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Snowcat Skiing: What Is It?

Backcountry skiers near Golden, British Columbia travel high into the Rocky Mountains in the warm comfort of snowcats. Traveling in groups of 12, lead by two qualified guides, skiers and snowboarders are carried to elevations of almost 10,000 ft., to ski and ride on a glacier or down great alpine bowls. The views across North America’s continental divide are spectacular. Soft powder snow and fresh tracks is the expected norm, every run, every day. The small group of 14 skiers and riders make only a tiny mark on the vast landscape.

Intermediate and expert skiers wanting a very special powder snow holiday experience generally have three options: backcountry touring, snowcat skiing and heli-skiing.

Backcountry touring is slow-paced and as relaxed as you want to make it. It usually requires quite a bit of time, a high level of physical fitness, considerable experience and specialized clothing and equipment.

Snowcat skiing is adapted to short holidays and many operators offer 3-day and 4-day full-service tour packages. Snowcat skiing is not normally weather-dependent and there is almost no “down-time”. Every day is a good ski day. Good physical condition always makes a tour more enjoyable, but there is none of the climbing and walking of backcountry touring. Snowcat skiing provides a relaxed vacation that requires no prior experience or special equipment.

Heli-skiing is the “Cadillac” option for backcountry skiing. It is also the most expensive, being about twice the cost of snowcat skiing. It is also weather-dependent. To allow for “down-days”, tours tend to be a few days longer than cat skiing tours. Heli-operators usually offer a guaranteed minimum amount of skiing. However, significant additional cost can result if guests exceed the minimum, which often occurs with good weather.

Efficient operation of helicopters is an economic necessity for operators and helicopters are usually shared among groups. This can result in a pace of skiing influenced by factors other than the individual needs of each group. Unless guests pay for a dedicated helicopter, there is little opportunity to “sit out” a run. Typically, skiing groups can be as small as 4 and as large as 12, depending on the type of helicopter used.

Snowcat skiers enjoy a dedicated cat that moves according to the needs and ability of the group. Snowcat rides are warm, quiet, relaxed and very sociable. They give guests an opportunity to converse with their companions, to rest for the next run, and to adjust clothing. Guests wanting a longer rest can sit out a run and visit with the cat driver on the ride back down the mountain. Lunch is grazed on over the course of the day. Guests can leave extra clothing in the cat and adjust what they wear each run. If a guest wishes to quit early for the day, a staff member will take them back to the lodge on a snowmobile.

Heli-skiing operators use vast tenures covering many hundreds of sq. kms. This permits great access to “good” alpine snow under a variety of conditions. Snowcat operators use much less terrain. However, in Western Canada there are a number of snowcat operators that have tenures as large as 130 sq. km. These operators make effective use of the land and have more than enough area to provide consistently good skiing and “fresh tracks”.

A number of operators have remote backcountry lodges. These offer a unique wilderness experience. Guests ride to the lodges in helicopters, by snowmobile or in snowcats. Lodges are very comfortable and typically offer double-occupancy bedrooms with private bathrooms, excellent cuisine, a games room, a well stocked bar, hot tubs and massage facilities. The first run of the day is nearby and guests often ski to the lodge door at the end of the day.

Remote lodges help guests relax and enjoy their vacation. Guests are isolated from telephones, TV and the bustle of civilization. Soaking in a hot tub, with refreshment in hand, guests watch the drifting snow or the last rays of sunlight leave the surrounding peaks. It’s a relaxing way to cap a full day of powder skiing. The problem of the day becomes whether to have a massage before or after the hot tub (or perhaps to do the hot tub twice). Lodge life is very informal and there are no decisions about what to wear to dinner. You only brought one pair of sweatpants!

Most snowcat operators cater to 12, 24 or 36 clients, who ski from independent snowcats. Skiing tenures are sufficiently large that groups often won’t see one another in the course of the skiing day, even at a distance. Each group determines its own pace. While keeping their group together, guides are expert at finding “lines” to challenge more competent skiers/riders while leading others on a more “mellow” path. Guides set the bounds on every run leaving guests ample opportunity to find “fresh tracks”. Safety is always the first priority.

Some guests organize their own group of 12 skiers, so they are ensured a compatible skiing group of people they know. Many operators offer group organizers a significant discount for their efforts. However, most clients arrive singly, or in pairs and operators work hard to find compatible skiing groups for everyone. New friends are made and groups bond very quickly.

Most cat skiing operators recommend their clients be at least “strong intermediates”. However, depending on the nature of their terrain, some operators can accommodate less experienced intermediate skiers who are in good physical condition. Potential clients should discuss concerns with operators.

Backcountry skiing usually offers consistently soft powder snow. Sometimes, areas of “wind crust” or “sun crust” will develop, but guides try to avoid these and quickly find better snow. There is no tracked and “lumpy” snow to contend with, and “moguls” are unheard of. The short, fat “powder skis” rented by operators are forgiving and easy to turn. People having little “off-piste” experience find they learn very quickly. Again, fitness is a great asset.

“Tree skiing” is a fixture of all backcountry skiing. When the weather is stormy, snowcat skiers and boarders just head for the trees, where the protected snow is softest and deepest and the visibility is best. Skiers with little experience “in the trees” find that the consistent snow and the powder skis not only allow them to “do it”, but that it’s great fun. Many cat skiers prefer tree skiing to the open alpine slopes.

Snowcat skiers in North America tend to ski between mid-January and the end of March. However, excellent skiing and reduced rates can often be found in December and in April (when longer spring days can mean more skiing). While a few cat operators offer day-trips, most provide multi-day full-service packages. These require a booking at least a year in advance, although shoulder-season tours can be booked on much shorter notice. Cancellations also accommodate short-notice bookings, sometimes at a reduced rate.

The amount of skiing done in a day depends on the group. Typically, 9 to 15 runs will be skied for a “total vertical” between 9,000ft. and 16,000 ft. Individual runs vary in vertical drop between about 800 ft and 2000ft. Long cat rides are usually broken up into a number of short “hops” that provide short rests between runs but keep guests active. The lack of any skiing “minimums” allows guides to focus on the needs of their group and on finding the best skiing. There is no need to “rack up the vertical”.

Overseas visitors might consider combining resort skiing with snowcat skiing. For example, visitors to Kicking Horse Resort in Golden BC could break their visit with a 3-day or 4-day tour at nearby Chatter Creek Snowcat Skiing (www.chattercreekcat skiing.com/). Also, visitors to Whistler-Blackcomb can do cat skiing day-trips with Powder Mountain Catskiing. Many other snowcat operators are located near excellent ski areas.

The Chatter News Web site (http://powder-skiing.blogspot.com/) provides a client’s view of snowcat skiing at Chatter Creek. This photo journal provides many pictures and descriptions of all aspects of cat skiing and boarding.

In Western Canada, the BC Helicopter & Snowcat Skiing Operators Association (http://www.bchssoa.com/) lists snowcat skiing tour operators who operate under its stringent safety guidelines.

About the Author

Lockie Brown has organized cat skiing tours for friends to BC venues. He has written a number of articles about his snowcat skiing experiences at Chatter Creek and elsewhere. For more information, Lockie suggests the Cat Skiing Articles photo gallery.

Lockie Brown