Braving the backcountry on a cat skiing trip
The opportunity to ski fresh trails should not be passed up, Carrie Tait writes, even if you do a faceplant or two
Ladies, I said, you can do this. Go cat skiing. Don't be intimidated by all the men on heli trips. Trust your snowboarding ability. You're stronger than you think. I promise.
Ladies, I'm sorry. I know I've been saying this for years, but I've been drawing on a lifetime of snowboarding experience. The idea of being ferried from one untouched backcountry powder field to another in helicopters or cats – essentially snowplows with a cab on the back for skiers – doesn't scare me on a snowboard. I've been on heli trips with my snowboard. But I traded my board for skis three years ago – to see if I could pick up the skills again, to tackle terrain differently and because I was bored of boarding. Now, my bravery – on resorts – exceeds my skiing ability and that's fine because I go at my own pace. I'm confident skiing steeps and powder – love it! – but that's different than skiing steeps and powder well.
And so, when a pal asked if I wanted to go cat skiing at Chatter Creek, I said no. Sorry. Those trips are dominated by men. I'm not good enough. Too much powder. I won't be able to keep up.
Hypocrite, I know. And so I said yes. Then tried to get out of it. Then yes, ok, FINE, I'll go. I pack lightly, leaving my confidence at home.
Chatter Creek is one of British Columbia's 40 backcountry heli and cat ski companies. Heli and cat skiers want exclusive access to endless powder and paying big bucks is the way to get it. They want that magical feeling of floating on snow. They want fine dining. They want views few get to take in.
Collectively, B.C.'s heli and cat skiers put in about 120,000 days a year, according to the HeliCat Canada Association. The industry generates about $160-million in direct revenue and most of it comes from men. But the industry is changing. Ten years ago, for example, roughly 90 per cent of Chatter's customers were men. Now, roughly 80 per cent of its guests are men, consistent with others in the business. Women can do this.
"They are just as strong skiers, if not stronger," Jennifer Salvador, the assistant lodge manager, says of the women who come to Chatter. "I wouldn't that say the women are a weak link."
Chatter's visitors gravitate to the lodge's lounge after the heli ride from Donald, a blip of a town near Golden. They wear flip-flops, slippers and sneakers. Irish iced coffee is the featured drink when we arrive. Chatter hosts 36 guests at a time and there are three women, plus me, on this three-day trip.
Annette Mahoney is wearing slippers, earrings and her blonde hair in a clip. She's solids at the pool table. She's drinking red wine. Melissa Jack is playing foosball with three men. Prism Schneider wanders over to watch. There are three groups – Mahoney is in one, Schneider and Jack another, and the third is an annual all-boys trip – and constituents cross-contaminate over pints of Guinness and Moscow mules in copper mugs.
The bar is like a rumpus room: There's a dart board, a trunk filled with superhero costumes – because Chatter is the kind of place where you would correctly think dressing up as the Hulk while skiing is a good idea – 14 bar stools, six couches and a dog named Bruno. The lodges are built out of giant logs that were milled on site. Guests share bedrooms and the washrooms are simple. Chatter's comfortable accommodations are not the most luxurious in the industry, but if that's your main concern, get your priorities straight.
Chatter shuttles skiers around its 23,800 hectares in snowcats – machines with plows in front, treads underneath and cabs above that keep 12 guests and two guides warm. The soft seats are similar to those in a charter bus, but with more leg room and views of the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
This outfit has three cats: Pirate Ship, Viking Ship and Bluenose. I'm in Bluenose, along with Schneider and Jack, on the first day. Schneider, who is on skis, and Jack, who is on a snowboard, have nothing to fear: They are experienced in powder. Bluenose's crew members came on this trip together, adding another layer of fear.
My day goes as expected.
I fall during the second series of turns. I glide easily on a wide-open expanse, until I don't. The light is flat – imagine skiing through fog, unable to see undulations, wind lips, tracks and hazards. I tip over when going too slow. I wipeout at high speeds. Digging for lost skis after falls is exhausting. I struggle building platforms in the snow necessary to click back in. Skiing in the forest provides reprieve from the flat light, but the trees get in the way. I'm slow.
Two things make me feel slightly less terrible: There's another straggler aboard Bluenose and the skier is neither Schneider nor Jack; and I spot a team member in a tree well – a dangerous place to spend anywhere between a few minutes and the rest of your life, depending on your luck. Our tail guide Rachel Brown digs him out.
I can't keep up, sit out more runs than I ski and apologize to whoever happens to be near. Schneider tells me not to worry. It is fine. No need to say sorry. She is the sweetest liar I've ever met. I do the only thing a skier can to try to make up for it: buy the Bluenose crew a bag of cat-beers for the next day.
I join the Pirate Ship on the second day. It has a sprinkling of less experienced powder skiers, which lessens the intimidation factor. The sun is out.
On this day, I fall during the third series of turns, but once I settle down, I glide easily.
The pink Salomon Rockette skis, at 156 centimetres in length and 115 millimetres wide at the waist, stay attached to my boots and float on the snow. I leave pretty (and not so pretty) squiggles behind me. I bounce off poofs for kicks and navigate hazards with purpose. I regain my balance when deep snow and gravity conspire to take me out.
Dave Pearson is our tail guide and, while we occasionally hold hands as he helps me up after spills, I don't feel like we're spending so much time together that we're bordering on dating. The sun, rather than gender, is the day's most influential factor.
Rich Ingraham, from Syracuse, N.Y., is part of the Pirate pack. He says he is an intermediate skier with about 20 days of skiing experience. He is a rookie backcountry adventurer.
"The first day was exhausting and a little frustrating and it just wasn't the fun that everybody said powder skiing is," he says. "I thought: 'Wow, am I either this bad that I can't get through it or is it really just not fun?'"
But he re-evaluates after the first run on the second day.
"That was the best run of my life," he says in the cat. Ingraham has a short memory; he repeats that line a few times as he puts down more tracks. "When the sun was out and we went way up high and the views were amazing, I'd say it might be the best ski day that I've ever had."
I sit out a few runs, along with some of the men. I ski some they don't. Ingraham skips about half the runs on Day 3, happily. We eat Chatter's homemade cookies and drink water in the cat. Paul Lanyi is a snowboarder with about 25 years of experience. He has been on one heli trip and four cat trips around the world prior to Chatter. Lanyi is one of three fellows who pass on a tree run with me. This reflects strategy, not strength.
"I was a little bit tired and just needed a break," Lanyi, who is from El Segundo, Calif., says. "This is about a marathon, not a sprint. Better to sit inside, regroup a little bit, have my energy spin back up and then go excel on the next run.
"I got more than my money's worth," he says. "The snow was not the best of the snow I've ever been on in the backcountry, but the experience was by far the best. It is a combination of the quality of the guides, the vastness and sheer beauty of the terrain, the snow quality and the safety."
My final run at Chatter Creek starts the same as the first: with a faceplant. This time, it isn't because I can't ski powder. It's because I skied so much of it (relative to my ability) I'm exhausted. I leave with two souvenirs: a Chatter Creek water bottle and my confidence back.
Ladies, you can do this. I promise.
For the 2018-2019 season, prices range between $2,000 for two days and $5,000 for four days. For more information visit chattercreek.ca.
How to get there
The heli-port is at Donald, B.C., which about 30 kilometres from Golden, B.C., which is about 260 kilometres west of Calgary. Best to stay in Golden the night before lift off because driving conditions can be spotty.
The writer travelled courtesy of Chatter Creek. The company neither approved nor reviewed this article.