The final issue of Inside Tracks contained a guide to snowcat skiing, on which Dick Needham invited me to comment before publication. Most of the general comments below were included in the published article.
Dress: This is by far the warmest way to ski because you are in an enclosed and often heated vehicle for 10-15 minutes a run going up the hill. I way overdressed my first day at Island Lake. So you need to be ready to peel hats and gloves and ventilate your suit when you get in the cat. You’ll roast with too many layers, but bring them in a bag just in case: you can always leave excess gear in the cat. With some operators (Targhee when I was there in 1995) the cat is not enclosed, so you need to dress much warmer. Find out this info before you go. The extra storage capacity can also apply to equipment: I have seen people bring both ski and snowboard gear, take a run on each and then choose for the rest of the day based upon conditions.
Acreage: Even with just a cat or two of skiers, you need lots of acreage to prevent terrain from being skied out too quickly between storms. In my opinion 1,000-1,500 is marginal unless you’re in a unique microclimate like Targhee with its machine-like consistency of snowfall. This criticism doesn’t necessarily apply to lift-service adjacent areas where you’re booking at the last minute, knowing there’s fresh snow. In general the Canadians have a big advantage over most U.S. operators in permit area size.
Grouping: For cat skiing, you should be at least a strong intermediate skier. The group moves only as quickly as its slowest member, but no one likes to hold up a bunch of powder-hungry skiers. At some of the smaller operations there’s only one cat, so you can really be slowed down by someone who’s out of his/her depth. With two or more they will try to do an ability split. But remember if there are multiple cats you need even more acreage.
Logistics: How fast are the cats and how well designed the roads? Island Lake is on private land and the cats run like a Swiss watch. Some newer operators have to meander along tortuous old logging roads and do well to give their clients 10K of powder per day.
Snow Conditions: Like lift serviced areas, snowcat operators are not created equal when it comes to factors like altitude, snowfall and exposure. If you’re looking for powder, your standards need to be very high.
Altitude: For simple logistical reasons the altitude a snowcat can reach is limited, and the emphasis is generally on tree skiing. Only a handful go more than 1,000 vertical above timberline. This is a big plus in January when visibility is weak in Canada and you might get vertigo at some heli operations. The situation is reversed in March when there will be swift transition to spring conditions (OK for lift service, but not acceptable at $200+ a day) unless both altitude and exposure are favorable. There’s a reason for those March discounts: In January and February the powder will stay dry for several days after storms, but in March/April spring for the heli to get you up as high as possible. In my opinion, to consider advance booking of cat skiing in March there must be abundant north-facing terrain and the minimum altitude should be 6,000 feet in Canada and 9,000 in Colorado. I strongly recommend that the specific altitude range of cat-serviced terrain should be checked before deciding when and where to book reservations.
Snowfall: The B.C. government has allowed several new cat operators to open in recent years. Their locations are really remote, presumably to tap into 400+ inch-per-year snowbelts. My guess is that Great Northern and possibly Selkirk Wilderness are the top dogs at 500+. In the U.S. anybody adjacent to a lift serviced area (Big Mt. 300+, Targhee 450, Berthoud and Vail 350, MBA at Big Sky, Aspen, Cooper, Monarch all about 250) will have similar snowfall. The others? Mt. Bailey has to be 400+ based on Cascade weather and topography. Irwin Lodge (near Kebler Pass, 400+) and Blue Sky West (near Buffalo Pass, snowiest spot in Colorado: 450+) are in unusually snowy microclimates. The El Diablo and San Juan snowcat areas should be in the 250-300 range, based upon nearby Telluride and Red Mt. Pass. The two Idaho areas, Brundage and Peak Adventures are 300+, very similar climate to the Big Mountain.
Exposure: In Canada in January it doesn’t matter, but later in the season and in the U.S. the more north-facing terrain there is, the better. I realize it would be tough to quantify this for the article, but the issue should be mentioned so that readers considering an area can ask. For example Irwin and the San Juan areas are very high altitude, but I know that Irwin and El Diablo have predominantly sunny exposures. That 5,000+ vertical runout at CAT in Revelstoke faces south, so the lower part of it is often mashed potatoes.
Individual Area Profiles: There are some questions that can only be answered by someone who has actually skied with that particular operator. The exposure and logistics issues I mentioned above are examples. An accurate assessment of terrain can be another. Some people will be interested in the quality of accommodations and food. An ideal review of cat skiing would be a collaborative effort that rounded up contributors who had visited each area reviewed. The published article gave a brief rundown on nearly every snowcat operation in the western U.S. and Canada. Included below are my specific comments on the ones I know something about.
