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The Ultimate Skiing Experience

Powder snow provides downhill skiers the ultimate skiing experience. For most skiers however, good “powder” is a short-lived and infrequent pleasure. Ski areas in some geographic areas enjoy frequent “powder days” but in most areas, powder is rare and the dryness and depth of snow is often marginal.

In most ski areas too, when powder does occur, it is only a matter of hours before it is completely "tracked out”, lumped up and beaten down. Only those few early birds that ride the first chairs in the morning get the ultimate run of the day, in deep, consistent, smooth, untracked snow. Oh joy!

For years, avid “powder hounds” have headed for the backcountry to ski the powder among remote alpine peaks, far from crowded ski areas. Many enjoy the peace and quiet of ski touring and move and ski at a pace governed by their own physical fitness and endurance. Ski touring enthusiasts tend to be young and fit, very experienced and knowledgeable in backcountry travel. They are well equipped and self-contained.

Others who may be less fit or have limited time, but enjoy fairly “deep pockets”, have skied the backcountry from helicopters. For about $1000 per day, heli-operators offer small proficient groups guided skiing on huge pristine slopes, high in the mountains. Guests stay in comfortable lodges and spend their days being shuttled back and forth with their guides, with each run on a fresh untracked slope. Helicopters are very expensive and must be kept flying. Many operators will share one machine among multiple skiing groups.

Helicopter skiing has its “issues”. There are “down days” when storms make flying impossible, there is the economic need for efficiency and there is always the inherent risk of all backcountry skiing: avalanche.

Avalanche risk depends on many factors and much special training and experience is needed to assess risk. All reputable backcountry operators provide highly qualified guides to accompany their guests. Guides choose areas for skiing and a safe route down the hill. On days of poor weather or unstable snow, guides may avoid alpine areas and restrict their groups to "skiing the trees”.

Tree skiing is a fixture of all mechanized backcountry skiing and is even preferred by some skiers to the more open “alpine” skiing. Tree skiers often enjoy the deepest and lightest snow, unaffected by wind or sun.

In recent years, a new type of mechanized backcountry ski operator has emerged. Snowcat skiing operators use snowcats to transport skiers and snowboarders into high backcountry regions. Snowcats are fitted with comfortable cabs that usually seat 12 clients and two guides.

Of course, snowcats are much slower than helicopters. They are also much less expensive and guests can expect to pay between $500 and $600 a day, including transportation, lodging, meals, and guiding. As slow as snowcats may be, most clients will wear themselves out every day and get just as much skiing as their group can handle.

The great advantage of cat skiing is that “down” days almost never occur. Clients ski every day and bad weather can often mean extra-good snow. Cat skiing is more relaxed and “laid back” than heli skiing as there is no need to share equipment between groups or to maximize equipment usage. Cat skiing is very “client-friendly”. Each group has a dedicated machine and it moves at the group’s pleasure. Weaker skiers can be at ease and not feel “pushed”.

Snowcats provide a relatively quiet, relaxed environment in which the trip back up the hill can be almost as much fun as the run down. Guests sit in soft individual seats. They can “unbutton”, dry out, warm up, converse, share bad jokes and browse on sandwiches, cookies, cake and drinks. If a guest gets tired, it’s easy to “sit out” a run and ride down to the next pickup with the cat driver.

Helicopter skiing is much less restricted geographically than snowcat skiing. This permits greater opportunity to find “great snow”. However, there is a drawback. Since they can operate in a much larger area, heli-operators may sometimes be less familiar with changing snow conditions and risk factors than snowcat operators who work in a more restricted area. Snowcat operators make greater use of a smaller area and get to know it very well. Snowcat operators have easy access their terrain by snowmobile and can implement snow testing and slope stabilization measures that are much more difficult and expensive for heli-operators.

Most snowcat operators have ample terrain to consistently provide clients with good snow conditions, even in periods of drought, and to ensure that clients exhaust themselves every day. Chatter Creek Mountain Lodges Ltd. operates in a 130 sq. km area and ski between the elevations of 4900ft and 9500 ft. Monashee Powder Adventures (Tsuius) advertises an area of 66 sq. km and operates between the elevations of 7800 ft and 3,000 ft. Baldface Lodge uses over 140 sq km. Guests need not worry about running out of terrain!

Snowcat skiing provides a wonderful holiday for intermediate and advanced skiers alike. Individuals, family groups, groups of friends, business associates can have a “trip to remember”. Operators with remote lodges offer a real “backcountry” experience, usually with good food and very comfortable accommodations.

The Chatter News photo journal (http://powder-skiing.blogspot.com) has over 350 skiing and terrain photos from Chatter Creek. Refer to the Cat Skiing Articles photo gallery (http://cat-skiing-articles.blogspot.com) for a close look at snowcat skiing.

About the Author

Lockie Brown lives near Vancouver, B.C. and skis at Whistler. He has cat skied for a number of years, taking groups of 12 and 24 friends to different cat ski venues in British Columbia. He now takes his groups to Chatter Creek SnowCat Skiing near Golden BC. (www.chatterceekcatskiing.com )

Lockie Brown