Cat Skiing, for those not in the know, does not involve cats actually skiing (although they would be adorable). Instead, it refers to a snow-cat, also known as a snow grader, customized to operate as your own private ski chair. Cat Skiing, therefore, refers to the unadulterated bucket list experience of riding a snow groomer to the top of a mountain, and then skiing down on virgin powder. There are no line-ups, lift operators with Australian accents, or annoying kids screaming up behind you. What you do get is unlimited fresh tracks, unbelievable scenery, hoot-hollering glades, wide alpine bowls and the pinnacle of what snow sport can offer. It’s been a week, and my head is still stuck in the mountains outside of Smithers, BC.
Welcome to Skeena Cat Skiing, a family-run operation with access to over 30,000 hectares of immaculate ski adventure. To get there, I’d fly to Smithers and hop on board a helicopter for a half hour, ridiculously scenic ride to base camp, crossing mountains, valleys, and an army of hibernating bears. Any day you get to ride a helicopter is a very good day indeed. Base camp consists of heated tents buried in snow save for your front door, giving the impression that I’d landed on a different planet. The lodge is a large tent with a mud room, dining room, lounge, wood stove and kitchen. More importantly, it has an excellent bar well-stocked with fine craft beer from the Smithers Brewing Company. My companions this week include an Olympic skier, a doctor from Seattle, some top-flight ski journalists, a bear-dog, and the legendary Feet Banks, editor of Mountain Life, and a guy who sabered champagne while showing me around Whistler for this fun little video vignette. I’m still learning to ski, and this is not the place to learn to ski, so I donned my old snowboard – with which I’m marginally proficient – cursing that I should have learned to ski earlier.
Safety is an important factor of backcountry anything. Our guide Bruno (I already put the Encanto joke in my Canadian Geographic column about Cat Ski vs Heli Ski) gave us a solid schooling in avalanche safety and rescue, equipping us with walkie-talkies, air-bags, shovels, beacons and poles, and more importantly, teaching us how to use them. Ullr, the Norse God of Skiing, had gifted us a bluebird – fresh snow under clear blue skies. These are rare days and signal good things to come. We loaded up in a Piston Bully grader with a customized 14-seated cabin on the back, and proceeded to climb high along the ridge of an adjacent mountain. At no point did I mention it had been years since I’d attempted anything like this, although my companions might have figured it out when I launched on my first run and instantly buried myself neck high in snow. It takes a little time to get one’s powder legs, adjusting the stance to put weight on the back. Not too much time though, because moments later I was flying down a bowl, streaking into a slalom of trees and then funnelling into a waiting gully. No tracked ice, no crowds…just pure mountain bliss. I find everyone already at the bottom with stretched smiles because even ski veterans can appreciate just how incredible this experience is.
We would hit about 15 runs each day, descending some 15,000 vertical feet, exploring various mountains, bowls and glades. Every run kicks off on a ridge with incredible views, the cat often depositing us close to spectacular and unnerving cornices. Each run concludes in a valley where the snowcat can join us with its rolling tank treads. The ascent gives us time to discuss the runs, grab a snack, and debate the finer points of 80s hip-hop music. When my binding snaps, one of the three friendly guides loans me his sushi board (the rear resembles a fish tail) giving me extra control and confidence. Now I’m coming down the mountain carving streaks of powder like someone you’d see in a ski video, and let me assure you, I’m definitely not someone you’d ever see in a ski video.
Meals at the lodge are outstanding, and unlike the ritzy heli-lodges, it’s a homely, family affair. The bear-dog basically owns the place. My favourite run concludes a short walk from the lodge, and reader, blazing new tracks while piloting that sushi board over undulating hills is as fine a moment of snow joy I’ve ever had. It’s going to be very hard to return to my local ski hill, or any ski hill for that matter. This is the summit from which you will have to view all future ski vacations.
Skeena Cat Skiing is a destination for people who love skiing, pure and simple. Unlike heli-skiing, which can be impacted by poor weather, these cats are always running, and the snow comes thick. Unlike the go-go-go of heli-skiing, cat skiing has a more relaxed and social pace. And unlike heli-skiing, cat skiing is less expensive, putting it in reach of ski enthusiasts chasing that extra special tick on The Great Canadian Bucket List.