Alaska: Different rules apply here, where nearly all the skiing is above the trees. Hatcher Pass is inland from Anchorage and the snowfall is much lower than the Chugach but high in quality and well preserved. Chugach Powder Guides at Alyeska has 3,000 acres of cat skiing, primarily as an adjunct/marginal weather alternative to their heli operation. March is recommended for both of the above. Valdez has a rustic pay-by-the-ride cat, but Valdez Heli Camps offers a cat alternative or combo with their heli operation. April is peak time at Valdez, and the Hatcher Pass people often bring their cat to Valdez then also.
Grand Targhee: I skied there Feb. 1995. Mostly intermediate pitch, longest fall lines face SW, may be an endangered species if they put any more lifts on Peaked Mt. Acreage is already on the low side, but there is that incredible microclimate. Elevation range 8,000-10,000.
Montana Backcountry Adventures: I skied there in March 2001. Service was excellent and I later had an outstanding dinner at their backcountry yurt. But I cannot recommend for advance booking of cat skiing. Snowfall and acreage are low by cat skiing standards, and the trees are not naturally gladed so they have to cut runs, which will likely get tracked out quickly. Keep it in mind for short-notice freshies as exposure is all north, while adjacent Big Sky faces mostly east and south. Elevation range is 7,500-9,200.
Mt. Bailey: I skied outstanding corn on the 360-degree exposure in April 2000. This is surely the most expert oriented operation in the U.S. The huge east, northeast and west facing bowls are not as confining as the 27 north facing chutes but they are still plenty steep. Snowboarders should beware, as the NE, E and S exposed runs have lengthy skate/traverses with a snowmobile tow to get back to the cat pickup. Awesome terrain, abundant snow and a new and custom designed snowcat, but the lodging and food are basic motel. If you want to commute from Bachelor/Sunriver it’s a 2-hour minimum drive and you need to be there by 7AM. Elevation range is 5,500-8,500.
Great Northern: One of the oldest Canadian cat operators at Trout Lake, a considerable drive south plus a ferry crossing from Revelstoke. Dick Needham wrote a mouth-watering review for SKI Magazine in 1983 (I clipped and still have the article). Massive acreage with normally only one group, 3 or 6 day stay required, and tough to get in with so many repeat customers.
Selkirk Wilderness: This is the oldest operator in Canada, since 1976 with a similar quality and availability reputation to Great Northern. Week-long packages only.
Island Lake Lodge: I skied there 3 days in Feb. 1997 and will be returning with my son Adam for 3 days in Feb. 2003. Island Lake Lodge is a 45-minute cat ride deep into the Lizard Range past the lift-served Fernie Alpine Resort. Terrain consists of 4 bowls of up to 1,000 vertical north and slightly east facing, with 1,500 vertical of outstanding glade skiing below, enhanced by selective summer logging. Elevation range is 3,800-6,500 feet, therefore January and February are recommended. They run 3 cats on 7,000 acres. Island Lake has cultivated the ski press, filmmakers and the "rock star" skiers and riders, and is thus the most famous cat skiing operation. Demand is high as for Great Northern and Selkirk Wilderness, and bookings must be made in September for 3 or 4 day packages during the winter 15-18 months later.
Powder Cowboy: This is the old Sno-Much-Fun and it is owned by Island Lake, but it is a completely separate operation for both skiing and lodging which is at Bull River Ranch. The operation is on the backside of the Lizard Range from the lift-serviced area. Fernie local Craig Morris says most storms approach from that direction, so snowfall should be excellent. However the acreage is less and the exposure more varied than at Island Lake. Powder Cowboy will run 2 cats starting in 2003.
Retallack: Adam and I skied 2 days there in Jan. 2000. Outstanding snow and mostly expert terrain but the logistics were a bit slow in their 4th season. They had one cat then but have two now. Elevation range is 5,500-7,800, with an end-of-day road ski down to the lodge at 3,500.
CAT Powder Skiing at Revelstoke: I skied 2 days there in Feb. 1999. The cat starts in the morning at the Powder Springs ski area at 2,200 ft and takes an hour to reach the ski elevation range of 6,200-7,500. There are 6,000 acres on the south side of Mt. MacKenzie and 2,000 on the north side that they save for the days the south side snow is sun-baked. I never saw the north side as it was a snowy week.
White Grizzly: Brad Karafil, who used to run Ski Plus Tours, profiled in Powder several years ago, opened White Grizzly in 1998-99. Logistics are different in that you get 5 runs of over 3,000 vertical each rather than the multiple shorter runs typical of most cat operations. Strictly expert terrain according to a ski writer who visited during 2002.
Baldface: 2001-02 was its first year of full operation. Dave Thomas of Red Mt. Ski Patrol works there, and often gives progress reports on his website .