One hour into the experience and with no sign of fresh powder tracks, all but the most masochistic would have bailed, preferring instead to face the 20 mile snow covered hike back to the one-horse-town Olney, Montana. We are crammed into an ex-Norwegian military Hagglund dual cab. We are in the rear trailer with 6 others and it’s bumpy, hot, damp and noisy and we’re on our way to a backcountry yurt near Whitefish, Montana.
Any committed skier will tell you tales of icy trips to Vail, of snowless trips to Austria, and of rain soaked pistes in France. Powder hunting can be frustrating and expensive and a total lottery. So how do you lessen the odds? Heli-skiing, the most well-known of the powder junkies’ fix, comes with no guarantee as low cloud and high winds ground the choppers all the time. And it’s also hard to justify the extortionate fees. However there is a solution to both of these factors and it’s Cat skiing.
Having suffered another disappointing European ski season we were ready for snow, any snow. Powder would be a bonus so we were prepared to work for it a bit. Our mission was to find guaranteed powder snow within a few hours drive of Calgary following a direct flight from Scotland. It didn’t look promising. Despite the massive dumping start to the Canadian season we had arrived in the middle of a 2 week drought. Things were looking lean, or so we thought……
We chose three areas that we had always wanted to visit; the legendary ski town of Fernie, the relatively new kid on the block, Kicking Horse, and the less well known Whitefish Mountain, Montana. To shorten our odds a bit and to lighten our wallets a lot, we also hunted out a Cat ski operation within easy drive of each of the established resorts visited. For most, just travelling to Canada if you’re looking for reasonable snow conditions is a good bet, but if you want to find powder you may have use a bit of detective work and a solid 4×4 with snow tyres.
Although unheard of in Europe due to historical, legal and environmental conditions, in North America Cat Skiing is growing steadily as a mid- priced alternative to the Heli option. Imagine a standard Piste Basher or Pisten Bully and weld a 12 seat Cab onto the back and you have a Snow Cat. The cat operations are generally established in old logging areas and use the forest road infrastructure to access ridge lines for drop-offs and valleys. These diesel guzzling fun tanks usually provide a good group of skiers with between 8-10 runs per day of between 1,000 and 1,500 feet per run. Cat skiing operations come in many shapes and sizes, from multiday secluded catered lodge operations such as Chatter Creek, near Kicking Horse/ Golden or closer to the resort operations offering single day blasts, such as Fernie Wilderness Adventures and Valhalla Adventures in Montana. As of 2011, Valhalla’s cat skiing lease has been taken over by Great Northern Powder Guides.
Any wilderness development deserves critical viewing. It seems almost an anathema that the experiences we all seek whilst backcountry skiing such as solace, solitude and some sort of conversation with nature, always seems to involve burning hydrocarbons, building buildings, cutting down trees, and essentially destroying the things we are seeking to enjoy. So jumping into a machine with a high-powered engine instead of hiking into the wilderness and ski touring does seem slightly perverse and one wonders how it is even possible. A bit of research reveals that there are several large contributing factors that have allowed these Cat skiing operations to grow so massively. State forests in the USA and Crown forests in Canada are essentially managed commercial “wilderness” areas, forested in the summer and redundant during the winter. The governmental view seems to be that these areas are fair game for commercial activity in the winter also. Another contributing factor is job creation Travel to any small mountain community and you will soon realise that winter jobs are hard to come by – all house and road building stops, the logging industries close down, and even the forests parks are snowed in and empty. The backcountry is a serious business opportunity.
It’s an interesting tension. I am not sure what the answer is but just being aware can only be a good start. This way we can at least try to make the decisions that impact least and hopefully follow the adage “take only pictures and leave only ski tracks”: with any luck they will be buried under the next snowfall overnight anyway.
We were not completely convinced at the start of our journey if Cat Skiing was worth the additional expense on top of the already astronomical cost of any skiing holiday. And did we need to do it when the inbounds resort conditions in Canadian ski resorts are already pretty amazing? On both counts we were converted. The experiences were enormous fun and even in the lean snow period the conditions were absolutely exceptional. We got great fresh tracks every single Cat day. In these lean economic times, if you’re going to invest, do it wisely and book your seat on a Cat trip – powder is everybody’s favourite reward!
Town: Golden, British Columbia
Resort name: Kicking Horse
Hours from Calgary: 3-4 Hours
Cat Skiing Operation: Chatter Creek
Package: 3 or 4 nights in Helicopter accessed backcountry Lodge.
Cat Skiing – Chatter Creek is a short Helicopter ride from Golden. It offers some of the most challenging, fun and well appointed backcountry skiing in Canada with over 90 square miles of terrain to pick from. Their 85% repeat business statistic it testament to the operation – Chatter Creek offers Alpine, glacier and tree skiing of the highest quality. For this reason it also attracts some of the best skiers and guides to work for the operation. Chatter Creek is not a beginners ski destination. The regulars here can huck and surf with the best of them, so if you find yourself spending most of your time off-piste buried in the powder, looking for lost skis or you prefer a Vin Chaud and a deck chair, stay in Kitzbuhel. The uplift here can offer up to 15,000 feet of powder every day of your stay; bumps, jumps, steep trees, cliff bands and couloirs are all here. The family run lodge is rustic, remote and homely. This place should be on every good skiers bucket list.
Packages include fat ski’s (if you want them), avalanche transceivers, and lodge accommodation of 3-4 nights with great food.
Resort name: Fernie Resort
Hours from Calgary: 3.5 Hours
Cat Skiing Operation: Fernie Wilderness Adventures
Package: Day trips or basic overnight accommodation for large group bookings
Cat Skiing – Fernie Wilderness Adventures offer either lodge or day cat skiing. We recommend staying either on mountain or in the town and booking days out in the backcountry when the powder is at its best or the mountain is tracked out. The day starts with a meeting of the guides in Fernie town and then a 15 minute drive to the lodge base. You can expect a slightly more mixed ability group than at Chatter Creek but the terrain is great and gets steeper if the Cat guide feels the group is up to it. The best way to guarantee the skiing you want, either steep or mellow, is to book a complete load or fill the cat with as many of your hounds as you can muster. FWA is pretty good value as well; about the same price as a mountain guide in Europe for the day. After a 30-minute Cat ride you start your ski day with transceiver instructions at about 10am then after an initial viewing run where you are scoped out by the guides (2 per cat), the terrain is ramped up or remains as is in order to suit the balance of the group. We had two powder virgins in our Cat and even though the runs were slightly slower there was enough variation in the ski zones to put smiles on everyone’s faces.
FWA is best suited to intermediate to good skiers with some off-piste powder experience. If you are wanting to progress to powder skiing, we recommend doing a Steep and Deep course or powder lesson in bounds in Fernie before committing yourself to a day in a Cat.
Town: Whitefish, Montana
Resort name: Whitefish Mountain Resort
Hours from Calgary: 5 Hours
Cat Skiing Operation: Valhalla Adventures
Package: Day trip
Cat Skiing – During our day with Valhalla, we skied powder, watched young Whitefish bucks leap off 35 foot cliffs, hiked the ridges where the cats have no access (as yet), skied great trees, got towed up trails by Skidoo (locally called a ‘Sled’) saw Moose, Bald Eagle, skied until dark and drank beer in the yurt post sun down. One of the purest experiences for any powder warrior or deep snow virgin. Whilst Valhalla are no longer operational, the terrain and experience still live on and can be ridden with new kids on the block Great Northern Powder Guides.
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