The Colorado powder was hip-deep, the sky technicolor blue and my Volant fat skis made me feel as if I were waterskiing through the aspen glades. Better yet, this was just the first of what would be 15 runs that day, thanks to a heated snowcat and three relentlessly friendly guides from Blue Sky West Powdercats. As they loaded my group's skis, the guides made a casual committee decision about where to ski next. Looking around at 15,000 acres of options, all we saw was untracked rolling terrain covered in deep powder. This part of the Routt National Forest at Buffalo Pass outside of Steamboat Springs, Colo., has a micro-climate that receives some 600 inches a year.
It's an operation that is appealing to backcountry virgins like Dave Duff, a San Diego engineer who felt he was destined to be a lifelong groomed-slope cruiser. "They offered me advice and took me to a wide variety of terrain," explains Duff, who ventured out with them last season. "After five days, I was a lot more comfortable skiing the backcountry. They opened a completely new world to me. In fact, I could care less if I ever see a groomed run again."
As comfortable as the guides are in their element, they understand that the average flatlander's legs need rest. So after a morning's worth of progressively longer and steeper runs, they took us to a wood stove-heated log cabin for a multi-course lunch. Re-energized by pasta, chili and 40 minutes of rest, we resumed our cheery hunt for the perfect stash. Between runs, eight fellow skiers, riders and I, ranging in age from 11 to 50, bonded into comrades in powder. By day's end, I was blissful, left only with enough stamina to face a few Fat Tires and ponder the merits of room service.
Snowcat skiing for the 21st century is about safety, comfort and an engineered good time. If you've never experienced a snowcat, the drill is simple: The heated cat acts like a shuttle, going back down the mountain to pick you up when you've completed your run and taking you back up again. It's the quickest and safest way to access spectacular backcountry for first tracks down a mountainside. Gone are the days when it was a slapdash affair, with rickety 20-year-old cats and "guides" who left you to founder in the trees while they tore down the mountain.
Companies like Blue Sky West are setting the standard these days. Three years ago, a young entrepreneur named Tobias Hemmerling bought out Jupiter Jones, who'd been running a cat operation in the Steamboat area for 15 years. Hemmerling bought modern heated cats, hired personable guides who are expert backcountry skiers and PSIA certified, and introduced a four-level ability system. Some companies only take out one group at a time, regardless of ability, which can be frustrating for both the beginners and experts in the pack. Weaker skiers might be asked to sit out a few runs if they're holding up the group. "I had tried it once with another outfitter and had a horrific experience," recalls Duff, who nevertheless decided to give it a second try. Blue Sky West typically runs three cats a day for different abilities. I went out on a level-one trip, aimed at strong intermediate skiers who are not comfortable in the trees. If you can qualify for level four, you should be able to land 30-foot drops with confidence.
Celebrated as the poor man's version of heliskiing, snowcat skiing has many merits. For one thing, snowcats don't fall out of the sky. And snowcat skiing isn't as expensive as heliskiing. At Brian Head, Utah, five bucks buys you a powder run. "It's the most affordable catskiing I've ever done anywhere," says local boarder Tommie Viele, who has ridden throughout Canada and the Western U.S. "In 15 minutes, you're up, and you can get an unreal powder run. If you're a novice, you can bail after one run." But deluxe operations such as Blue Sky West will run you $313 a day in high season. Another bonus: Snowcats aren't weather dependent. You can ski if it's snowing, cloudy oor foggy, and you can almost always count on a six- or seven-hour ski day. It's also accessible to skiers who are spending time at major resorts, because it doesn't require an expensive journey to a remote locale-unless you want one.
Finally, think of catskiing as a way to maximize your precious vacation days. When I went out with Blue Sky West, it hadn't snowed for eight days. But because they conserve their enormous terrain, we had miles of untracked snow, and I racked up more than 12,000 vertical in six hours.
EXPLORE ALL YOUR OPTIONS
There are basically three types of snowcat operations in North America. The first are on-mountain snowcat tours, such as those found at Aspen, Colo., or Grand Targhee, Wyo., that are usually operated by the resort and take you out for a half or full day to terrain that's adjacent to the resort's slopes.
The second are independent operators located near major ski resorts. These pick you up at your hotel in the morning and take you to a nearby area for the day. The third are destination lodges, such as Colorado's Irwin Lodge, that offer multi-day stays for powder hounds who can never get enough vertical. Operations like these are phenomenally popular and often booked a year in advance. Snowcat skiers and riders range in age from teens to septuagenarians.
Although previous powder experience is not required, you must be able to ski in control on various types of snow and backcountry terrain, including in trees. While avalanche danger is not unknown, more common hazards are tree wells, stumps and rocks. You should be a comfortable upper-intermediate skier at the very least. Many operators require that customers wear avalanche transceivers and provide them at no extra cost. As a rule of thumb, most outfits can get you an average of 10,000 feet of vertical if you sign up for a full day, while resorts such as Targhee claim as much as 20,000.
Remember that fat-ski rentals will make the sport infinitely easier and thus more enjoyable. Wherever you decide to go, note that the prices in the list that starts on page 104 are for high season, and taxes and tips are additional (usually $20 per person). Early and late season typically offer discounted prices that fluctuate depending on bookings. So if you're budget-conscious, shop around for the best dates.