Canada Cat Ski Stories by Duncan McCallum
Powder Hunting –Mini Guide to the Eastern Rockies (BC Canada – North Montana USA)
One hour into the experience and without the promise of fresh powder tracks, all but the masochist would have bailed, preferring to face the 20 mile snow covered hike back to one-horse-town; Olney, Montana. We are crammed into an ex-Norwegian military Hagglund dual cab. We are in the rear trailer; bumpy, hot, damp and noisy with 6 others, riding to a backcountry yurt that is the temporary winter home of the aptly named Valhalla Adventures near White Fish, Montana.
The founder of Valhalla and his cohort Vernon, a committed petrol head have adapted the 2.8 Hagglund diesel engine to travel at 12mph. It worked flat out to get us to the yurt 21miles in to the snow-covered bush. Valhalla (the home for those slain gloriously in battle) was a fitting end to our journey of avalanche blocked roads, 60kmph ski-doo rides, drunken fisherman, late night ice covered roads, coincidences, friends missed and new ones made; but story starts here…
Any committed skier will tell you tails of icy trips to Vail, snow-less trips to Austria and rain soaked pistes in France. Powder hunting can be frustrating and expensive, so how do you lessen the odds? Well, heli-skiing, the most well-known powder junkies fix, is no guarantee. Low cloud, and high winds ground choppers all the time. It’s also hard to justify the extortionate fees. However there is a solution; Cat skiing.
Having suffered an El Nino European ski season, we were ready for snow, any snow. Powder would be a bonus so we were prepared to work for it a bit. Our journey and task was to find guaranteed powder snow within a few hours drive of Calgary following a direct flight from Scotland.
Our mission was to find guaranteed powder snow within a few hours drive of Calgary following a direct flight from Scotland. Despite the massive start to the Canadian season we had arrived into a 2-week drought. Things were looking lean, or so we thought.
We chose three areas we had always wanted to visit; new kid on the block, Kicking Horse, the now legendary, Fernie and the little known Big Mountain, Montana. To shorten our odds a bit and to lighten our wallets a lot we also hunted out a Cat ski operation within easy drive of each of the established resorts visited.
Whilst travelling to Canada in search of reasonable snow conditions is a good bet, if you want to find powder you may have use a bit of detective work and a solid 4x4 with snow tyres.
Although unheard of in Europe, due to historical, legal and environmental conditions, Cat skiing, in North America, is growing steadily as a mid- priced alternative to Heli-skiing. Imagine a standard Piste Basher or Pisten Bully and put a 12 seat Cab weleded onto the back and you have a Snow Cat. The cat operations are generally established in old logging areas and using the forest road infrastructure to access ridge lines for drop-offs and valleys, these diesel guzzling fun tanks usually provide a good group of skiers with between 8-10 runs per day, of between 1000 and 1500 feet per run. Cat skiing operations come in many shapes and sizes, from multi- day catered lodge operations such as Chatter Creek, near Kicking Horse/ Golden or the close to resort operations offering single day blasts, such as Fernie Wilderness Adventures and Valhalla in Montana.
Any wilderness development deserves critical viewing, it seems almost an anathema that the experiences we all seek whilst backcountry skiing, solace, solitude and some sort of conversation with nature always seems to involve burning hydrocarbons, building buildings or cutting down trees, essentially destroying the thing we are seeking to enjoy. So jumping into a machine with a high-powered engine instead of hiking into the wilderness and ski touring seems slightly perverse, however there are some large factors that seem to contribute to the growth of Cat skiing operations. State forests in the USA and Crown forests in Canada are essentially managed commercial “wilderness” areas, forested in the summer and redundant during the winter, the governmental view seems to be that these areas are fair game for commercial activity in the winter also. Another contributing factor is job creation, travel to any small mountain community and you will soon realise that winter jobs are hard to come by, all house and road building stops, the logging industries close down, even the forests parks and snowed in and empty and unlike Europe, back country ski touring is a serious business.
Its an interesting tension. I am not sure what the answer is, however being aware is a good start, try make decisions that impact least, and try and follow the adage “take only pictures and leave only ski tracks” and with any luck they will be buried under the next snowfall overnight.
