Here, Kitty Kitty - Ski Mag

Here, Kitty Kitty

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Looking for places to scratch that cat-ski itch? Check out these standout operations.

BLOMIDON SNOWCAT SKIING -- Cornerbrook, Newfoundland
Newfoundland is a beautifully desolate place. The seaside climate can be harsh in winter, and on the whalebacked mountains along the coast, not much more than subarctic tundra is able to grow. As a result, the skiing at Blomidon, the only cat-skiing operator east of the Rockies, is below 2,500 feet in elevation yet almost entirely above tree line. If that sounds odd, consider what it actually means: the rare experience of skiing powder while looking out over the deep, blue sea.

Much of the terrain here is of the rollover type, which is to say you begin on highland plateaus from which the slope quickly steepens before gradually mellowing out toward the bottom. In some places, the mountainsides pucker into steep cirques where you can throw turns down 40-degree pitches, but treeless slopes in the 30-degree range comprise the bulk of the terrain.

Okay, so 200 inches of snow a year may not sound like much. But at this latitude and in this climate, what falls tends to stick around for a while. So while you might not get many days of chest-deep powder, the snow is consistently reliable. And in late March and April, when the temperatures warm and the corn sets up, the skiing is as good as it gets on this side of the continent.

Approximate vertical feet per day: 12,000-14,000
Run length: 1,000-2,000 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: 200 inches
Nearest ski resort: Marble Mountain (www.marblemountain.com)
Cost: C$210 (US$140) per person/day
Info: 709-783-2712; www.catskiing.net

EL DIABLO ALPINE GUIDES -- Silverton, Colorado
This is one of the new kids on the cat-skiing block, an upstart that began operation in the Silverton area of southwestern Colorado just a couple of years ago. If you want to get high in Colorado, there are few better places to do it: All of the skiing is above 10,000 feet, and many runs start above 12,000 feet. That means a lot of high-alpine skiing on open slopes with outrageous vistas.

Long, steep runs aren't necessarily El Diablo's forte, but if you've got the stamina, the ability, and the powers of persuasion, the guides can occasionally be convinced to hike beyond the cat drop-off to score a wild line or two. For the most part, though, the highlight is the high country itself: a pristine, unspoiled sweep of white in the midst of the San Juan Mountains, arguably Colorado's most striking range.

High elevation has other advantages, too. El Diablo's season is unusually long, starting in November and extending into May, so when everything else is shut down late in the season and you still need a fix, this is the place to come. And high snow usually means dry snow; even in April, you can score powder here when the snow is entirely gone in the valleys.

Approximate vertical feet per day: 12,000-13,000
Run length: 500-1,600 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: 350 inches
Nearest ski resort: Durango Mountain Resort (www.ski-purg.com)
Cost: $125 per person/day
Info: 877-241-9643; www.snowcat-powder.com

GREAT NORTHERN SNOWCAT SKIING -- Nakusp, British Columbia
When you come to southeastern British Columbia, you hit the cat-skiing mother lode. At least 10 cat-skiing operations are up and running in the region, and there may soon be more: A newcomer, Baldface Lodge, is set to open for business this winter. You could spend virtually an entire winter on a cat-skiing odyssey in southeastern B.C., skiing with a different operator every week.

So how do you single out one snowcat operator among many? It's not easy and probably not fair, but here's a stab at it anyway: Great Northern, with0 square miles of terrain and more than 50 feet of snow, is full-immersion cat skiing at its best -- a place where you can spend three to six days in the B.C. backcountry skiing your brains out in nothing but pow. But, hey, you can only spend about eight of every 24 hours skiing; a new lodge built in the mid '90s takes care of the other 16 in style.

Approximate vertical feet per day: 12,000-18,000
Average annual snowfall: 600-plus inches
Nearest ski resort: Fernie (www.skifernie.com)
Cost: C$2,000 (US$1,300) per person for a three-day, three-night package
Info: 800-889-0765; www.greatnorthernsnowcat.com

MOUNT BAILEY SNOWCAT SKIING -- Diamond Lake, Oregon
Mount Bailey, just north of Crater Lake National Park, is a classic Oregon mountain: an 8,363-foot dormant volcano with its top blown off. The remains form a semicircular caldera encompassing three main bowls with a wide variety of terrain, from relative mellowness to chutes and couloirs of 50 degrees or more. If you're after long, steep runs, Mount Bailey is about as good as it gets in the cat-skiing world.

Mount Bailey is exposed to serious weather. The 600 inches of snow a year is the good news; wind and poor visibility are the bad. Since the best of Bailey is on the higher, more exposed slopes, you'll want to be there when the weather's good. But you can still get runs of 2,000 vertical feet through the trees when the weather isn't cooperating. Total vertical is Mount Bailey's strength; runs are somewhat longer than at other cat-skiing operations, typically covering between 2,000 to 3,000 vertical feet. The longer the sweeter, perhaps, but you pay a price -- the cat ride between long runs can be 25 minutes or more, depending on the new-snow depth.

Approximate vertical feet per day: 15,000
Run length: 1,500-3,000 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: up to 600 inches
Nearest ski resort: Mt. Bachelor (www.mtbachelor.com)
Cost: $200 per person/day
Info: 800-446-4555; www.mountbailey.com

PEAK ADVENTURES -- Cataldo, Idaho
Northern Idaho has earned an unfortunate reputation for being the national heartland of white supremacy. But let's cast white supremacy in a more inviting light. Think of the white of snow and the supremacy of the St. Joe Mountains. Think of slopes of up to 40 degrees, through both open bowls and well-spaced trees.

