The late Emmitt Tucker lived long enough to see snowcats become indispensable vehicles for trail grooming and avalanche control. But did he ever ride one of his inventions to dinner? Or bed down in one for a nap? Or spin records within their cozy confines?
I ponder these questions as we near Game Creek Restaurant. With most of Vail Mountain’s 32 lifts closed for the day, a packed snowcat is carrying 16 guests to the picturesque Alpine-style eatery atop snowy Ptarmigan Ridge. We arrive just as the sun disappears behind the 3,650-metre peaks of the Gore Range, and when I take the first bite of my prix-fixe meal my Tucker-related curiosity is suddenly transformed into steely conviction: Having played a key role in uniting me with Game Creek’s Beemster-draped bison tartare, the Oregonian inventor must be a lock for a posthumous Nobel Prize.
Tucker’s nomination credentials keep piling up. By performing a growing list of duties beyond on-hill grunt work – the first of the nine “lives” explored here – the fully tracked snow vehicles he pioneered are helping winter travellers discover new ways to glide, play, dine, drink and macarena on snowy slopes across North America.
Snowcats have been carrying skiers up pristine off-piste slopes since the 1970s, when Selkirk Snowcat Skiing began offering tours of British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains. A half-century later, the province is home to at least 20 such cat-skiing operations – about a quarter of the global total – with one of the newest, five-year-old Keefer Lake Lodge, home to 86,500 acres of terrain, or nearly twice as much as the combined expanses of North America’s 10 largest ski resorts.
As well as expanding and proliferating alongside their pricier heli-skiing cousins, cat-skiing outfits are becoming increasingly lavish. The thousand-acre Irwin tenure near Crested Butte, Colo., for instance, opened an opulent day lodge shortly after being acquired by the Eleven Experience boutique resort chain. Now, guests can spend the night in Eleven’s idyllic Scarp Ridge Lodge, hop a “snowcat limo” to Irwin in the morning and sip a specialty coffee while donning their cleaned and warmed equipment in front of a roaring fire.
Several ski resorts are catering to off-piste enthusiasts by initially running snowcats, not chairlifts, up new inbounds terrain. Southern B.C.’s Red Mountain, for instance, began offering $10 rides to the top of Grey Mountain in 2013. A year later, when a chairlift was installed on Grey, the Kootenay resort expanded again and moved its snowcat shuttle to adjacent Mount Kirkup.
Panorama Mountain Resort’s more recent foray into inbounds cat-skiing coincided with the continuing expansion of its backcountry-style terrain in Taynton Bowl. This season, four new double-black-diamond descents can be reached via Monster X, a 12-seat snowcat offering $15 rides to the top of the vertiginous bowl in southeastern B.C.’s Purcell Mountains.
Snowcat food trucks
Skiing Taynton can be a serious workout, and that’s where the Snowlicious Mobile Kitchen comes in. Said to be “the first snowcat food truck in Canada,” the alfresco eatery atop Panorama’s Champagne chairlift helps visitors refuel by pairing hot chocolate, mulled wine and prosecco with rice-filled cones of stir-fried jackfruit or pulled barbecued chicken garnished with cilantro, raita, hot sauce and other toppings.
North America’s first snowcat food trucks, meanwhile, are said to have been rolled out by eastern California’s Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in late 2010. Serving burritos, churros and calzones, the two “Roving Mammoths” have since been replaced by “The Lunchbox,” a vintage Airstream trailer-turned-food truck that serves cheesesteak sandwiches next to the Unbound South Park terrain park.
More recent foodcat additions include Steamboat Resort’s Taco Beast, which has been dishing out beef, chicken, elk, or butternut squash-and-black bean tacos on the slopes of Colorado’s Park Range since 2018.
Cross-country and backcountry skiing shuttles
Widely used to groom and trackset cross-country trails, snowcats also carry Nordic and backcountry skiers to remote routes and take some of the legwork out of uphill climbs and up-and-back trails.
New examples of the latter include the Ice Shuttle in Quebec's Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park, part of the Charlevoix World Biosphere Reserve. By connecting the Le Draveur Visitors Centre to the L'Équerre sector, some eight kilometres to the north, the 22-passenger service saves visitors considerable time and exertion by allowing them to ski or snowshoe one-way as they explore the cliff-lined Ice Valley and admire the myriad frozen waterfalls spilling down its sides.
A snowcat also connects daytrippers to Island Lake Lodge near Fernie, B.C. After trundling through the old-growth cedar forest lining Lizard Creek, the 3 1/2-hour tour arrives at the upscale cat-skiing resort, where visitors break for lunch and have the option to cross-country ski or snowshoe around the lodge’s namesake lake, or sneak in a spa treatment.
Vail’s Game Creek is far from the only fine-dining establishment served by snowcats, with other notable examples including the lantern-lit Paradise Camp on the backside of the Okanagan’s Silver Star Mountain Resort; the Italian-themed Alpino Vino at Colorado’s Telluride Ski Resort, which at nearly 3,650 metres is said to be the loftiest fine-dining restaurant in North America; and the Montana Dinner Yurt at Big Sky Resort, where stargazing and sledding follow a dessert of Toblerone fondue.
Speaking of fondue, melted meals are the centrepieces of several less formal dining experiences. At Quebec’s Mont Tremblant, for instance, a snowcat transports guests to the rustic Le Refuge chalet for wine and fondue times two, while an evening meal in the mountaintop Crystal Hut at B.C.’s Whistler Blackcomb concludes with pie baked fresh in a wood-fired oven.
Should you misplace your AirPods at Heavenly Mountain Resort, just ski over to the DJ Cat. This mobile DJ station has been unleashing its 52 speakers and 12,000 watts of sound on the Lake Tahoe area since 2013, when Heavenly partnered with Aaron Hagar, the son of legendary rocker Sammy Hagar, on retrofitting the retired grooming machine. Hagar fans will also appreciate the fact that the DJ Cat couldn’t drive 55 even if it wanted to.
Après-ski aficionados may want to mark April 11 on their calendars. That’s the day the Beercat is slated to join the DJ Cat at Heavenly. The former is the creation of Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing, which installed a miniature pub on the back of a 1987 Spryte snowcat last year. After visiting seven U.S. ski resorts in 2019, the Beercat’s current tour will make nine stops across Oregon, Montana, Idaho and California.
Uniquely topped with a Cirrus 820 Camper – complete with stargazing-friendly skylight, washroom, double bed and compact kitchen – Head-Line Mountain Holidays’ new Snowcoach is being used as a support vehicle and rest station during the B.C. tour operator’s snowmobile excursions on the Pemberton Icefield.
Sounds like just the place to recover from an extended encounter with the Beercat.
The writer was a guest of Vail Resorts. It did not review or approve this article.
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