5 Myths About Snowcat Skiing
by Kim D. McHugh
Credit filmmakers Warren Miller Entertainment and Teton Gravity Research for making it look like skiing and snowboarding is reserved for the cliff-jumping, waist deep-powder cruising fanatics. Fortunately, this is hardly the case when it comes to cat skiing. I enlisted the thoughts of seasoned operators to do some myth-busting on the activity.
1) Cat skiing is risky and very dangerous. You could say the same about fighting traffic just to get to the ski resort.
“Cat skiing is about as non-risky of an on-snow experience as there is in the backcountry ski guiding world,” says Kent Vertrees of Steamboat Powdercats in Colorado. “Also, thanks to the small group experience, unlike skiing at ski areas, you won’t get taken out by some earphone wearing, snow gangster hauling ass on a cat track.”
Obviously, being in the mountains facing potential avalanche danger and maneuvering around big powerful machines adds inherent risk. But as Vertrees explains “snowcats only operate at 12 plus miles per hour, and they don’t lift you off the ground like a helicopter, gondolas or chairlifts.”
As an industry cat skiing operators go to great lengths to ensure guest comfort and safety. “We provide a lead guide and tail guide on the snow with guests at all times,” adds Vertrees. “Our cats are not only warm and comfy, we carry safety equipment like toboggans, oxygen, med bags, AED’s and all other assorted safety gear.”
2) Cats can be cramped or break down. Climb aboard a cat nowadays and you’ll see the first myth crushed.
“Today’s snowcats sport custom cabins, which are buffed out with plush seating, heating and cooling systems, wireless sound entertainment and huge windows for sightseeing,” says Alf Cromwell of Selkirk Powder Company in Idaho.
Most cats have seating for as many as 12 guests, but with skis and boards stored outside the cabin, there is ample room inside. Cromwell continues “It may feel like a full cabin sometimes, but Selkirk Powder’s capacity is capped at 10, so that’s actually more like traveling First Class on an airline.”
Occasionally a mechanical issue may arise in the backcountry, but operators are usually able to resolve it right there. “All successful operations have two or more cats in their fleet as well as onsite repair facilities,” Cromwell adds. “In the event you couldn’t finish out the day, operators usually give you a credit for another day.”
3) Only expert skiers and boarders can go cat skiing. Poppycock. Think of backcountry terrain as essentially the same as a resort’s trails minus the chairlifts.
“Many cat skiing companies—ours included—offer a terrain quite suitable for first time cat skiers and even first time powder skiers,” says Kylanne (Ky) Sandelin of Great Northern Powder Guides in Montana.
The notable difference is that a resort marks its trails by ability (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and typically grooms its trails.
“We have terrain similar to blue runs at a ski resort and plenty of terrain that is more open and less steep to get your skis under you and into the powder,” Sandelin comments. “If you’re an intermediate we try our best to put you with a group that is more your speed. The more advanced skiers and boarders generally book a Steep and Deep Cat.”
Note that you don’t have to be in epic shape either.
“You want to be relatively fit,” says Selkirk Powder’s Cromwell. “Folks with a good cross training routine, and a week or two of resort skiing under their belts prior to going cat skiing should fare pretty well.”
4) Cat skiing is prohibitively expensive. It’s all relative. Pricing ranges from around $225 to north of $650 per day, per guest.
“We have a day rate of $625 per guest,” explains Steamboat Powdercats’ Vertrees. “We realize this is a lot of money, but it gives a high-end experience that provides more or less everything a guest needs.”
Like most operators, guests can use brand name powder skis and snowboards, avalanche beacons, shovels and probes. Vertrees adds “guests get meals during the day, including a sit-down lunch at our cozy, mid-mountain cabin and après beers at the end of the day.”
Most guests don’t mind paying a premium for getting eight to 14 runs a day in untracked powder, where in a resort Vertrees points out “skiers have tracked up the snow by 10:00 a.m. and the bumps by noon.”
With a single day of heli-skiing costing between $1,020 and $1,800, cat skiing is a more affordable alternative. Check out Colorado’s Loveland Ski Area that offers it free! And sharing an epic powder day with family and friends is, well, priceless.
5) The terrain is limited and it takes too long to get to it. It may surprise you to learn how much terrain operators can access.
“We have access to eight mountains, over 500 named runs and a bunch of unnamed runs on 19,300 acres,” says Kieren Gaul of Big Red Cats in Rossland, Canada. “It is the equivalent of access to 2.3 times the size of Whistler/Blackcomb ski resort, and only having to share it with a small group rather than thousands of others who steal all your fresh lines.”
Permitted to operate in Montana’s Stillwater State Forest, Great Northern Powder Guides has a playground of over 17 square miles, while Selkirk Powder’s terrain spans 4,350 acres.
Mother Nature usually bestows ample snow for these operators, too. Buffalo Pass, home to Steamboat Powdercats’ turf, racks up north of 500 inches a season! As travel time goes, most rides range from 15 to 30 minutes, far less time than a 45-minute wait in lines at in-bounds resorts.
Kim D. McHugh has written about travel, snow sports, hotels, local restaurants and chefs, architecture and interesting people since 1986. A former associate editor at Rocky Mountain Golf magazine, the Lowell Thomas award-winning freelance writer is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. Based in Colorado, he enjoys sharing those “I-didn’t-know-that” revelations with readers in articles that have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, the Denver Post, SKI, Hemispheres, 5280, Luxury Golf & Travel, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Vail/Beaver Creek and Colorado AvidGolfer.