BC Cat Skiing with Big Red Cats
Brian E. Clark handling some BC powder. Photo Big Red Cats.By Brian E. Clark
The wind howled and the snow blew sideways as I stepped carefully from the big passenger cabin of a snowcat that had lumbered to a stop in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia.
I pulled my neck gator up high to protect the skin on my face from the stinging snow, clicked into the bindings of my wide powder skis and hunkered down as Thomas Fortin, Big Red Cats’ lead guide signaled and yelled “Follow me!” over the biting tempest.
In a matter of seconds, my group of a dozen snowcat skiers from Europe, Canada and the U.S. – plus two guides – dropped off the blustery ridge where we’d disembarked. We followed Fortin into a protected grove of fir and hemlock trees, where we found a foot of light, new powder and protection from the wind.
Then Fortin, a native of France, shoved off down a moderately steep and untracked run, bouncing from turn to turn through the glade, using the big trees as slalom gates. We followed him, hooting and hollering until we reassembled – still out of the wind on the lee side of an un-named slope – nearly 1,000 feet lower on the mountain.
We caught our breath, made sure everyone had made it through the well-spaced trees, and descended another 500 feet, catching air off an occasional pillow of snow and gathering at a spot where Fortin waited for us above a drop-off. Back on a logging road, we kicked off our skis and climbed into the snowcat that had appeared, as if by magic, to take us back up to yet another un-skied run.
So it goes in the West Kootenays, home to Big Red Cats, a backcountry skiing operation based at RED Mountain Resort near Rossland, a former gold mining town. I’d come to B.C. last season to make some turns at the resort, which has seven lifts, a whopping 4,200 acres of terrain and nearly 3,000 feet of vertical.
It’s two-and-one-half hours – 126 miles – north of Spokane, Washington and on the southern end of southeastern British Columbia’s famed Powder Highway, which has eight Alpine ski resorts, 11 cross-country ski areas,15 snowcat-skiing operations, nine heli-skiing outfits and two-dozen backcountry lodges. Little known by U.S. skiers and boarders who might only be familiar with Whistler – site of the 2010 Winter Olympics – the resorts are close to the border of Alberta and get a goodly number of Europeans, but not enough to create any lift lines worth whining about.
With only three days, my Powder Highway sampler also included a visit to the town of Nelson for a day of skiing at the nearby Whitewater Resort. (What I was most excited about for this bit of “reportorial research” was the chance to go cat skiing in the backcountry – something I’d never done before with the Big Red folks.)
New snow was falling lightly and the conditions in the mountains above Rossland were ideal when I pulled into the laid-back RED Mountain Resort in early March. With a relatively small base area, it was easy to locate the Big Red Cats office so I could get set up with with fat skis for the next day’s outing.
After a delicious dinner of grilled Sockeye salmon at Idgie’s restaurant in Rossland and a good night’s rest, I made the short hike from my slope side condo to Big Red Cats at 7:30 a.m. I signed yet another waiver, retrieved my gear and climbed onto one of the school buses that would take me and my fellow skiers to the forested cat-skiing base area, a drive of about 10 minutes. Once there, we divided into groups based on ability and Fortin gave my crew the rundown on using avalanche beacons and – just in case – put us through several animated rescue drills.
Then it was up into the slopes. As we joggled along the logging road in the cat, Fortin had us introduce ourselves. There were a couple of lawyers, a dentist, a doctor and – seated beside me – a real estate investor from New York City who proudly announced she was one of the few people from Manhattan who had voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
I reflexively moved a few inches away from her after that comment and even further when she began talking about “fake news.” But when Fortin asked us all to pair up for safety, it turned out she and I were the only ones without partners. So I played the gentleman, told myself politics would be off limits for the day and we agreed to ski with each other. I figured if she were out in the boonies of British Columbia in a snowcat, we must have – at the very least – a love of skiing in common.
Which is how it turned out, thank goodness.
On one run, while skiing ahead of me, she caught an edge, tumbled into a tree well and was unable to extricate herself. Her vote for a president I abhor never even crossed my mind as I skied by the tree well and heard her moans. She was crumpled in the well, tipped partially upside down with her skis tangled and her helmet pressed up against the base of the tree. She was clearly stuck.
Fortunately, though, she wasn’t hurt. I hiked back up a few steps and was able to release one of her bindings, then lift her so she could clamber out of the hole created when snow falls from the outer branches of pine trees, leaving pits around the tree trunks. I’ve seen tree wells six-feet-deep, but this one was less than half that.
She thanked me profusely as she brushed off the snow from her face and jacket. She clicked back into the ski I’d removed and we continued down the run, joining the rest of our group, who had begun to worry because of our absence.
By noon, we’d bagged four runs – all on different, untracked slopes. We munched sandwiches prepared for us by Big Red staff at lunch and sipped tea to stay warm. Then it was back into the snowcat for another six runs in the afternoon. By the time 3 p.m. rolled around, I was bushed and ready to call it a day. Back at the resort, we turned in our skis, pulled off our boots and trundled over to “Fresh,” the restaurant next to the Big Red Cats office. I ordered a plate of tasty nachos and when my partner for the day offered to buy me a beer for rescuing her, I humbly accepted. It had been a great day of skiing. And politics aside, she turned out to be a good egg.
The next day, I returned to the world of lift-served skiing and made turns on runs down the three peaks – Red, Granite and Grey – that make up RED Mountain Resort. Because there were no lift lines to speak of, I didn’t mind a bit that the area didn’t have any high-speed lifts.
I began the 50-mile drive to Nelson on Kootenay Lake by 4 p.m. that afternoon, arriving at the lovingly restored 1898 Hume Hotel. My room had a great view of the courthouse across the street, where public hangings once took place. Before dinner, I walked past bike, ski and head shops in downtown Nelson in a mix of rain and snow before settling in for a delicious dinner of wild mushrooms and truffle risotto at the All Seasons Cafe.
It was raining when I headed out of Nelson the next morning, but by the time I got halfway up the road to Mount Ymir and the retro Whitewater Resort, it was snowing heavily. Not unusual, I was told, for a ski area that often gets as much as 40 feet of white stuff each winter. With only three chairlifts and one surface lift, Whitewater prides itself in being old school. It may only have a vertical of 2,044 feet and 1,184 skiable acres, but its fans swear by it.
I spent the day skiing a variety of runs and as the temperature dropped, the snow got lighter and fluffier. Which made the turning all the more enjoyable.
On my way back to Nelson that afternoon, I picked up a snowboarding hitchhiker from Great Britain. He told me he’d skied all over Europe and North America. But for his money, southeastern British Columbia and the resorts (cat and heli-skiing operators included) off the Powder Highway couldn’t be beat.
Which means I’ll have to return to continue my, er, research. After all, I still have nine more ski areas and three dozen cross-country, snowcat and heli-ski outfits to visit.
More Information: Big Red Cats
See redresort.com, bigredcatskiing.com and skiwhitewater.com and hellobc.com for details on RED Mountain, Big Red Cat Skiing and Whitewater, as well as other resorts and skiing operations in British Columbia. Single-day rates at Big Red Cats are $550 Canadian through March 13 and $450 a day after that.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.