We were not completely convinced at the start of our journey if Cat Skiing was either worth the extra expense, as ski holidays are expensive enough anyway or worth leaving great inbounds skiing to go to. On both counts we were proven wrong. The experiences were enormous fun, the skiing even in the lean snow period we were out, exceptional, with great fresh tracks every Cat day. So if you want to get close to guaranteeing powder snow or you fancy a wild day out whilst in resort book it and get out of bed early.
Town: Golden, British Columbia
Resort name: Kicking Horse
Hours from Calgary: 3-4 Hours
Directions to Golden could not be simpler. Turn west on to highway one, stop in Canmore for coffee and continue until you reach the Logging town of Golden.
In Bounds – Kicking Horse has been one of those well-kept secrets for some time now. The upper part of the mountain was once the preserve of the Purcell Heli Ski operation but now the three bowls are served by two high-speed lifts with more planned for the coming years. Kicking Horse is steep if you want it to be. Short hikes right off the Stairway to Heaven lifts and left from Golden Eagle Express lead to large steep couloir lined bowls where some pretty daring skiing can be had. The locals call this the “Slack Country” not quite Back Country but serious enough that you better know what you are doing. After a dump (of snow) and for a few days following, many of the “spots” remain untouched inbounds. We heard Kicking Horse referred to as ‘cowboy country’; untamed and edgy, slightly lawless. It certainly has the feeling that the mountain is on a journey to somewhere. If it is heading towards the corporate blandness of Whistler go there now before it gets spoilt. But we reckon it will retain its superb wild inbounds skiing and that the legend will grow.
Cat Skiing Operation: Chatter Creek
Package: 3 or 4 nights in Helicopter accessed backcountry Lodge.
Cat Skiing – Chatter Creek is a short Helicopter ride from Golden. It offers some of the most challenging fun and well appointed backcountry skiing in Canada with over 90 square miles of terrain to pick from. Even after their longest dry spell of three weeks, they were still pointing clients down fresh powder lines. Their 85% repeat business statistic it testament to the operation. Chatter Creek offers Alpine, Glacier and tree skiing of the highest quality. Due to the quality it also attracts some of the best skiers and guides to work for the operation. Chatter Creek is not a beginners ski destination. The regulars here can huck and surf with the best of them, so if you find yourself spending most of your time off-piste buried in the powder looking for lost skis or you prefer a Vin Chaud and a deck chair, stay in Kitzbuhel. The uplift here can offer up to 15,000 feet of powder every day of your stay; bumps, jumps, steep trees, cliff bands and couloirs are all here. Remote rustic and homely, this family run lodge and ski operation should be on every good skiers must do list.
Packages include fat ski’s (if you want them), Avalanche transceivers, lodge accommodation of 3-4 nights and great food.
Resort name: Fernie Resort
Hours from Calgary: 3.5 Hours
In Bounds Fernie
31/2 hours south of Calagary is Fernie. Once the preserve of in-the-know snowboarders, Fernie is now an established good snow hunters resort, surprisingly steep in places. In bounds Fernie, although it has skiing for every level, is best suited to good to “expert” skiers and boarders. It is big too, not of the scale of Verbier, but even though some of the popular steeps get tracked out before lunch there is enough here for a few days of inbounds powder hunting. Fernie bowls leave Vail standing with steeper terrain, better lines and much better snow records and you are less likely to bump into a film star or shiny all in one suit. For the adventurous a bit of hiking will always reward the tenacious.
Fernie has two great programs if you need to deepen your powder experience. The steep and deep camp is recommended to anyone wishing to learn to ski or board in more challenging terrain, and the First Tracks program is a must if you want to be the first out on a powder day. First Tracks offers guided powder skiing in bounds before the masses (that is a relative term) are allowed onto the lifts.
Fernie old town is quite funky too and offers a good alternative to the mountain resort. Mid week the mountain is quite quiet and, in comparison to a European resort, deserted.