The elevations here are relatively low -- the summits top out below 7,000 feet -- meaning that the snow can get heavy at times. But don't be deceived if it's raining in Coeur d'Alene. The climate changes remarkably quickly with small gains in elevation: Rain at 3,500 feet is almost always powder at 6,000.

One great thing about Peak Adventures is that it can be a multidimensional experience: In addition to your basic snowcat skiing, it offers winter-survival and avalanche-awareness courses, as well as overnight trips with accommodations in a backcountry yurt. Two days of cat skiing, all meals, and lodging in the yurt for 450 bucks -- that's a hard deal to beat, even if you may end up having to help wash the dishes.

Approximate vertical feet per day: 12,000
Run length: 1,000-2,000 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Nearest ski resort: Silver Mountain (www.silvermt.com)
Cost: $175 per person/day
Info: 208-682-3200; www.peaksnowcats.com

IRWIN LODGE SNOWCAT SKIING -- Crested Butte, Colorado
While Irwin Lodge may not have the most vertical feet or get the most snow, the skiing is incredible. To start your trip, you arrive the night before and after a ride in the snowcat, you pull up to the 22,000 sq. foot lodge. A huge central fireplace and a fabulous dinner await just before you hit the sack, a perfect way to prepare for the next day's adventures.

With 2,200 skiable acres in the Gunnison National Forest, Irwin Lodge'sterrain has something for everyone. The steepest part of the ski area, TheWest Wall is full of some of the steepest, gnarliest runs around withbetween 1,700 and 2,100 vertical feet per run. From scary steeps to lowangles, this is the place with powder skiing for everyone.

Irwin Lodge averages 600 inches of snow per season and the powder days areabundant. With almost no north-facing terrain, the snow can get a bit setup, but fat skis make skiing a joy and the frequent snows guarantee theseconditions don't last very long. With three-, four-, and seven-day packages the snow,terrain, food, staff and atmosphere will make sure you'll be back.

Run length: 1,700-2,100 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: 600 inches
Nearest ski resort: Crested Butte (www.crestedbutte.org)
Cost: See website for details.
Info: 1-888-GO-IRWIN; www.irwinlodge.com

STRAY CAT
CHUGACH POWDER CAT -- Valdez, Alaska

Most cat-skiing operations are pretty plush: clean, new cats; catered lunch; demo fat skis; professional guides. Not in the Chugach. On the side of the highway 20 miles outside of Valdez, Alaska, sits a greasy, rusting, smoky, 15-year old yellow Thiokol Sprite snowcat with a roaring Ford 300 engine run by a couple of scrappy local entrepreneurs. Jump out of your car, toss the guy your skis and a 20-spot, and grab hold of something that looks like it won't break off once the cat starts moving; if the front cabin's full (which it will be), you'll be bouncing along on the manky plywood rear platform, trying to hang on without melting your jacket on an exhaust pipe. Yeah, it's cold back there, but the views are amazing: the endlessly unfolding white ribbons of the Chugach Mountains.

Valdez is the heart of ski-movie heli heroics, so when lousy weather or snowpack keeps the birds from flying, you'll be elbowing for space aboard the cat against the big-mountain world's best: the Davenports, the Morrisons, the Fishers, the Peifers. And when you get off at the top, you'll be in their world. Hike up to the high ridge, hike up your powder skirt, and say hello to the ludicrously steep drops of a peak called Odyssey. From here, you're on your own. (And you're hitchhiking back to the cat.)

Thompson Pass, Highway 4
Cost: $20/rideerfect way to prepare for the next day's adventures.

With 2,200 skiable acres in the Gunnison National Forest, Irwin Lodge'sterrain has something for everyone. The steepest part of the ski area, TheWest Wall is full of some of the steepest, gnarliest runs around withbetween 1,700 and 2,100 vertical feet per run. From scary steeps to lowangles, this is the place with powder skiing for everyone.

Irwin Lodge averages 600 inches of snow per season and the powder days areabundant. With almost no north-facing terrain, the snow can get a bit setup, but fat skis make skiing a joy and the frequent snows guarantee theseconditions don't last very long. With three-, four-, and seven-day packages the snow,terrain, food, staff and atmosphere will make sure you'll be back.

Run length: 1,700-2,100 vertical feet
Average annual snowfall: 600 inches
Nearest ski resort: Crested Butte (www.crestedbutte.org)
Cost: See website for details.
Info: 1-888-GO-IRWIN; www.irwinlodge.com

STRAY CAT
CHUGACH POWDER CAT -- Valdez, Alaska

Most cat-skiing operations are pretty plush: clean, new cats; catered lunch; demo fat skis; professional guides. Not in the Chugach. On the side of the highway 20 miles outside of Valdez, Alaska, sits a greasy, rusting, smoky, 15-year old yellow Thiokol Sprite snowcat with a roaring Ford 300 engine run by a couple of scrappy local entrepreneurs. Jump out of your car, toss the guy your skis and a 20-spot, and grab hold of something that looks like it won't break off once the cat starts moving; if the front cabin's full (which it will be), you'll be bouncing along on the manky plywood rear platform, trying to hang on without melting your jacket on an exhaust pipe. Yeah, it's cold back there, but the views are amazing: the endlessly unfolding white ribbons of the Chugach Mountains.

Valdez is the heart of ski-movie heli heroics, so when lousy weather or snowpack keeps the birds from flying, you'll be elbowing for space aboard the cat against the big-mountain world's best: the Davenports, the Morrisons, the Fishers, the Peifers. And when you get off at the top, you'll be in their world. Hike up to the high ridge, hike up your powder skirt, and say hello to the ludicrously steep drops of a peak called Odyssey. From here, you're on your own. (And you're hitchhiking back to the cat.)

Thompson Pass, Highway 4
Cost: $20/ride

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