Seeking Colorado’s Powder: Snowcat to the Rescue

Seeking Colorado’s Powder: Snowcat to the Rescue 1Ping! My eyes spring open at 6:30 a.m. like cash registers on a sale. This is just wrong, I think, downright wrong to wake up 10 minutes before I instructed my alarm to bellow talk radio into the stony quiet of my studio apartment.

I close my eyes and struggle to rightfully reclaim my 10 minutes of winks, but blurry thoughts are already creeping into my head: thoughts of virgin powder snow, high peaks in the San Juans, wide-open meadows and obese floaty boards strapped to my trusty old Langes. Today is a powder day.

I give up on sleep, get up and don my long underwear in the dim light. Outside, the snow is still falling in fat flakes and the branches of the trees visible from my window are stooped with snow. My mind is thrumming with anticipation as my body slowly hops to. My friend Josh, who has inadvertently – and very happily – timed his semiannual visit from Brooklyn to coincide with a monster dump of snow, rustles in his sleeping bag.

He rises and we pack a few last things: granola bars, extra sweaters and sleeping bags to crash in Silverton for the night. Our plan is to leave my home on the north side of Durango at 7 a.m. so we can be among the first on Silverton Mountain’s lift. After pounding the slopes all day, we’ll drink whisky until the wee hours at Silverton’s Pride of the West bar, stay overnight at a cheap motel, and do it all over again on Sunday.

Right on cue, our friends Robin and Carol pull up in Robin’s white pick-up, and his Siberian husky, Thetis, hops from the bed to greet us. She’s a snow dog and wags her tail so hard at the prospect of powder that her butt wags, too. But the expression lurking behind Robin’s bearded, buttoned-up face is serious, as he flicks closed his cell phone.

“The passes are closed,” he says. The four of us stare silently at my icy front stoop for a moment, absorbing the news, then jabber on at once, as if we’re a disorganized SWAT team posted on an emergency mission. We are in a certifiable panic – a powder panic.

Welcome to the world of the San Juan ski bum, a species small in numbers but plenty zealous and thriving to make their presence known in certain hinterlands of the Southwest. In the world of the San Juan ski bum, powder enjoys a God-like reverence and skiing has a set of emotions all its own.

Seeking Colorado’s Powder: Snowcat to the Rescue 2
Grins and excitement were exchanged among the group when they secured the snowcat’s standby seating.

After our bout of powder panic, Robin, Carol, Josh and I loaded up our gear and piled into the truck’s cab and, like blind idiots, headed north toward Silverton anyway, hoping the passes would miraculously open like the gates of heaven when we neared. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t.

Riding the lift at Purgatory in Durango was a possible plan B, but Carol proposed a brilliant, if slightly outlandish, plan C: What about the San Juan Ski Company? Her friend Otto, who drives the operation’s snowcat, had told her that they occasionally take skiers on standby.

We piled out of the truck and walked determinedly to their booth at Durango Mountain Resort’s base area. The man behind the desk happened to be Bob Rule, the owner, and he eyed us suspiciously. He’d probably seen our kind before: a ragtag bunch of wide-eyed, snow-crazed powder hounds. We’re a despicable lot, really, hell-bent on only one thing between November and April.

But he humored our inquiries and pleas as we bargained for standby seats on that day’s snowcat. As if by some divine intervention, there were exactly four seats left and Bob sold them to us at a standby discount, despite how our stinky, duct-taped, moth-ball-eaten layers would clash with his other clients’ respectable ski duds. Like hearing your town’s name on the radio’s list of closed schools on a snow day, it felt like winning the lottery. We flashed grins at each other and suppressed our instant reactions to high-five each other and do our own personal touchdown dances. We bounced out the door to grab our skis and packs from the truck as Bob yelled after us like a parent: “You better be back in 15 minutes, so we can catch the first lift!”

After a brief safety talk from our guides, Marc and Joe, our group headed out the door and strapped on our skis. As on any good powder day, a line had already formed at the lift in anticipation of its opening. I breezed past my friend Lori as we cut to the front of the line. (It pays to pay for cat skiing.).

“Hey, where are you going?” she said, indignantly.

“We’re going cat skiing! We got on standby!” I squeaked, incredulously, as I skated to catch the group.

“Oh, you suck!” she said, with a grin. I grinned back, resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at the lift line and hopped the lift, from the top of which we’d ski to the cat.

The San Juan Ski Company is a little-known find in these parts, where snowcat operations are few and far between in comparison to machine-happy British Columbia. With 35,000 acres of terrain at its disposal and nary a snowmobile or skier, the snowcat has no problem sniffing out fresh tracks. Options range from 12,000-foot peaks to old-growth spruce and fir glades and serene, empty meadows.

On a day like this, with 20 inches of fresh snow, we stick to the treed Cascade Ridge area, what the company calls their storm zone, to avoid avalanches. As we jittered with excitement inside the trolling snowcat, however, it seemed like the skiable terrain was interminable. We had no idea where we were, but really, did it matter?

Seeking Colorado’s Powder: Snowcat to the Rescue 3
Carving new tracks on fresh powder is every ski enthusiast’s nirvana.

Eventually we piled out of the cat like exuberant golden retrievers and clicked on our gear. Marc checked our transceivers as we skimmed down the cat’s track to our start point, where we stood knee-deep in white gold and pondered what lied before us: an even pitch of perfectly spaced glades sparkling with powder. Marc took off first to set the right-hand line.

“Ready, go!” yelled Bob. The four of us tackled the slope and let forth all manner of euphoric yips and yahoos and yows as we floated through the trees in the haze of stormy whiteness. We weaved between the pines, jumped over logs and dipped into gullies in a flurry of powder. All too soon we shot out of the trees and into the snowcat’s track, where Otto, our fearless snowcat driver, awaited. We shook off our skis and exchanged a few residual hoorays while we waited for the group, from whom we had shamelessly pilfered fresh tracks. (Thankfully, they detoured ours and found their own.)

That day, we got about nine runs in – the San Juan Skiing Company promises eight to 12 runs and up to 12,000 feet of vertical, depending on the ability of the group. We schussed through firs and spruces and through wide meadows and tight little drainages along Cave, Camp, Pasture and Sig creeks.

On our final run, we careened through a low-angle meadow, slicing through buttery powder, and then whipped through trees to where the cat would meet us to take us back to the resort. We careened into the cat track, skidded to a stop, and then stood there, breathless, wanting more, but also satisfied with the day’s hoard.

“This is definitely what heaven is, isn’t it?” said Carol, who had spent years as a ski bum at Crested Butte before graduating to the San Juans. “Wide open, untracked fields of powder.” We stood there, contemplating and nodding in agreement.

A stormy haze had started to move into the trees again and silence the white world around us. It was then I realized that we had all attained that ever elusive spiritual state in pursuit of which every San Juan ski bum spends her winters: pure powder nirvana.

If You Go

San Juan Ski Company
1 Skier Place
Durango, Colorado 81301
800-208-1780 or 970-749-8625

*Originally published in the March/April 2007 issue of Inside Outside Southwest