A cat trip in the San Juan’s – the ultimate soul ride
Trust is inherent in any trip into the backcountry. Trust in your abilities; trust in the leadership and decision – making of your guide. Trust in the weather; trust in the guide’s ability to make assessments of snow pack and ability to evaluate the dynamic and competency level of the group. We do not live in a trusting society by nature. The community and spirit which live and travel the Colorado backcountry share a common bond rarely found in contemporary society. Without a doubt, the addiction and desire for untracked turns and adventure which Warren Miller has been documenting, promoting and propagating for over 50 years of ski filmmaking is something found deep in the soul of the human race. The need for speed. The adrenaline rush of going big, of challenging your own limits and riding out stronger in the end is worth living for. It takes a rare breed.
“You’re going to jump out of the cat and feel like you’ve landed on the moon” was how the experience was first described to me. Everything and everyone involved in a trip of this nature must rise above their own fears and inhibitions and take it to another level.
I’ve never been to the moon, nor will I likely reach that destination. However, that was exactly how it felt the first time I stood on the top of South Bowl.
The visibility was terrible, non-existent in fact. As we prepared to step out of the cat on our first real run of the day – we had taken a perfectly soft and untracked run down a mellow slope in a “group ski” which allowed the guide to access the ability level of the group – our guide, Kip Nagy of San Juan Snowcap Tours, gave this advice: “Stay a considerable distance from the cornice. We will approach it and access the stability level. Once we have given the go ahead we’ll drop one at a time. If you approach it with any speed you’re going to get about 15 feet of air.”
So I stepped out of the cat in a giant leap for my “inner skier,” as Kip refers to it and found myself atop a snow drifted and windblown peak surrounded by nothing but untouched peaks. Which way are we going? I thought to myself as the cat operator, Tim Kuss and owner Ed Vita unloaded our skis and boards. A 360-degree assessment got my head spinning with possibilities. From what I could make out we were indeed on the moon and I was about to lay out some fat turns. Nothing out here looked made of cheese. It was all a faded, unfocused haze of towering rock and white.
Ten feet from the cornice and you couldn’t see the edge. Two feet? You still couldn’t make out the edge. Kip and our other guide, Eric Panebaker, pounded the cornice with their skis and discussed snowpack. Then, after what seemed an eternity, Kip gave instruction for Eric to drop, make a turn and then cut hard right across the face of the bowl. Eric dropped. My back tensed and my neck craned in an effort to hear the landing. He landed with a little more slap than I would have liked. The drop was bigger than I thought. From then on we could see nothing of the pitch or the snow conditions, merely Eric carving out into the run out, a black vision of lonely freedom in the white Rocky Mountain air. We all took a breath.
One by one we dropped the cornice. Each taking our own personal leap of faith. As the group gathered at the cat I felt a tremendous sense of relief. The unknown had become the known.
The cornice was especially gratifying considering Friday afternoon we got a call informing us the trip was cancelled. Mechanical problems with the snow cat had put the trip out of reach. A few minutes of consideration over a beer in the parking lot and we were off to make the best of the situation. After all, we had the truck packed and a free pass for the weekend. If we had to suffer and spend two days riding Wolf Creek, so be it.
Saturday afternoon, after a great day of hiking Horseshoe Bowl at Wolf Creek, we got the call. The trip was back on. As it turns out, Tim Kuss from the El Diablo cat operation on Molas Pass had trucked in one of his snow cats in the dead cold of the night and by mid morning they had the avalanche control work done and were ready to go. Easier said than done. On the ride up to the parking area to load our gear into the cats we passed a green fuel truck wrapped around a tree. Ed had taken it for its last ride the night before when slid off the road at 2 a.m. It was seriously damaged. It was a rough couple of days for new owner Ed Vita, and he deserves a lot of credit for getting our group out and making turns. Tim from El Diablo gets huge props as well.
All in all it was a tremendous day of riding. From the cornice on South Bowl we traveled to North Bowl and then got some really great turns down Dogleg. Holy Roller was mellow and stacked with great wind rolls. By the time we hit The Pyramid and Tent Trees I had almost forgot civilization ever existed. A final run through Ptarmigan Meadows brought us back to the cat track and our original starting point.
It wasn’t just cat skiing or fresh turns which made this trip incredible. It was the effort and dedication of everyone involved to pull this thing together despite terrible luck and misfortune. Ultimately hard work and perseverance, a belief in the freedom of riding and the desire to face a challenge and overcome is the fuel, which feeds the true inner skier in all of us.
Very special thanks to Tim Kuss, Ed Vita, Kip Nagy, Eric Panebaker and Elvis for reaffirming my faith and showing me a damn good time.
San Juan Snowcat is located 9 miles north of Creede, Colorado in the Rio Grande National Forest. They offer the highest elevation guided backcountry tours in North America. Wolf Creek Ski area is 37 miles away. For more information contact San Juan Snowcat at firstname.lastname@example.org
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