Cat skiing is often seen as the Chateauneuf du Pape of snow riding: extravagant, exquisite, exciting. And expensive.

A day of snowcat skiing typically costs five times as much as a day riding the chair lift at a resort. Fuel and equipment costs, individual attention, and a dynamite product allow top cat operations to charge almost $400 per seat during peak season.

But a growing number of bargain cat deals are prowling the Rockies. Some cost no more than the price of a lift ticket. Some are only twice as much. And those that charge a premium have a secret many die-hard skiers already know: it’s worth it, especially if you can get a discount.

“It’s addictive,” said Mark Johnson, a landscaper from Pueblo who was on a recent cat tour at Monarch Mountain. “When there’s something you really love to do, and you get to do it in a place where the skiing is so good . . .”

He paused, looking for the right word.

“It’s epic,” his friend, Lydia McKenzie, chimed in. She spent $300 on two early season seats on the cat, and gave them to Hartman for Christmas.

“Actually, it was a gift for both of us,” she said.

Monarch is known for epic cat tours. It caters mostly to solid Colorado skiers who know the value of good terrain. Much of its clientele are from nearby lift-served ski towns such as Breckenridge and Crested Butte.

Corrie Wheeless Snowcat Driver No Name Bowl Monarch Mountain Resort - OutThere Colorado
Snowcat driver Corrie Wheeless takes a load of skiers and snowboarders to the top of No Name Bowl at Monarch Mountain Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007. Wheeless has been driving for the snowcat tours for two years. Photo Credit: Christian Murdoch.

The fact that cat skiing is what ski patrollers do on vacation is a testament to the primo conditions. The snow is plentiful and the ski traffic is scarce. For single-minded skiers, that is reason enough to drop some cash. But a healthy bank balance isn’t a prerequisite for cat skiing anymore. Keystone now offers a milelong cat shuttle to the alpine bowls of the Out Back for $5 (plus the cost of a lift ticket). It offers a daylong cat tour of 1,160 acres of its hike-to terrain for $81 (plus lift ticket).

At Copper Mountain, the Tucker Mountain snowcat delivers skiers to the expert chutes of 12,337-foot Tucker Mountain for no extra charge. Aspen has also added cat tours that go beyond the rope, but, as might be expected of Aspen, they cost significantly more.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in cat operations,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “I think it’s driven by the growing fascination with the backcountry. People want to get out there, and this is a safe way to do it.”

But it pays to do it with a little planning. Many operators offer deep early season discounts of $50 to $80. Monarch also has a late season discount, when snow coverage is more dependable, that brings the bill down from $220 to $150. Monarch’s guides will tell you they don’t cut the price because the snow goes away in late March. They cut it because the interest does.

“Some of the best skiing I’ve ever done has been at the very end of the season,” said Monarch cat guide Chad Hixon. “But by that time, a lot of people want to go play golf.”

He was guiding the couple from Pueblo and 10 other skiers last week.

As the big yellow cat rumbled up the spine of the Continental Divide north of Monarch, he said there is no way to predict when snow will be perfect. His guiding partner, Kelley Millward, agreed.

“Whether you get the ski day of your life is a roll of the dice,” he said. “Sometimes you get bad conditions, even in the middle of February. Sometimes you hit it big.”

With Monarch’s cat area seeing more than 350 inches of snow, bad conditions are rare. Either way, a day with most cat skiing tours follows the same rhythm.

Snowcat Skier Jeff Leavitt Monarch Mountain Resort - OutThere Colorado
Jeff Leavitt of Nathrop skies the bowls in the snowcat area at Monarch Mountain Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007. Photo Credit: Christian Murdoch.

Prowling for powder at Monarch
Skiers and boarders met at 8:30 a.m., donned avalanche beacons and got a brief lesson in safety. A few minutes later, they were gazing out the windows as the snowcat chugged at about 5 mph to the untouched bowls beyond the ski area boundary rope.

Monarch has 800 acres of lift-served terrain that is host to several thousand skiers on a busy day. It has 900 acres of cat skiing that sees a maximum of 12 people a day. The numbers add up to run after run of fresh tracks.

“Just watch out for the bomb holes,” Millward said as a group of 12 skiers trundled out the back door of the cat and peered over the edge of a blank bowl punctuated with a few craters left by avalanche explosives.

The average daylong cat tour packs from 10 to 15 runs, depending on the length of the runs and the speed of the skiers. Clients obsessed with packing as many runs as possible into a day will sometimes rent out the entire cat so no slower clients can show up and hold them back.

