A lot of rocks, a lot of cliffs. It's phenomenal skiing."

The addition required hiring 14 more ski patrollers to help manage avalanche hazards and closures. In an effort to address the loss of side-country terrain, a new access gate will open to Peak 5 north of the resort boundary.

"I think what people are going to realize is that we've moved the sidecountry into safer terrain," said Wayne Collins, a 25-year local responsible for grooming Peak 6. "I think it's a huge improvement, safety-wise. Even though we never had an incident requiring Search and Rescue on the Peak 6 cirque, I felt like it was going to happen eventually."

Scott Willoughby: swilloughby@denverpost.com or twitter.com/willoughbydp