BY RYAN MAYE HANDY, THE GAZETTE
A wind whipped across the ridgeline at the top of Monarch Mountain, obscuring the sun and crusting the freshly fallen snow.
It might have been a bad day to be skiing the main mountain and riding the lifts. But for the skiers dropping off the ridge’s edge, away from the wind and into fresh powder, it was a good day to be cat skiing.
Cat skiing, whether at Monarch, Loveland, Copper Mountain or Steamboat, to name a few, can satisfy cravings for fresh tracks.
“The biggest draw for folks coming to ski with us is the untracked powder,” said Eric Deering, a guide and director of Steamboat’s Powdercats operation. “Ski areas are getting hit so hard these days, if you’re not first in line for the gondola, then chances are you are going to be behind the ball, especially if you’re not familiar with that area.”
Cat skiing is ideal for those looking for untracked lines, but not necessarily “the steepest, gnarliest lines,” Deering added.
“You don’t have to be an expert skier to go cat skiing,” he said.
Even in a time of desperate drought, the thousands of acres of cat-skiing terrain at Steamboat still had plenty of fresh powder last year, Deering pointed out.
At Monarch in February, a fresh five-inch snowfall was bound to be tracked up within hours on the lift service terrain; the hike-to slopes in Mirkwood Basin might have had more freshies, but at the cost of a slow hike.
Monarch Snowcat Tours’ swift, school bus-yellow snowcat zooms up the ridgeline, allowing for 13 to 15 runs in a day and almost-guaranteed virgin snow for a group of 12 riders.
“Yeah, we get a lot of people and this will be their best day skiing all year,” said snowcat guide Kelly Millward.
“I hear our terrain is some of the best snowcat terrain. We’ve got the steeps,” he added.
Millward and fellow guide Gail Bindner — both former ski patrollers and in their second decade at Monarch — started guiding when the program began in the late 1980s. Back then, the snowcat had an open, lurching box for skiers — cold and exposed, it wasn’t much better than a ski lift, save for the fast trips up and down the mountain, Bindner said.
The industry had a reputation for being “a bit cowboy,” Deering noted, but with the increasing push into back-country terrain, cat-skiing operations are upgrading.
Deering, a co-founder of the Catski U.S. Association, hopes that placing all the outfits under one umbrella, with universal standards, might encourage more skiers and boarders to go the cat-skiing route.
Monarch has shed its rickety cats, replacing them with heated cabs with plush seating, stereo systems and electrical sockets. The operation’s two cats roar through the forest along a network of snow roads.
Yet in a tough snow season there’s still no guarantee cat skiing will deliver your best ride. Earlier this month, Monarch’s snow cover was still pretty thin in the trees, Bindner cautioned. It only took a few turns through the forest before the ski group got stuck in low undergrowth or logs.
The mountain has not gladed the tree runs, Bindner added, making top-to-bottom lines hard to find. Although it had snowed several inches, many slopes had crusty, day-old turns underneath, which made for tricky navigating through otherwise smooth powder.
(After recent dumps at Monarch — and Colorado’s other ski areas s— however, this shouldn’t be an issue.)
Monarch’s terrain might be steep, but it’s also short — four or five big powder turns can get you to the bottom of some runs.
At some ski areas, such as Loveland and Copper, cat skiing comes at no extra cost — buy a regular lift ticket, and you’re there.
During mixed conditions, a paid cat trip might seem a little pricey, but when you return to the thoroughly skied-out lift terrain at the end of day, it could be with a great sense of triumph: You’re among a handful of people who skied untracked powder, all day.
Some Cat-skiing options:
Jan. 14-March 25
Full Cat (12 people): $3,000
Dec. 30–Jan. 13
March 26–April 14
Full Cat (12 people): $2,300
Winter Park Powder Addiction
Jan. 5-March 27
Full Cat: $4,000
March 28-April 30
Full Cat: $3,400
Vail Powder Guides
Full Cat: $4,400
Jan. 1–April 12
Full Cat: $4,500