Standing in the tuning shop at Steamboat Powdercats, cat-ski guide Kevin Owens repeats the question.
“What goes into picking a line?” He pauses pensively. “Three things: How fun it will be, how safe it will be and how high quality it will be.”
Fellow cat-ski guide Luke Strickland chimes in. “It’s always based on the group, the avalanche conditions — that’s pretty much it.”
The two backcountry ski experts make it sound simple, but a little prodding yields a more complex answer from Owens about how they determine the best routes for their guests to take.
“We use everything. We use knowledge from the past day, what we see driving cats. We watch the guests to see what they can handle. We definitely watch the avy report, the weather report and (do) a constant reanalyzing all day. Sometimes we find that needle in a haystack that makes everybody smile and sometimes we have to apologize.”
Our day started in the Powdercats’ Steamboat Springs office, close to the ski resort’s gondola. Owens gave quick instructions about the avalanche beacons now draped around our chests before our group of 12 guests and three guides boarded a van to head toward Buffalo Pass, where our snowcat was waiting.
While cat skiing is widely considered to be a form of backcountry extreme skiing — our group was headed on an expert-level trip — Powdercats manager Kent Vertrees said it isn’t necessarily difficult, especially in Steamboat.
“We definitely have avalanche-risky terrain,” he explained. “That’s a big fear for people, the fear of the unknown.”
But the reality is the company has a lot of terrain to choose from and offers trips for three ability levels, from intermediate to expert, including an “intro to powder skiing.”
“We have a lot of mellow and moderate terrain,” he said. “We ski wide-open meadows, gladed terrain, that is very much not extreme.”
Still, he recommends skiers be at least intermediate level with some experience in deeper snow.
“People do need to be blue-level skiers. We don’t want any green skiers. Blue/black type skiers.”
Three days removed from a spring storm, we headed up a Forest Service road. I looked out the van’s window with some concern. It had been warm in town that morning and the snow outside the van looked disappointingly spring-like, heavy and slushy.
Later, some other guests said they had thought the same.
It was quiet in the van as we approached the drop-off, most of us still strangers to one another.
“All right, here we are. There’s Tigger, our cat,” one of the guides said from the front of the van.
By 9 a.m. we’d loaded up the cat and were headed up the mountain into the 10,000 acres — close to 5,000 skiable — surrounding Buffalo Pass.
After introductions, the group — now seated face to face in the snowcat’s cab — livened up.
We were now the McGlamery’s, from Durango, a family of four with two teenage boys; the Wiedemers, of Steamboat, Cathy and Glen; Pete Wither, a former ski patroller and guide; Jim Grew, a regular guest; A.J. Kindya, a ski instructor from Pennsylvania who’d ditched his friends for the last open seat; Jadin Press, a California kid whose brother was supposed to come along but broke his collarbone the day before; and one journalist along for the ride.
Powdercats guide Kyle Pietras ran through some more basics as we approached our first run. Stay together, have a buddy, ski in control. Stay in place if you get separated. “It’s easier to find a sitting duck.”
The cat slowed to a stop. As we exited, the group’s excitement grew palpable. Our world had gone from spring back to winter, and the snow from slush to powder.
It’s all about choosing the right aspect, Owens later explained. While an east-facing slope may have baked in the sun the previous day, a northern slope might have stayed cold and protected.
“We have all four aspects, north, south, east and west. So no matter what the wind or sun does, there’s always somewhere to go,” he said.
And there are no down days, Vertrees said, regardless of weather.
“If it’s snowing we’re going,” he said. “We have really accommodating safe skiing we can retreat to.”
After a test of our avalanche beacons, we were off to our first run. One of the guides led the way to check conditions and avalanche risk.
“Avalanche risk danger is low,” Pietras had said before the run. “We haven’t seen any activity in days.”
Still the lead guide always tests a slope.
Once the OK came over the radio, we were off in pairs.
Hoots and hollers echoed through the trees almost instantly as the group charged untracked lines.
At the bottom Owens reached for his radio. “We’re solid, this is a great group.”
He’d quietly taken stock of each group member’s ability level.
It’s going to be a good day, he said. Our group gathered in an open valley that felt miles from anywhere; we reloaded the cat and got set to do it again.
Riding down the valley, back in the snowcat’s cab, Owens pointed out the window at the surrounding slopes. “Everything you see out the window is our terrain.”
By lunch we’d done seven runs, each through soft untracked snow. The younger group members searched out pillow drops to air off of, while the seasoned skiers opted for more graceful rhythmic lines.
By day’s end, having crammed in 16 runs, almost all in near pristine conditions, a number of our group members were surprised.
“It was pretty fun. The snow was much better than I thought it was going to be,” 19-year-old Devin McGlamery said.
“It was one of the best cat days ever,” his father, Matt, added as the group enjoyed après beers and sodas back at the Powdercats office. “We definitely got more runs in than we did anywhere else.”
For him and his wife, Orien, it was a spring break trip with the kids. Beyond the opportunity for fresh tracks it was an opportunity for them to ski as a family.
“If I take them cat skiing then they have to ski with me,” Orien McGlamery said of her children, Devin and 17-year-old Logan. “They usually leave us.”
So why cat ski? The group unanimously agreed: fresh lines in the backcountry with experts. It needs no further explanation.
“Powder skiing in a cat is probably something that everyone should try at least once,” A.J. Kindya said, describing the feeling of being out in the wilderness, far removed from a resort.
While Powdercats wraps up its season this weekend, there are a few options closer to Summit County.
Copper Mountain Resort, Keystone Resort and Loveland Ski Area all offer inbounds cat skiing through the remainder of the season, offering first-time backcountry enthusiasts a chance to try it out.
Ski Cooper, near Leadville, also offers full-day cat skiing on nearby Chicago Ridge. The cats run until the ski area closes, an official at Ski Cooper said. In Vail, there’s Vail Powder Guides, which tours Vail Pass. While the phone message said the company currently is closed, it will open again in April, if conditions allow.
Cat ski trips run from $299 at Ski Cooper to around $400 in Steamboat and Vail depending on time of year.
Keystone charges $250 for a full day or $5 for an individual ride from the Outback. Copper’s and Loveland’s cat is free with a lift pass.