The Powder And The Glory

Pure, untracked powder is the Golden Fleece of skiing--easy to talk and dream about but almost impossible to find. For years, helicopter skiing was the best way for skiers to guarantee themselves the experience. But two things had always kept me from trying heli-skiing: my pocketbook and my young family. At about $500 per day, heli-skiing is an extravagance and, with the dangers of riding helicopters among the mountaintops, not worth the risk for a father of three.

Snow-cat skiing, which uses treaded all-terrain vehicles to reach isolated slopes, is the perfect alternative. It offers skiers the thrill of breaking through chest-deep virgin powder without breaking the bank. Prices begin at $100 a day, which usually includes lunch. When you subtract the danger of helicopter flights, the risks are pretty much limited to skiing off a cliff, breaking a bone, or exhausting yourself searching for a lost ski in 10-foot drifts. The payoff, besides the great skiing, includes beautiful wilderness views and an escape from the long lift lines, crowded lodges, and other blights of modern-day skiing.

Snow cats, long used for grooming slopes after the sun goes down, can climb virtually any mountainside with snow. In recent years, a mini-industry has sprouted near resorts throughout the Rockies, offering skiers single- and multi-day expeditions making fresh tracks on undeveloped slopes near popular resorts. Geared to the expert and advanced-intermediate skier, the daylong trips usually feature about a dozen runs of guided skiing on ungroomed, often untouched mountains.

My trip at Irwin Lodge outside the Crested Butte (Colo.) ski resort last winter was typical. Our group of 16 skiers left before sunrise to make the most of the day and take advantage of a fresh blanket of powder the previous night. After a half-hour noisy, bumpy, sometimes jolting ride to the top of the mountain, guides watched as we carved long arcs down the first half-mile glade of thigh-deep powder. Based on ability, we divided into fast and slow groups.

I spent the morning with the less advanced group, which was held up by frequent spills. After a gourmet lunch inside the rustic hunting lodge, I switched to the expert group and joined in a heart-pounding, adrenaline-charged game of follow the leader. Our guide gathered us at the top of each new slope and gave us a quick set of instructions: Keep to the right of a cliff ahead, jump over a tiny stream down the way, steer carefully through the pines at the bottom. Then, he was off, and it was our duty to keep pace. It was the most exhilarating experience I've had in my 20 years of skiing.

Even so, snow-cat skiing isn't for everyone. Slopes are typically steep, and the snow deep--intimidating conditions for people with limited powder experience. Several on our trip were clearly in over their heads and seemed exhausted after a day spent pulling themselves up from falls--knowing all the time that they were slowing down the group. Still, the guides on most trips are endlessly patient and helpful with instruction.

When you're considering a snow-cat adventure, there are some important factors to take into account. The ratio of clients to guides should never rise above six to one. It's better still if the guides work in pairs: One can lead the way while the partner helps the stragglers. Guides should be professional ski instructors with winter emergency-care certification and should carry snow shovels, first-aid kits, and two-way radios. Also, outfitters should provide all skiers with avalanche beepers.

HEARTY LUNCH. The number of runs varies, depending on length. Expect at least 10 runs and a minimum of 10,000 vertical feet. Skiers spend nearly half the day in the snow cats, so the vehicles should be heated and in good repair. Skiers should make certain their own skills are up to the challenge. Several outfitters offer packages geared toward moderately skilled skiers.

Costs vary, rising higher near the more fashionable resorts. The Monarch Ski Area on Colorado's Continental Divide offers a no-frills, no-lunch package for $110 a day. Aspen Mountain Powder Tours charges $225 for a day excursion that includes an early-morning gondola ride to the cats and a hearty lunch. Wherever you go, reservations can be difficult to get during February and March. Alas, Irwin Lodge closed this year as a result of a dispute with state environmental regulators. I pray that it gets back in business by next ski season: I can hear those powder slopes calling.

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