Cat Skiing Operation: Fernie Wilderness Adventures
Package: Day trips or basic overnight accommodation for large group bookings
Price: 300Cnd per day
Cat Skiing - Fernie Wilderness Adventures offer either lodge or day cat skiing. We recommend staying either on mountain or in the town and booking days out in the back-country when the conditions are best or the mountain is tracked out. The day starts meeting the guides in Fernie town then driving 15 minutes to the lodge base. Expect a slightly more mixed ability group than in Chatter Creek but the terrain is great and gets steeper if the Cat guide feels the group is up to it. The best way to guarantee the skiing you want, either steep or mellow, is to book a complete load or fill the cat with as many hounds as you can muster. FWA is pretty good value as well; about the same price as a mountain guide in Europe for the day. After a 30-minute Cat ride you start your ski day with transceiver instructions at about 10am. After an initial viewing run where you are scoped out by the guides (2 per cat), the terrain is ramped up or remains as is, to suit the balance of the group. We had two powder virgins in our Cat. Even though the runs were slightly slower there was enough variation in the ski run zones to put smiles on everyone’s faces.
FWA is best suited to intermediate to good skiers with some off-piste powder experience. If you are wanting to progress to powder skiing, we recommend doing a Steep and Deep course or powder lesson in bounds in Fernie before committing yourself to a day in a Cat.
Town: Whitefish, Montana
Resort name: Big Mountain
Hours from Calgary: 5 Hours
Big Mountain Montana
90 miles from Fernie once your fingerprints have been stored on the FBI files at the border crossing, is Whitefish, Montana. More of an established town than Fernie and Golden, Whitefish is the cheapest pace to buy classic American work-wear and outdoor gear. It is also the town base that supports Big Mountain ski resort. Established in the sixties, Big Mountain is set to undergo go a bit of a renaissance with the development of a new lodge building. Although the resort map looks as though there are a large proportion of black runs, these are not alpine in proposition, and the mountain offers a good mix of skiing for all levels. There are loads of secret spots to be had once you have learnt a bit about the mountain. Whitefish also has a lot to offer with some Cowboy bars and some great eating in the Tupelo Grill.
Cat Skiing Operation: Resort Cat Skiing
Package: Day trip
Price: $150 plus lift ticket
Uniquely for this triptych, Big Mountain also runs its own Cat operation and is an ideal starting point for anyone wanting to learn how to powder ski in the trees. A 10 minute hike from the Bigfoot T-bar can take you to the same terrain as the resort’s Cat, but if you want a guide and can afford the $150 for the day to ride the cat you will be rewarded with some fine instruction through the trees.
Cat Skiing Operation: Big Mountain Resort Cat Combo
Cat Skiing Operation: Valhalla Adventures
Package: Day trip
Price: $175 including lunch and snacks
Cat Skiing – Valhalla… back where we opened the story. For a fraction more than the Big Mountain resort Cat, you can ride the wild wind with Fred Detrich. Maverick and in its second full season, Valhalla is well worth the trip… not just for the skiing but to absorb some of Fred’s massive energy and enthusiasm. During our day with Fred, we skied powder, watched young Whitefish bucks leap off 35 foot cliffs, hiked the ridges where the cats have no access (as yet), skied great trees, got towed up trails by Skidoo (locally called a ‘Sled’) saw Moose, Bald Eagle, skied until dark and drank beer in the yurt post sun down; a pure experience for any powder warrior or deep snow virgin. A day with Fred at Valhalla will leave you with great memories of good skiing, the smell of the trees in snow, and a smile on your face.
Kicking Horse and Chatter Creek (BC Canada) – For experts and experienced powder hounds
Fernie and Fernie Wilderness Adventures (BC Canada) – for experienced powder lovers and good skiers with some powder experience
Big Mountain and Valhalla Adventures (Montana) - Best place to learn (cat) powder skiing with the Big Mountain resort Cat. Graduate, if you dare, to Valhalla for a blast in the steeps of the Montana back country.
Contact and Accommodation Details
Kicking Horse-Chatter Creek
Accommodation on mountain- Palliser Lodge http://www.kickinghorseresort.com/
Cat Skiing- http://www.backcountrywintervacations.com/
Accommodation at Lizard Creek Lodge http://www.lizardcreek.com/
Cat Skiing http://www.fernieadventures.com/
Accommodation at Morning Eagle Lodge http://www.bigmtn.com/?a=lodging/bmrl_main
Cat Skiing http://www.valhallaadv.com/
Zoom Airways with flights from Glasgow, Manchester and London, http://www.flyzoom.com/
Enterprise Car hire http://www.enterprise.com/car_rental/home.do (This is not Europe! We were very grateful for a 4X4 with snow tyres.)