Story by Kate Robertson
ROSSLAND, BRITISH COLUMBIA — If you’re a passionate powderhound on the prowl for fresh tracks or simply a skier like me looking for a new adventure, consider cat skiing. Originating in the Kootenay Rockies of British Columbia more than a quarter of a century ago, the interior of B.C. is now renowned for it, with 11 cat ski operators in the West Kootenays alone.
Similar to heli-skiing but significantly less costly, cat skiing is a guided backcountry skiing and snowboarding experience. And unlike heli-skiing, you won’t be left grounded and twiddling your thumbs on bad weather days. Small groups are transported via cat road up to the mountain tops on snow cats — large tractor-like vehicles originally used for grooming ski hills. These days, the vehicles are fitted with a tailor-made cabin to carry the guides, equipment, and guests.
I decided to pull on some high-performance ski boots to give this adventure a try with Big Red Cats, an operator located at the base of Red Mountain Ski Resort, five minutes from Rossland, a town close to the U.S. border and about one hour by car from the popular city of Nelson. Unlike most operators who only offer tours for expert skiers, Big Red Cats (BRC) also provide tours for skiers of intermediate ability, like me.
In a period of only 11 years, BRC has grown from the smallest cat operator in the world to the largest. Kieran Gaul, who co-owns the company with his wife, Paula, says, “Little did we know that the area would be one of the most ideal areas for cat skiing in the world. The shape of the mountains turned out to be perfect, with one mellow way up each mountain, but lots of steeps, typically on the east and north aspects.”
BRC has licenses for eight mountains, offering more than 500 runs on 20,000 acres and operates up to four snow cats a day. “The area is big,” Gaul informs. “Even for the guides who are out skiing every day, it takes about two years to ski all the runs.”
A Day of Cat Skiing in B.C.
I arrived at BRC’s office at 7:30 a.m., in time to rent some powder skis. I’ve picked up my boot rentals from Red Mountain Resort. Enthusiastic lead guide, Thomas Fortin, introduces himself, speaking in his charming French accent. “I started skiing at the age of 2 in the French Alps where my family lived. For me and my family, skis were a mode of transportation, to go to school and the store, not a form of recreation.” I realized then I was in good hands.
By 8:30 a.m. my group of 11, plus four guides loaded onto the bus that would drive us 20 minutes up winding Highway 3B to the parking lot where we meet the cat. We put on our avalanche beacons and Fortin gave us a short course on how to use them, along with the probes and shovels, which we carried in a backpack. Although avalanche risk is low, especially for the less steep terrain, which intermediate guests occupy, it’s safety first all the way.
At 9:30 a.m., we were in the cat and bouncing our way to the top of our first descent, where we skied into Raven Bowl. Fortin zoomed off first, to scout out the best run, making it look effortless, but I soon discovered that skiing on that much powder (one metre, 70 centimetre base, with 40 centimetres of fresh powder on top of that) despite its innocent, fluffy appearance, was harder than it looks.
On one of my several falls, I was glad for the help of the ever-patient tail guides who helped me, bogged down in the bottomless powder, to get vertical. With shaken confidence I was up on my skis again, and a guide assured me even expert skiers can be intimidated by the deep snow.
After a few runs my aching quads and wobbly knees eventually had enough. I sat out the last couple of runs and instead rode in the front of the cat. As the driver deftly maneuvered this big contraption, I took in the view: Pristine, middle-of-nowhere wilderness, majestic white peaks and snowy bowls as far as the eye could see. At the summit, trees are covered in rime frost (a term I learned on this trip), a hard white ice caused by wind and low hanging fog.
The last run of the day was at 3:30 p.m. — our group had seven runs total, but expert skiers who are faster, can have up to 10 during the same time frame. On the ride back to the parking lot, we were a group of tired and hungry, but deeply satisfied outdoor enthusiasts, eager to share highlights of our day.
The other guests ranged in age from 13 (yes, really) up to those of us in our 50s. Most of us were Canadian or American, and the woman from Brazil took the “travelled furthest” prize.
According to Gaul, “Cat skiing is really a team sport. With all the guests, guides, and drivers working together, something magical happens out there.”
BRC’s trip reminded me how exhilarating it can be to participate in an intense, adrenaline-filled activity. Pushed out of your comfort zone, such adventurous fun allows for a bonding to happen between participants, as we were forced to trust and depend upon each other as we traversed the hills with thick powder, deep drops and loads of thrills. Indeed, a magical adventure.
MORE ABOUT KOOTENAY ROCKIES
How to Make the Most of Your Cat Skiing Day
Make sure you have a few ski days under your belt in the season, to ensure you have your “ski legs.”
Big Red Cats’ website has good descriptions and sample videos of terrain you can expect for the different levels. Note that some groups are splits, such as intermediate/advanced, which will be more difficult than a strictly intermediate group. Check with BRC that you are in the right group for your skill level.
Tip: Bring along a light-hearted attitude — cat skiing can be a very challenging experience.
Cost: Single-day rates for adults range from $449-$549; three-day rates range from $399-$499 per day. Rates vary by season. See Big Red Cats’ Rates webpage for details and to book.
Getting There: Fly into Spokane in eastern Washington state and drive north for 2.5 hours to Rossland, or fly via Air Canada to Castlegar airport, one hour away.
Where to Stay: Prestige Mountain Resort in Rossland gives you a chance to explore this cool little mountain town. Nightly rates for weekend stays in February start at $180.