Snowcat Tours Make Skiers Purr

Often referred to as “the poor man’s heli-skiing,” snowcat tours are by no means the neglected stepchildren of the backcountry skiing experience. Whether managed by ski areas or operated independently, cat outfits offer powder-hungry snow riders a heli-like backcountry experience—for as little as one-tenth the cost (anywhere from about $100 to $300 per day). Not only are they cheaper, many people find them more enjoyable. Quieter than helicopters, snowcats allow passengers the chance to converse and get acquainted. Cats are all-weather, all-terrain vehicles, so there’s seldom the need to cancel or postpone a trip due to falling snow or gusty winds. Limited vertical in most cat’s domains allows cat fanciers to sample the choicest terrain. With daily knowledge of their permit areas, cat guides can avoid wind-swept ice fields, sun-softened slush, and tracked-out crud that can diminish the heli experience.


For these and other reasons, many ski resorts have begun offering
snowcat skiing to their customers, either directly through resort-operated
tours or through cooperative arrangements with autonomous tour companies.
In many areas, economies of scale enable ski areas to out-compete independent
cat operations on both cost and convenience. But is cat skiing compatible
with any resort? We queried a number of resort managers to find out if cat
skiing makes them purr like their guests, or if it has given them a bad case
of cat-scratch fever.

Ski Cooper began operating snowcat tours in Colorado back in
1987, becoming one of the first such operations in the Rocky Mountains. According
to Joe Fox, the ski area’s president, cat skiing opened up advanced terrain
for skiers who weren’t satisfied with Cooper’s mild, intermediate in-bounds

The cat at Irwin Lodge (photo Chris Duderstadt)
The cat at Irwin
Lodge (photos: Chris Duderstadt)

“We wanted to add advanced skiing to the operation,” said Fox,
whose small, family-owned ski area is but a few miles from industry titans
Vail Resorts and Copper Mountain. “The major advantage is the product mix;
it’s an option for families that come out here with an advanced skier who
wants to go out backcountry skiing while his or her family remains on the
easier trails.”

At Grand Targhee, Wyo., located on the west slope of the Teton
Range, the motivation for initiating snowcat tours in 1989 was to show off
a planned development area; then-owners Mori and Carol Burgmeyer were involved
in a landtrade, and wanted to show people the land adjacent to the main resort.
“But after a year of taking folks over there, the priority became the incredible
powder skiing,” says Susie Barnett-Bushong, the resort’s marketing and communications

Similarly, Deer Valley Resort in Utah utilized snowcat tours
to familiarize its upscale clientele with the Empire Canyon expansion area
adjacent to the resort. After three years, a lift was installed and trails
cut to serve the area, but Deer Valley’s Christa Thompson says that the snowcat
venture was an unqualified success.

“It was really perfect. Having it for three years gave locals
and destination visitors alike something unique to experience,” said Thompson.
“We got a lot of feedback from our guests and they were excited to ski the
area. And since putting in the lifts, we haven’t had any disgruntled former
snowcat skiers. People are very pleased with the new area opening.”

Backcountry skiing’s appeal is so strong, it enables some resorts
to draw clients away from nearby areas. “We’re a day-skiing area, but the
fourth and fifth day skiers in Vail and Summit County may come here for a
snowcat tour, or to ski here,” says Cooper’s Joe Fox. Likewise, Targhee hosts
snow riders from nearby Jackson Hole. But the competitors aren’t grumbling:
most cats have a capacity of 10 to 12 skiers, and seldom do more than two
cats operate in a given permit area. So, the stream of guests is generally
a trickle. Also, neighbors can tout the service, whose appeal is mainly to
upper intermediate and expert skiers, as an amenity available to their guests—without
having to add a snowcat service of their own.

At Mount Crested Butte in southern Colorado, such a relationship
exists between the ski area and Irwin Lodge, a backcountry inn that offers
snowcat tours.

“We don’t have a formal partnership with Irwin Lodge, but we
cross promote with them. It’s something that has enhanced our marketing efforts
because destination skiers come and visit and take a few days off to snowcat
ski with one of the premier snowcat operations in the country. And we get
people who come down from Irwin to visit the resort,” says Gina Kroft, media/special
events director at Mount Crested Butte.

