The unseen side of Keystone by snowcat with Keystone Adventure Tours | SummitDaily.com

The unseen side of Keystone by snowcat with Keystone Adventure Tours

Putting down the camera was the best decision I made all day.

Just after lunch on a warm afternoon in early February, our group of 12 skiers and snowboarders was chugging up the side of Independence Bowl east of Keystone in the back of a plush snowcat. It felt like riding business class on a continental flight, with just enough room for backpacks and jackets and the rest.

But the atmosphere was nothing like a cramped and claustrophobic airplane. There was electric anticipation in the air. We'd just finished a run on the bowl's north-facing slope, where we found nearly untracked snow a full week after the last major storm. Our turns were crusty and windblown up top, but by the time we dropped halfway down the bowl it all changed.

"The snow is much better than I expected," a skier in the cat's first row said. Click-click as I took a photo of the "marijuana is prohibited" sign on the front passenger window.

"Oh yeah," replied James Regan, head guide for the resort's in-house cat-skiing outfit, Keystone Adventure Tours. "You will see people out there hiking and maybe some ski patrollers, but that's it. How often did you get off the lift and it's a fresh line?"

Click-click as I snap photos of Regan on his perch at the front of the passenger cab. Outside the weather was warm and weird, with wispy clouds cruising high over smaller, grayer bulbs of cottony mist. The sun peeked through here and there, shimmering just enough to light the cat interior for a few seconds before disappearing back into the clouds.

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It's no wonder the conditions were bipolar. After a full week of sun and wind and no fresh snow, bowls and other wide-open terrain in every corner of Colorado were less-than-ideal. As usual, Keystone saw the worst of lean snowfall from its perch on the volatile Continental Divide.

Our group met around 8:30 a.m. in the KAT clubhouse at the Mountain House base. It was a media group — writers and photographers with ESPN, Variety, Ski Magazine and the like — and just about everyone knew everyone else. Everyone also knew the day might not live up to expectations. As we got fitted with powder skis (free through the tour) and heard a crash course on avalanche beacons, the group was chattering about the possibility of miserable conditions. Would it be good? Would it be exciting? Would it be worth $275 per person for 10 runs and 10,000 vertical feet? Regan even gave us a disclaimer before we loaded Peru Express: "Don't expect mind-blowing conditions," he told us. But, he was quick to add, he knew there were fresh turns to be had in the 1,500 acres of maintained bowls, glades and trees his KAT crew has at their disposal.

And Regan should know if conditions would live up to expectations. Our group couldn't help but trust he and his three-man crew: After 12 years as a KAT guide he knows the terrain like the back of his hand, and he absolutely loves showing people a side of Keystone they've never seen. It's his backyard, his nearly personal playground, the sort of place where he has names for every last inch of every last area: the Secret Windows, Revolution, Liberty Glade and Two If By Sea, our current destination after lunch at the Independence Bowl yurt.

As for me, I was hopeful. I learned to ski at Keystone and have been riding there ever since, but in nearly three decades I've never been to (and hardly even heard of) the trails and terrain and secret stashes on all sides of the cat. And I thought I knew where to go.

Click-click as I tried again for a better photo of Regan, but the shuttering sunshine had other ideas. Click-click.

Edge of the world

The cat rumbled through a turn and headed north, tilting down the left-hand slope like some kind of alpine roller coaster (albeit one that goes about 15 miles per hour). As we powered along the ridge, our group switched from recapping the last run to recapping the last few months of life. It's a chairlift without the lines, or a plane ride without the impatience. I saw only four or five other bootpackers during the trip, plus a group of ski patrollers on snowmobiles evaluating a section of steep and rocky terrain to the west. Aside from that we were alone.

"When you have a busy day with 15,000 people out on the front side, you won't find anyone out here," Regan told me earlier in the day, right before we loaded the cat for a 15-minute ride through The Windows glades, found just steps from Keystone's tubing hill. "That's what I enjoy."

Another minute or two and the cat leveled out, then finally pulled to a stop in time for everyone to gear up and get ready for our run down Two If By Sea. Regan opened the door and we piled out, click-click as I captured everyone unloading and pointing and taking their own photos. Another KAT guide, Josh Miller, took us to the ridge's eastern edge for yet another vista: an incredibly precarious and wind-loaded easterly face just below us, with Arapahoe Basin's Montezuma Bowl in the foreground and towering Grays (14,278 feet) and Torreys (14,275 feet) peaks beyond that. Click-click.

When everyone was ready — Regan and the entire KAT crew follow backcountry etiquette and always travel as a group — the guides led us on a traverse over windblown snow and patchy boulders before stopping where the slope gets steep. Regan dropped first, weaving a path down, down over crusty snow until we see his skis begin to dip. He'd reached the sweet spot — the powder point.

"Who wants it?" asked Josh Morrison, our third guide who goes by J Mo, as in the Irish whiskey.

Pause. Click-click. Skiers looked to boarders, boarders looked to skiers, and finally Denver Post columnist Chryss Cada took the cue. The rest of the group followed one at a time after her, weaving over crust and letting out small hollers that echoed once before being swallowed by the bowl. Click-click, no echo. I fell into place near the end of the line and wove down to meet with the rest of the group, the camera cradled close to my chest.

I wanted to unleash, but no, equipment and photos came first. Click-click as I caught the group winding down the slope to Regan's perch. J Mo followed behind us, again practicing proper backcountry etiquette by scouting for anyone who fell back. Click-click looking up the slope.

The group circled behind Regan and listened as he explained the terrain we were about to touch. This, he said, will be a freeride. With the yurt in plain view below, we could take any line, any route, any track we wanted to reach the yurt and nearby cat.

Click-click one last time, and as everyone got ready for the drop into soft, fresh, inviting snow — the first truly untracked powder of the day — I zipped the camera into my jacket. This one was for me.

"Everyone ready?" Regan said, a wide and infectious smile spreading across his face. Nods all around.

"Let's do it."

We dropped, and this time there was no sound but a collection of whoops echoing across the empty bowl.

Keystone Adventure Tours

What: Guided cat-skiing tours to roughly 1,500 acres of maintained backcountry terrain on the eastern edge of Keystone Resort, including Independence Bowl, Bergman Bowl and Erikson Bowl

Where: Mountain House Clubhouse at Keystone (across from Black Diamond Pizza on the first level)

Season: Late December to early April, depending on snow conditions

The trip: Expect 8-12 runs covering 5,000-10,000 vertical feet on a full-day trip, beginning at 9 a.m. and ending around 2 p.m. Your run totals depend on the speed and size of the group.

The perks: Veteran tour guides, cat rides between runs, lift access (no need for a ticket), powder ski rental, catered lunch at backcountry yurt, après champagne at Mountain House

Cost: $275 per person

Tours run seven days per week, depending on conditions, and all groups require reservations. Keep in mind: This is not ski school. All skiers and snowboarders should be familiar with black terrain, including powder and tree skiing. To reserve a spot or find out more, see http://www.keystoneresort.com or call the KAT clubhouse at (970) 496-4386.

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