What: Skiing in remote, private locations via snowcat vehicles
Where: An increasing number of Rocky Mountain ski areas
Why: Untracked snow, deep powder, no crowds
Snowcats are the big, treaded, all-terrain vehicles that groom ski runs at the end of a day. Add a heated passenger cab, and a snowcat can ferry a dozen skiers or snowboarders into the back country, far from crowded slopes and long lift lines. Snowcat powder skiing is similar to helicopter skiing -- both offer dazzling runs in deep, untouched powder -- but it's cheaper and less risky.
Last February, my wife, Claudia, and I signed up for a day with Steamboat Powder Cats in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Powder Cats is run by Jupiter Jones, a former schoolteacher, and his wife, Barbara, the town's former bail bondsman. For $185 a head, including breakfast, lunch and guides, Powder Cats transports intermediate and expert level skiers to an exclusive 15-square-mile area that the Joneses lease in Routt National Forest. Pricey? Not really. Daily lift tickets are around $60 in the Colorado Rockies, and many skiers wind up dropping quite a bit of money on concessions and rentals as well.
Most snowcat skiers rent shorter, fat skis, called "stubs," designed to prevent you from sinking into the chest-deep powder. And you have to learn a different technique. You can't rely on the inside edge of your downhill ski for control and turning, and you don't transfer your weight from one ski to the other. Instead, your weight should be evenly distributed on both skis, a technique called "weighting." To turn, you "unweight," or bounce slightly, pulling your weight up from both skis simultaneously while banking one way or the other. It's usually easy for expert alpine skiers to pick up -- and challenging for the rest of us.
At 7:30 a.m. we joined other skiers -- mostly out-of-state families -- and our guides at a restaurant called the Tugboat. After a 15-minute van ride, we reached two snowcats waiting in the forest, engines idling. We were divided into two groups of about a dozen skiers each and assigned to cats for a 30-minute ride up to new snow at an elevation of 10,400 feet. There we got out and put on our stubs.
After pausing at the top just long enough to enjoy the spectacular view of the Rockies and Steamboat Springs, we pushed off, one after another, behind Mike, our lead guide. We skied through awesome powder, crisp air and bright sunlight. We made big, wide turns in open, parklike glades, past snow-covered spruce trees. We darted through aspen groves and between 15-foot snow drifts shaped by the wind. A second guide, Gordie, skied behind us shouting, "Unweight, unweight!" Falling in the deep powder was like tumbling into a mountain of goose down.
When we reached the bottom of a run, the snowcats took us back to another part of the Joneses' lease. After seven runs, we stopped for lunch -- hot soup and sandwiches at a cabin marked only by a rooftop and chimney peeking through the snow.
Back out atop a ridge, our group decided to split up because a few of us were holding back the most advanced skiers. Mike drew a line in the snow with his ski pole. He warned that only the "macho and senseless" should cross it.
As I recall, nine skiers crossed that line and disappeared over the ridge. The rest of us, diplomatically dubbed the "mellow" group, spent the rest of the afternoon with Gordie, happily cruising down gentle glades, trying to perfect our "unweight."
Snowcat skiing costs vary, depending on location, meals and ski equipment that's included. A few examples:
- Steamboat Powder Cats, Steamboat Springs, Colo., 1-800-288-0543, $185 per day.
- Great Divide Snow Tour, Monarch Ski Area, Colo., 719-539-3573, $125 per day.
- Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, Aspen, Colo., 970-920-0720, $225 per day.
- Chicago Ridge Snowcat Tours, Ski Cooper, Colo., 719-486-2277, $125 per day.
- Grand Targhee Snowcat Skiing, Jackson Hole, Wyo., 1-800-827-4433, $210 per day.
- Park City Powder Cats, Park City, Utah, 1-800-635-4719, $300 per day.
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