“What is this, Yanni or something?” Ray Schmitten nearly spits the words at the snowcat’s stereo. As the cat rumbles higher, the offending CD is eighty-sixed and the power riffs of Bachman-Turner Overdrive fill the cab. Schmitten-pear farmer, lead ski guide, and co-owner of Washington State’s Leavenworth Snowcat Skiing-leans back in his Gore-Tex overalls, unconcerned about who he’s offended.
Welcome to the decidedly classic-rock experience that is Leavenworth Snowcat Skiing. For years Leavenworth, a mountain town pressed between fruit orchards and the Cascades’ eastern shoulder, was best known among Seattleites for tarting itself up as a Bavarian village (gingerbread trim, piped-in accordion music, that sort of thing) as a scheme to woo nutcracker-buying tourists. These days, three-year-old Leavenworth Snowcat Skiing gives skiers a reason to stop and smell the sauerbraten.
Don’t expect swank and varnish. Hell, don’t expect a lodge. The five-man spit-and-baling-wire operation is run out of a former lumberjack’s sheep pasture outside of town. The sole cat prowls 3,400 acres of timberland, including four peaks and three main cirques. The terrain is as quirky as the outfit. Wildfires swept through in 1992, scalding the flanks of 5,800-foot Chumstick Mountain and the hogback ridges of its neighbors. Skiers now dodge dead lodgepole pines that shriek in the wind like the damned. Though the runs aren’t vertiginous, their pucker factor is high: Make a mistake in Tuna Bowl’s forest and you’ll ricochet like a ball in a giant Pachinko game.
But keep it together and you’ll spend run after run as we did: flirting with fluff and dead wood. Climbing back into the cat’s home-built cab, the stereo howls “Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo.” The sun emerges, then a 12-pack of Coors. “This,” says Schmitten, offering up the day’s coda, “is farm-boy fun.”
Expect half (about 240 inches) of the prodigious Cascades snowfall that piles up just 40 miles to the west, at Stevens Pass-but it’s lighter and drier here. As is the case throughout the Pac West, the stuff stabilizes fast. A strong wind-loading effect results in an 80-inch base by March.
Despite a handful of open, sunny snowfields, tree skiing is the M.O. here. And nothing rivals Main Bowl, a north face whose beige name belies a 2,400-foot dive through a gauntlet of ghostly lodgepole snags.
If it’s dumping at Stevens Pass, the snowcat operation can expect to get some legit snow, too-though it’s almost invariably sunnier here. Plan on hitting Leavenworth the day after you’ve tracked up Stevens.
They’re locals with at least five years of ski patrol experience. Stick close to co-owner Greg Randall, who’s got a Level II avalanche certificate.
The Icicle Inn, closest to the staging area, is your standard cable-and-queen-size Best Western (800-558-2438, leavenworthlodging.net).
The hummus wraps and caramel brownies served in the cat are perfect lunch fuel. Avoid the a.m. Folgers by grabbing a thermos of Haus Kaffee from Alpine Coffee Roasters (894 Highway 2).
BANG FOR BUCK
Consider this outfit the skiing version of the neighborhood pizza joint: It ain’t fancy or worth traveling across the country for, but it’s convenient for hungry Seattleites and Portlanders. A strong group can rack up 18,000 feet of vertical a day.
Stumps and deadfall can poke through the snowpack. Try not to fall on ’em.
Leavenworth’s grabby snags will shred a featherweight shell. Bust out the new Arc’teryx Javelin SV, fashioned of a burly rip-stop armor that’s also waterproof and breathable. ($400, arcteryx.com)