A first-timer discovers… Big Cats and Deep Powder

19th August 2009, by Chris Gill

[Dave Watts]

[Dave Watts]

AUTHOR: Jay Nagley
Submitted in 2006

“Cat skiing” sounds quite exotic to the uninitiated but it just means that a piste-basher, known as a Cat (as in Caterpillar tracks), with a passenger cabin on top, takes you to remote places you could never reach by ski lift. It’s rather like heli-skiing, but cheaper and, I’d guess, rather less dramatic.
I had already been told about the joys of Cat skiing in Fernie by our esteemed editor, but warned that it could be difficult to get a place with either Island Lake Lodge or Powder Cowboys, the two big names in the resort. In fact, because we arrived in low season (which started this year [2006] on 19 March), there were plenty of seats available. Our rep offered us places at $370 on the first day, but this seemed a bit much for two of us on our second ski holiday of the season. The good news was that, a few days later, the rep offered us a special deal at $220 with Powder Cowboys. As it saved us the price of a day’s lift pass (we had bought an eight day pass for a nine day holiday, just in case) and the cost of lunch, the extra cost over skiing in Fernie was about $150 (£75) each. Not a hard choice, then…

The day we chose turned out to be the only completely cloudless day of the holiday - we used up our annual quota of good fortune on this trip. The morning started with a safety briefing at 7.15 a.m. and it was made very clear that no-one was going anywhere until we had fully absorbed safety procedures for dealing with an avalanche. Steve, the head guide, was charm personified, but left no-one in any doubt that foolishness on our part would not be tolerated. When we got to the mountain, a 45 minute minibus ride away, we climbed into the Cat which turned out to be remarkably comfortable, with three rows of seats and a rear parcel shelf that contained a water cooler, a fruit punch cooler and the biggest picnic hamper you have ever seen. Despite the best efforts of 11 hungry skiers, we never did get to the bottom of that hamper. Our first stop was not to ski, but to practice using our avalanche transceivers. We were split up into pairs, with one of us switching our transceiver to transmit and then hiding it somewhere in the snow. Our partner then switched to receive and had to find the missing transmitter. After that, we swapped over and when all the hidden transmitters had been found, we had to work as a group to find two transmitters hidden by the guides. Finally, we returned to the Cat with Steve personally checking that every transceiver had been reset to Send mode.

By 11 a.m we were at the top of the first run - except it wasn’t really a run at all. It was simply a ridge with a huge expanse of fresh powder for about 400 metres on a 30 degree slope. As this was my first day on true powder, I was pretty nervous (would I hold back the group by taking a tumble on my first turn?), but there was nothing to worry about. Sweeping down, with lots of soft snow to slow you down, it was more like skiing a red run than a black in terms of difficulty - except you don’t get untouched red runs all to yourself. When we got to the bottom, I expected a wait for the Cat to chug down the mountain, but not a bit of it - the Cat arrived at the same time as us. How is that possible, I wondered? Firstly, because the Cat had left the second the last set of skis were unloaded, which gave it a five minute head start while we got ourselves sorted out and Steve, and his co-guide, Brenda, explained where we were going. Also a half way stop down the slope to regroup gave the Cat another couple of useful minutes. In fact, during the whole day, we never had to wait more than two minutes for the Cat - the routes were very carefully planned to make sure the Cat could always match our pace.

And so the day went on. Twelve runs in perfect conditions - fresh snow, bright sunshine and no-other skiers to be seen. Our technique improved as the novices in the group (that would be me, then) got used to continuous powder. It is not difficult as such, it is just so different to skiing even the partly-tracked powder you get in the resorts. At first, the deep snow made me feel slightly wobbly, as if I was constantly about to tumble - although the anticipated fall rarely materialised. I think most of us had two or three tumbles during the day, but they were never going to hurt with all that fresh powder to fall into.

At first, I thought of Cat skiing as a poor man’s heli-skiing, but I changed my mind - it isn’t a poor version of anything. It is more like having your own personal lift that can be moved to anywhere on the mountain. I am sure that heli-skiing would be more dramatic - you get those vistas for a start, but the actual skiing is similar. We got 12 runs in - over 4000 metres of vertical - and you would not get that much more in a helicopter. Cat skiing is also a lot more flexible in terms of weather conditions - when was the last time you heard of a piste basher being stopped by bad weather?  If you have never done it before, the skiing is awesome, and if you have done it before, you won’t need me to tell you how great it is. Additionally, Island Lake Lodge and Powder Cowboys (the same operation but located in different parts of the mountain range) are the perfect guides - friendly, cheerful and professional.


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