The Monarch group’s first run went straight down the avalanche-blasted bowl. At the bottom, the guides decided conditions there didn’t deserve another run. The snow went from hard wind crust to powder to sun-baked.

“A little tricky in there,” said Millward, who had fallen face-first in the sun-baked section.

So for the next run, they steered the waiting cat to a steep, north-facing stand of trees that blocked the wind and sun. The snow was ski-movie perfect, rising in powdery rooster tails on every turn.

“After that first run, I wasn’t so sure, but this is awesome,” said McKenzie as she loaded her snowboard back on the cat.

The day progressed and conditions changed. As they did, the guides steered the cat to the best snow. When the trees were tracked out, the group hopped over to a southwest facing glade softened by the sun. When the glade grew too slushy, the guides led the group to a steep series of gullies called the Dog Chutes that had softened up nicely.

“Even if we don’t have a huge dump, we know where to find the good snow,” Hixon said.

The guides’ expertise is a big chunk of the cost of a day in the cat. They’ll tell skiers where to find the best snow, and where to watch for rocks. They’ll even give pointers. It’s like taking a private lesson on a private mountain, although students have to be fairly advanced skiers to get into this class. Alumni often return again and again.

“People really get into it,” said Millward, who has guided for Monarch since 1991. “I’ve had the same group of 12 guys from Colorado Springs come back every year. They love it.”

Most think the extra cost is worth it. There’s little chance cat skiers will return to their cars at the end of the day without feeling they got their money’s worth.

A dozen runs may not sound like much, but in deep, expert terrain, it means eight hours of hard skiing. By 4 p.m. an exhausted silence pervaded the Monarch cat’s soggy passengers.

At the bottom of the mountain, the couple from Pueblo stumbled toward their car with satisfied smiles. McKenzie said she’d definitely go again. Her boyfriend nodded.

“This is the best,” said Johnson. “It’s like for surfers to surf the North Shore of Hawaii. It doesn’t get better. And when you’re sharing a cat with 10 people who all share that view, you make friends fast. It’s a very cool thing.”

MONARCH POWDER CATS

Monarch Cost: $220 Late season discount: $150 Acres: 900 Average annual snow, inches: 350 skimonarch.com

OUTBACK SHUTTLE

Keystone Cost: $5 plus lift ticket Acres: 860 Average annual snow, inches: 230

KEYSTONE ADVENTURE TOURS

Keystone Cost: $81 plus lift ticket Acres: 1,160 Average annual snow, inches: 230 keystone.snow.com

TUCKER MOUNTAIN SNOWCAT

Copper Mountain Cost: free with lift ticket Average annual snow, inches: 284 coppercolorado.com

CHICAGO RIDGE SNOWCAT TOURS

Leadville Cost: $250 Acres: 2,400 Average annual snow, inches: 250 skicooper.com

STEAMBOAT POWDERCATS

Steamboat Cost: $379 Late season cost: $359 Acres: 10,000 Average annual snow, inches: 400 steamboatpowdercats.com

SAN JUAN SKI COMPANY

Durango Mountain Cost: $250 Acres: 35,000 Average annual snow, inches: 280 sanjuanski.com

SAN JUAN SNOWCAT

Creede Cost: $265 Weekday, non-holiday cost: $245 Acres: 9,000 Average annual snow, inches: 375 sanjuansnowcat.com

ASPEN POWDER TOURS

Aspen Cost: $335 Acres: 1,100 Average annual snow, inches: 300 aspensnowmass.com

EL DIABLO SNOWCAT SKIING

Silverton Cost: $220 Acres: 2,000 Average annual snow, inches: 400 snowcat-powder.com

The 8-step path to a killer cat trip

  • Look for discounts. Some cat tours slash prices in late season when the snow is at its deepest.
  • Practice skiing powder — easier said than done, but if you can’t ski powder, it’s gonna be a long day.
  • Buy or rent powder skis — fat skis and boards float on the snow, making turns a snap.
  • Find 11 friends. Most cats are cheaper by the dozen. Booking all 10 to 12 seats in a cat can save hundreds of dollars.
  • Take snacks. Most cat operators serve lunch, but take water and high-energy snacks for midmorning.
  • Sneak in after a storm. To guarantee great snow, small parties can often book seats a few days in advance at no extra cost, especially on weekdays. If you see a big storm in the forecast, book right after.
  • Hit the hay. Cat skiing is a long, hard day of expert terrain. A good night’s sleep and proper hydration the night before will make all the difference.
  • Take your favorite tunes. Many cats have kickin’ sound systems. Bump your favorite tunes on the way up to get psyched for the next run.

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