Cool Cats

 Colorado snowcats are a passport to powder and more

Photography: Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts

Photography: Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts

When it’s snowing cats and dogs it’s a match made in heaven, so the ski jargon goes. In other words, cat skiing is pure heaven for powder hounds. Originating from the 40s-era Tucker Sno-Cat Corporation in Oregon and adopted as a generic name, fully tracked, enclosed-cab snowcats are backcountry dream machines at a handful of Colorado locations, like these below. Fresh powder in backcountry terrain requires effort, skill and cash, but the payoffs are the best powder skiing possible with experienced operators who help minimize risk. Beyond the gravity factor, many snowcat operators offer other experiences that can entice those who simply appreciate a Rocky Mountain winter.

Beaver Creek Resort: Mountainside culinary treat
It’s a foodie fantasy like none other, with all the makings of a memorable experience that begins and ends with an open-air snowcat-drawn sleigh ride in the Rockies. Indeed, once guests bundle up for the 20-minute scenic ride to Beano’s Cabin, an evening at the snug, log-built getaway unfolds as one of the most novel culinary experiences imaginable. Named for an original homesteader in the valley, this rustic mountainside restaurant is accessible only by snowcat in winter. Beano’s was among the West’s first mountainside fine dining locations when it opened 28 years ago. It reliably serves award-winning five-course menus (or Executive Chef Bill Greenwood’s seven-course blind tasting menu for the adventurous) and boasts an impeccable wine list acknowledged by Wine Spectator. With live string band entertainment, a crackling fireplace, majestic mountain views and sleigh rides, this snowcat experience is a Colorado original. beavercreek.com

Keystone Resort: Backcountry experience in-bounds
From the12,614-foot perch overlooking Independence, Bergman and Erickson bowls, it seems you’ve reached some utterly remote backcountry terrain on the rooftop of the Rockies. Surprise: it’s all within resort boundaries and accessible through Keystone Adventure Tours. KAT, the snowcat skiing program, provides a backcountry experience in-bounds and brings with it the benefit of avalanche mitigation. Far from lift lines, KAT guests are privy to more than 300 acres of powder set among three spectacular high alpine bowls where crossing other tracks is unlikely at best. With KAT’s pro guides leading the charge, the experience is suited to skiers of higher intermediate skills upward. On the bang-for-the-buck scale, the per-person rate ($240) is one of the best and includes Keystone’s shiny new red snowcats, a gourmet yurt lunch and fat powder skis. keystoneresort.com

Keystone Adventure Tours offers a remote snowcat skiing experience among a stunning high alpine setting. Photography: Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts

Keystone Adventure Tours offers a remote snowcat skiing experience among a stunning high alpine setting. Photography: Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts

Nova Guides: Scenic coach tours from historic camp
History, mountain pageantry, the exhilaration of remote winter travel and the comforts of doing it in style all come together during snowcoach tours by Nova Guides. From the lodge base at historic Camp Hale between Red Cliff and Leadville, guests board a spacious 13-seat, heated, fully-enclosed four-track snowcoach designed in part for maximum sightseeing potential. These scenic tours are led by knowledgeable guides who detail how the former Army training facility was used by the famed 10th Mountain Division ski solders during World War II – a major draw for many visitors. The snowcoaches climb as high as 12,500 feet and treat guests to 360-degree views of the Continental Divide, the surrounding White River National Forest and beyond. On-snow lunches and plenty of picture-taking give guests loads of time to savor the winter sights and sounds. novaguides.com

Ski Cooper: Backcountry skiing, epicurean evenings
If you qualify as “expert,” Ski Cooper’s Chicago Ridge Snowcat Tours offers one of Colorado’s most unadulterated backcountry experiences. Consider the math. The full-day tours scout 2,600 acres of untracked open bowls, glades and timber in the San Isabel and White River National Forests; an area roughly the size of Vail’s back bowls. Limited to 12 guests per day, certified guides lead tours from as high as 12,600 feet to incredible powder stashes, and guests can expect 10 to 12 runs, each with 2,000-foot descents in an area seeing 300 inches of snow annually. Another number worth considering is that the program, launched in 1988, is one of the longest continually operating backcountry ski operations in the world. For the ultimate après experience, the Ski & Stay package lets Chicago Ridge guests savor the hearty four-course Tennessee Pass Cookhouse menu and a night in the Sleep Yurts. skicooper.com

Steamboat Powdercats: Tree skiing state’s powder king
You’re a solid skier or rider, but the only “cat” you know is a pet and you lack backcountry powder experience? Steamboat Powdercats is your ticket with their assessment approach matching ability with terrain. Skiers and snowboarders, grouped by Levels I, II and III, embark on backcountry tours accessing 10,000 acres of varied terrain on Buffalo Pass, Colorado’s premier snow king with an annual 500 inches. The combo of the area’s trademark dry “Champagne Powder,” mixed aspen-fir-spruce treed slopes and vertical pitch allows Powdercat-certified guides the ability to search out the best skiing and boarding for group ability levels. Come noon, guests relax in a mid-mountain cabin and enjoy a three-course hot lunch while soaking in the northern Colorado vista. Also, know that newbies won’t suffer buyer’s remorse with the money back guarantee for Level I guests who might freak if it’s too deep and steep. steamboatpowdercats.com

Keystone Adventure Tours takes snowcat skiers and riders to new heights. Photography: Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts

Keystone Adventure Tours takes snowcat skiers and riders to new heights. Photography: Jack Affleck, Vail Resorts

Vail Powder Guides: Big days in big terrain
Owner-operators Ben and Jenna Bartosz put a name and face on this small backcountry cat skiing operation that debuted in 2007 and maintains among the best safety records in the country. Based in Leadville, the Bartosz’s combined 32 years of local guiding experience usher guests into a special permit area of White River National Forest that plumbs 3,500 acres of every terrain possible. Guests with solid intermediate to advanced snow skills will ski and ride open bowls, low-angle tree glades, steep tree runs and open runs smothered by 400 inches of snow per season. On better days, guests can rack up 12 to 14 powder runs averaging 1,200 feet of vertical. Since drop-offs are above timberline at 12,000 feet, spectacular 360-degree panoramas come with the price tag, as do tasty hot lunches served in a backcountry yurt. vailpowderguides.com

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