The snow-cat junkies |

The snow-cat junkies

Tom Boyd

Visions of sugar plums may dance in the dreams of holiday children, but die-hard skiers and riders have other aspirations: untracked powder.The collected billions of snowflakes atop Vail Pass provide the landscape for the valley’s only cat-skiing operation: Vail Snow Cat/Backcountry Skiing.”It’s absolutely epic, it’s just phenomenal, and there are people out there that are snow-cat junkies,” says owner/operator Marnie Pistole. “It’s addictive like heroin.”The addictive nature of cat skiing is helping Pistole’s business to grow, and she and her husband Doug plan on adding another luxury, 14-person enclosed cat to their budding fleet this year. The Pistoles shuttle skiers and snowboarders to the top of Ptarmigan ridge, Shrine Pass, Resolution Bowl and some of the 10th Mountain Division’s historic training grounds for a taste of the backcountry.The Back Bowls of Vail were once the crowned king of powder dreams, but as skiing becomes more popular and lift service becomes more efficient, heavily tracked snowfields have become the norm on the lift-serviced hill, and even an early start on a powder day doesn’t compare to the way it used to be.Cat skiing ensures that the days of endless fresh tracks aren’t gone, however, for those who are willing to pay $275 per person per day. A hot lunch in a mountainside yurt, guided instruction, a warm seat on an enclosed cat and an average of 8-10 runs a day redefine the skiing experience for anyone who has intermediate or advanced powder skiing ability.People who can ski well and afford $275 per person per day seem to be hooked, and come back to the Pistole’s operation year after year.”We get a lot of return clients a lot of people plan their whole trip (to Vail) around it,” says Doug Pistole, adding that the large number of people coming up from the Front Range and skiing the Back Bowls on the weekends pushes clients his way.”The terrain is similar to the Back Bowls,” he says. “But it doesn’t get skied by thousands of people, so that’s the biggest thing about it it’s an adventure. You go out in the middle of nowhere basically and have a small group of people.”Colorado creamThe Pistole’s operation is one of many cat-skiing options for people on the hunt for powder.Steamboat Powder Cats (a.k.a., Blue Sky West) operates in 10,000 acres of National Forest on Buffalo Pass within view of the Steamboat ski area.Glade skiing and tree skiing are the specialties here and so is the brand of snow that Steamboat is famous for. Soft and light, not sugary or too wet, the snow on Buffalo Pass is comparable to leveled, untouched cream.Breaking through trees into wide-open pitches, blinded by white, it’s a memory that can cause wincing pain later on in the inevitable lift line, or worse, on the boiler-plate runs that await on the crowded slopes of a man-made resort run.Although Steamboat, like other cat-ski operations, asks that skiers have intermediate powder skiing skills, they also offer three levels of terrain: the first for more inexperienced skiers who want to improve their skill with the certified instructors from SPC, the second for those who are more brave, and the soon-to-open level-three insanity on Soda Mountain, where skiers can drop cliffs into burly steeps and powder-stuffed glades.The prices are a bit steeper in Steamboat, but the service more than makes up for the prices. Monday through Thursday the cost is $288 per person, including breakfast, coffee, and a truly gourmet lunch in a secluded, cozy mountain cabin. Friday through Sunday the price goes up to $299, and a $15 tax is always applicable.Southwestern stashSouthwestern Colorado may have one of the best-kept cat-skiing secrets in the state in the form of San Juan Skiing. With 35,000 acres and perennially dry snow, San Juan has teamed up with Silverton resort to offer a 10-person, two-day trip (one at Silverton and one with San Juan) for $2,200, a bargain in terms of ski adventures. The terrain is comparable, if not beyond, anything else in Colorado. And its acreage is much larger than any other operation, but its prices are the lowest for a similar operation in the state.San Juan operator Bob Rule says many people haven’t figured out that a few hour’s drive down south means cheaper prices and the state’s biggest stash of untouched powder.”We guarantee fresh tracks every turn,” says Rule. “If we can’t get fresh tracks, we don’t take ’em out.”Another benefit of the San Juan experience is the diversity in terrain. North-facing glades keep snow fresh for weeks, but snowy days could mean a trip above treeline, where riders can get the big-north, big-mountain experience.Cat powerHere are a sampling of Colorado’s cat ski operations (some of which are featured in this article):Vail Snow Cat/Backcountry Skiing takes skiers to the top of Vail Pass (see article for details).Cost: $275 per personCall (970) 476-7677 or surf to http://www.vailtransportation.comSteamboat Powder Cats offers 10,000 acres of the state’s best glade and tree skiing. Expert skiers should request Soda Mountain.Cost: $203 per person Monday through Thursday; $314 Friday through SundayCall (800)-288-0543 or surf to Juan Skiing offers a whopping 35,000 acres of terrain (see article for details).Cost: $175 a day per person; $1,400 for 10 peopleCall (800) 208-1780 or surf to http://www.sanjuanski.comBerthoud Powder Guides opens up the terrain that was once lift-accessed at the Berthoud ski area. Now, without the lifts, Berthoud can offer some of the best snow in the state in steep glades or rolling meadows.Cost: $225 per person and $2,400 for a 12-person cat.Call (800) SKI-BERT or surf to http://www.berthoudpowderguides.comChicago Ridge is based out of Ski Cooper near Tennessee Pass. Located about 30 miles from Vail, this ski cat operation is the best way to ski truly rippin’ terrain at altitudes as high as 12,600 feet. A luxury enclosed cat and cush treatment gives Chicago Ridge a different feel than nearby Ski Cooper.Cost: $234 per person per dayCall (719) 486-2277 or surf to Mountain Powder Tours takes skiers to the backside of Aspen Mountain. They have about 1,200 acres of open bowls and meadows with a truly gourmet lunch. Since they are connected to the ski area, access to the terrain of the back of Aspen Mountain is as easy as riding the gondola to the top of the mountain. Powder is guaranteed, and reservations are dependent on snow conditions. Be prepared for steep and deep.Cost: $275 per person or $225 per-person group rate (call for details). Reservation-only basis.Call (970) 920-0720 or surf to:

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