Snowcat skiing is taking off in North America, with good reason: It's the best way to log serious deep-powder mileage without flirting with Chapter 11.
Trust me on this: You haven't lived fully until you've skied half blind in three feet of moonlit powder, your skis rasping against a stratum of new snow, lightning flickering over a distant mountain range at the vanguard of an oncoming storm. Last winter, during a mid-February night of snowcat skiing outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I came a step closer to completing life's curriculum.
A group of six of us went out into the night under the guidance of Toby Hemmerling, head honcho for the snowcat-skiing operation Blue Sky West (formerly known as Steamboat Powder Cats). A half moon hung in the dark sky, a short burst of ethereal clarity wedged between storm fronts. We skied a half dozen runs in snow turned silvery blue by the moonlight, then pigged out on food and wine in a well-appointed cabin somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, in the heart of the cat operation's permit area. It was about midnight when we returned to Steamboat Springs, and by then, the storm front we had watched from afar had arrived, pounding Steamboat in earnest.
All this came a day after waking up to the following 6:30 a.m. snow report on a local radio station: "All you powderhounds, get up and get out of bed! Look out the window. It dumpedlast night. This is the day you've been waiting for."
And maybe it was. But it turned out to be just the first in a series of days worth waiting for. After a meager early half of the season, a storm cycle was clobbering Steamboat, and it was on its way to dropping a good five feet on the mountains encircling the Yampa Valley.
I arrived in the middle of all that, having had to wait five hours at Denver International Airport before a hole in the sky permitted safe travel to the airport in Hayden, near Steamboat. The next day, February 13, I was riding out of town in a cramped van with eight other skiers and snowboarders and guides Mike Rakowski and Sally Cariveau. The roads were snow packed, and the air was a translucent curtain of snowfall. Expectations were very, very high.
There was so much snow that the snowcat (heated, plushly furnished, serious sound system) had a rough go of it once we set out from the trailhead. Even on snow roads that had been packed out a day earlier, five-foot drifts slowed our progress. But once the cat managed to blast through the trouble spots and crest out at the top of our initial descent, well, my oh my. In the midst of an epic storm, this was the place to be: 1,200 vertical feet of moderately pitched terrain with a couple of steeper rolls thrown in, plenty of trees to aid visibility, and the risk of avalanche close to nonexistent. "We haven't had a slide in 17 years," Mike said with a toothy grin.
We proceeded to log run after run through the snowstorm -- it just wouldn't quit dumping -- plunging through widely spaced evergreens, emerging into occasional meadows, squeezing through tight aspen groves, white trunks flying by at close range. Blue Sky West claims that as much as 600 inches of snow falls on its 15-square-mile permit area annually, a figure that may or may not be correct. All I can say is that at the rate it was snowing when I was there -- roughly a foot a day for five straight days -- 1,600 inches seemed a reasonable possibility.
Cat skiing in North America has surged in the last few years. New cat-skiing operations have sprung up from southwestern Colorado to British Columbia, and existing companies are expanding and upgrading in response to the growing demand. Steamboat's Blue Sky West is one of many companies riding the wave. It's not a new operation, but a new ownership team has invested in a major upgrade, with a bigger, better stable of high-powered cats allowing wider use of the enormous permit area. The new cats have made it much easier to reach such primo stteeps as Dinosaur Ridge and Soda Mountain, with as much as 2,200 vertical feet of what Hemmerling calls "jaw-dropping" terrain.
The impulse driving the snowcat growth spurt is a primal urge as old as downhill skiing itself: the lust for cheap, easy powder. Well, all right, cat skiing's not that cheap. But at $100 to $300 per day, it beats heli-skiing by a long shot. (And as for easiness, consider that your other backcountry option is skinning laboriously up through deep snow and thin air with the hope of getting maybe three runs a day.)
Now, comparisons between heli-skiing and cat skiing are inevitable. Here's my assessment of how the two stack up. Lower pricing isn't the only thing cat skiing has in its favor. Rare is the day that you become weathered out; when storms arrive with heavy snow, wind, and poor visibility that would ground a helicopter, snowcats charge right out into the thick of it. As I discovered in Steamboat, the going may be slow when the snow gets deep, but at least you're out there when the snow is as fresh as it gets.
Of course, there's no question that helicopters are faster. A typical snowcat run is about 800 to 1,200 vertical feet, which seems to be the magic point at which the snowcat driver can approximately match the rate of the skiers' descent so that there's not a lot of time waiting around at the bottom of the run for the cat to return. Helicopters can land you at the tops of runs of 2,000 vertical feet or more -- and access the supersteep, impossible-to-reach-by-cat stuff, to boot -- and still easily beat you to the bottom. But in three days with Blue Sky West, I'd say I averaged close to 15,000 vertical feet a day -- night skiing not included. You won't get much more than that in an average heli-ski day. And you know what? It's kind of nice to be able to kick back in the cat between runs and talk with your partners and listen to whatever raging tunes someone has brought along to slip into the tape deck. The anxious, noisy moments spent crammed in an upward-spiraling chopper aren't nearly as relaxing.
And if you're looking for what might literally become a long day's journey into night, it's hard to beat a snowcat. In one day with Blue Sky West, I scored at least a dozen runs in the snow-filtered daylight, and when the day was done, it wasn't done. We came right back out to ski under the moon, tacking on another few thousand vertical in the process. Heavy snowfall or gloom of night might ground a helicopter, but they can't keep a snowcat from taking you to the goods.
BLUE SKY WEST (formerly Steamboat Powder Cats) -- Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Approximate vertical feet per day: 12,000
Run length: 800-2,200 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: up to 600 inches
Nearest ski resort: Steamboat (www.ski-steamboat.com)
Cost: $275 per person/day
Info: 800-288-0543; www.blueskywest.com