LAKE COUNTY - Ausra Pumputis, a 24-year-old attorney from New York City, was supposed to be in her office Monday, working on an anti-trust case. But she traded her business suit for a ski jacket and pink knit hat with pig's ears. And she had a monopoly on all the powder a girl could ask for.
Pumputis and a group of family and friends extended their ski vacations in Vail to spend a day out of bounds. Five of them left the holiday crowds behind when they boarded a snowcat at Chicago Ridge Snowcat Backcountry Tours above Ski Cooper for a day of endless turns in creamy, untracked powder.
"It was incredibly fun," Pumputis said. "It should be on one of National Geographic's top-50 adventures. The whole package was just incredible."
Chicago Ridge Backcountry Snowcat Tours operates on 2,460 acres of terrain on the San Isabel and White River National Forests in Lake County - about a 45 minute drive south from Copper Mountain.
The area has no chairlifts, but that's part of its appeal. Guests motor up to the Continental Divide on a 12-seat snowcat. The cat drops skiers and boarders off at an elevation of 12,840 feet, treating them to jaw-dropping views of the Tenmile Range in one direction and Mount Elbert, the Collegiate Peaks and Maroon Bells in the other. Guests descend as far as 1,700 vertical feet in one run, to be met by the snowcat for as many more laps as they can handle. And with about as much terrain as Copper, they're unlikely to ski across each other's tracks all day long.
"Just being knee-deep in powder - you can't beat that," said Ausra's brother, Michael Pumputis. "It's like floating on air."
Endless runs through untouched snow aren't Chicago Ridge's only draw. An experienced team of 15 guides ensures guests' safety and comfort, keeping them out of dangerous terrain. All the guides come from ski-patrolling, fire-fighting or emergency-medical backgrounds.
"You don't have to have the knowledge and education you would need to be by yourself in the backcountry," said Zak Slutzky, a Chicago Ridge guide who spends half the year ski patrolling in Portillo, Chile. "It's a controlled environment with knowledgeable people to take care of you if something goes wrong."
Guides match terrain to skiers' and riders' ability levels. On each trip, one guide leads the way, while a second picks up the rear, ensuring everyone makes it to the bottom.
"Some groups want to break the record for the number of runs in a single day," said Jonathan Bradley, who has been guiding Chicago Ridge guests for five years. "And others are really into it for being with their friends and enjoying the scenery."
Chicago Ridge skiers and riders must be comfortable on black-diamond runs, but that doesn't mean others can't come along for the ride. Karen Robbins joined the skiers and riders in Monday's group, and she rode the cat down for each descent.
"I loved it," Robbins said. "It was like a really slow roller coaster with a great view."
Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.