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Powder Skiing for the Young at Heart

About 8 years ago, I got a call from the daughter an old friend.
“It’s Dad’s 60th birthday soon and the family wants to send him on a ski trip. We are hoping that you and Bill and Owen will keep him company”.
“Sure”, I said, expecting a destination like Sun Peaks or Rossland.
“Where are we going?”
“Cat Skiing near Fernie.”
“What skiing?”
“Cat skiing!”
“What’s Cat Skiing?”
“Its backcountry skiing from snowcats, sort of a poor man’s heli-skiing.”
“Can I afford it?”
“You can’t afford to miss this!”

That four-day trip was the start of seven years of superb skiing. On that first trip, we had a marvelous time and powder skiing, the likes of which none of us could remember. Run after run in fresh, untracked snow. There were steep rollovers that put my heart in my throat, where the deep snow seemed to support us like an invisible hand, letting us down the fall line slowly and gently. Wow! Face shots galore! I thought, “Life is too short not to be doing this every year!”

On the second day of that tour, I presented myself at the lodge office and requested a booking for the following year.
“Sorry, full up”.
“No!”
“Yes!” “However, the year after has an opening, and you could have a whole cat.”
“Done”, I said, and thought, “You fool, what are you doing?”

After much effort, evening after evening of phone calls, hounding old friends and a very long wait, we were back two years later with twelve good men and women. Some were old ski friends of almost 50 years. We had another wonderful trip with great skiing, great snow and great company.

Now, years later, we are still at it. We’ve changed venue from near Fernie to a spot near Golden, B.C., where the skiing is a little higher and the snow seems to be a little more reliable. Our host is Chatter Creek Snowcat Skiing (www.chattercreekcatskiing.com), a partnership of four personable young men who run an excellent operation, about 20 minutes by helicopter north of Golden, on the western flank of the Rocky Mountains.

The 130 sq. km. tenure includes a large glacier at just under 10,000ft. elevation, huge open alpine slopes and bowls and a number of enormous ridges that offer superb tree skiing. After many trips to Chatter Creek, we have yet to ski the entire area. Each summer, snowcat roads are extended to open up ever more terrain. An application has been made to increase the terrain size by about 85%. See Cat Skiing Terrain (http://www.cat-skiing-terrain.blogspot.com) for a photographic tour of the Chatter Creek tenure.

Skiing on the Vertebrae glacier is “mellow” and the views are spectacular. From the highest point, the view spreads to the west, over nearby peaks and ridges to the distant Adamant Range and Selkirk Mountains. To the east, much nearer and in clear view, are countless peaks and snowfields of the Continental Divide, including the Clemenceau Icefield, Mt Columbia and the Snow Dome. The latter is the source of the famous Columbia Icefield and contains the hydrographic apex of North America. As skiers ski on the glacier, the unusual “squiggles” of the Sullivan Fault fill the view and forms the backdrop of many a guest photograph. See Glacier Skiing at Chatter Creek (http://glacier-skiing.blogspot.com) for many photos from the Vertebrae glacier.

On bluebird days, the guides usually head to the high alpine for a few runs on the Vertebrae glacier, or in one of the many large bowls or slopes such as the Clamshell, upper Lodge Ridge, Super Spruce, South Park, Lakeview , and Oyster Bowl. After a few of runs, the group will move on to nearby areas, skiing here and there on the way, never staying long in any one spot. Every run in untracked snow!

Snowcat rides are rarely more than 15 to 20 minutes long, usually just long enough to enjoy half a sandwich and a drink, to rest the legs and to share a couple of bad jokes with our companions. The Bombardier snowcats (http://www.bombardier-snowcats-at-chatter-creek.blogspot.com) are warm and comfortable. They accommodate 12 guests, two guides and a driver. The three cats move independently and are usually out of sight of one another all day.

When skiing, the guide keeps the group together, while allowing everyone their own line in unbroken snow. There’s no pressure to “farm” snow.

The speed of the group and number of stops depends on the group. Faster groups of expert skiers may ski non-stop to the bottom. Groups of intermediate skiers may stop along the way, to regroup, rest, share experiences and take pictures. Cat skiing is laid back and relaxed. The guests “call the shots” and determine the pace. The guides concentrate on the preferences and needs of the group and provide a “tailor made” skiing experience.

A favorite with many skiers is the tree skiing on the great ridges. A group can ski for many days on any one ridge and not run out of fresh snow. Runs pass through old burns with widely spaced snags, living forest with open glades and cut blocks with deeply buried stumps that form “pillows” and undulations of endless variety.

Intermediate skiers who rarely ski “the trees” not only find they can do it, but that it’s fun. The snow in the trees tends to be deeper and unaffected by sun and wind. Snow is soft and consistent and there are no moguls and lumps. The short, fat powder skis that can be rented from Chatter Creek make it all pretty easy. Novices learn very quickly. Cat skiing does not require prior experience or special equipment, just boots and clothing and enthusiasm.

Cat skiing at Chatter Creek is well suited for skiers and snowboarders having a wide range of ability. My group of expert skiers has enjoyed every trip and is always challenged and experiencing new terrain. Chatter Creek recommends that guests be at least strong intermediate skiers. However, I have organized “friends and family” groups that have included skiers of lesser ability and everyone got on fine. Good physical condition makes up for a lack of experience. Ages have ranged from the 20’s to 70, with most group members in the 50 to 65 year range.

As the ski-day wears on and people may begin to tire, guests are welcome to sit-out a run and ride back down the hill with the snowcat driver. If someone wants to “call it a day”, a staff member will drive the guest back to the lodge on a snowmobile.

Runs can vary from about 800 vertical feet to over 2000 ft. Typical runs drop 1200 to 1500 ft. The amount of skiing done in a day depends entirely on the strength of the group. Daily “vertical” usually varies from 9,000 to 14,000 feet. Very fast groups may do 16,000 ft, or even more. Our group has always worn itself out, day after day.

A nice feature at Chatter Creek is that almost always, the cat picks up the group where they finish their run. Unlike some operations, there is very little skiing on hard-packed roads to get to the cat.

The perfect end to a day at Chatter Creek is a run on Lodge Ridge, ending at the door of Vertebrae Lodge (http://www.lodge-life-at-chatter-creek.blogspot.com). We step out of our skis and boards and into the bar, dropping into soft couches, with cold beers in hand. After some laughs with our mates and browsing on the afternoon snacks, we stumble off to the outdoor hot tub to enjoy another beer or a Caesar and to watch the sunlight disappear from the peaks.

In 2004, Chatter Creek built a second 9000 sq. ft lodge and expanded to 36 clients. All guests enjoy double occupancy bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. Our group has expanded to fill the lodge and we have 36 enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders all signed up and waiting patiently for next year. Some of the old-boys are now taking along their grown offspring, and one cat is set aside for two entire families. It’s going to be a great party, with great skiing!

About the Author

Lockie Brown lives near Vancouver, Canada. He skis regularly at Whistler and gets the odd trip to Chatter Creek. He recommends the Chatter News photo journal (http://www.powder-skiing.blogspot.com) for many photos of all aspects of snowcat skiing at Chatter Creek.

Lockie Brown