Irwin Lodge, near Crested Butte, Colorado (photo Chris Duderstadt)
Irwin Lodge, near
Crested Butte, Colorado (photo Chris Duderstadt)

According to Kroft, Crested Butte receives a good deal of positive
ink as a result of its association with Irwin; the lodge, she says, is a magnet
for ski and travel writers. “It is one more hook. If a journalist is going
to Irwin, they pass through Crested Butte. So, that really helps both of us."

Adding an enticing and unique guest experience is the number
one reason the resorts we spoke with have gone to backcountry cat tours. For
example, Northstar-at-Tahoe added snowcat skiing at its northern California
resort two years ago. Says Northstar’s Dan Warren, who directs the ski patrol
and oversees the snowcat tour operation, “We wanted to provide something our
competitors didn’t have. We are the only snowcat operation in the Tahoe region
that I am aware of.”

Profit seems to be less of a factor in calculating the worth
of a snowcat business than such things as extending guest services, gaining
publicity, and enhancing marketing muscle. None of the ski areas we queried
said that snowcats add appreciably to revenue streams.

“The revenue is very small as an overall portion of ski resort
revenue,” says Rich Moorhead, vice-president and general manager of Monarch
Ski & Snowboard Area in southern Colorado. “Profit depends on the conditions.
We had a bad snow year last year, so it was difficult. On a bad year, I am
not sure that we even break even.”

Moorhead says that, despite a ski area infrastructure that
includes a repair shop, snowcat mechanics, and a trained ski patrol, there
are additional costs to a snowcat operation that stray outside of the resort’s
normal operations.

“We spend $3,000 to $5,000 in explosive (avalanche) control.
And I bring in people a month before the season starts to do compaction and
work the steep pitches. We have two drivers and someone who manages the snowcat
operation, a head guide, plus two main guides and two part-time guides. And
at 50 gallons of fuel a day, it can be fairly expensive. I think it would
be difficult to do without ski area support,” he concludes.

Ski Cooper’s Joe Fox concurs. “Our snowcat operation has only
broken even—it hasn’t really contributed revenue. There are just too many
costs that have to be charged to it.”

At Grand Targhee, the resort adds to its bottom line by making
their snowcat area available to television and film crews. “We have a third
cat, a film cat, used for doing commercials. The commercial producers love
it—the area is so isolated, they never have to worry about separating models
from the area skiers and boarders,” says Barnett-Bushong.

Clearly, though, the main advantages of snowcat operations
are intangible benefits, such as guest satisfaction and public relations value.
The public, many agree, are clamoring for the backcountry experience. At Cooper,
the entire season of snowcat tours sells out in little more than two hours.
Equipment advances in the form of fat powder skis and the popularity of snowboards,
coupled with lots of attention to backcountry experiences as portrayed in
the skiing and snowboarding press, have emboldened more snowriders to venture
into the wilderness.

“With the new skis, people who never thought they could have
a powder experience are reborn; we offer really fat skis for people with little
powder experience. A supply of fat boards are also kept on the cat, so anyone
can change to them mid-tour,” says Barnett-Bushong.

Other areas rack up equipment rentals back at the base area.
In addition to fat skis, the backcountry riders are often issued avalanche
rescue transceivers. Though the backcountry areas are managed for avalanche
control, just like the resorts themselves, extra precautions are usually taken
to ensure guest safety.

Some of Irwin Lodge's terrain  (photo Chris Duderstadt)
Some of Irwin Lodge’s
terrain (photo Chris Duderstadt)

“The main safety considerations involve keeping people from
getting lost,” says Dan Warren of Northstar-At-Tahoe. “You are skiing through
a forest, basically. And the potential for getting lost is greater than at
the resort. And if the skiing is above your ability, you can’t just traverse
over to a groomed run. But it’s not often we get people who aren’t up to par.”

Warren employs ski patrollers as guides, and has established
evacuation plans in the event of accidents. All snowcat employees go through
a rigorous training program. Guests are equipped with radio transceivers,
and instructed in their use. Such precautions are common among the resorts
that offer backcountry snowcat tours.

Overall, a snowcat operation gives resorts the opportunity
to greatly enhance the guest experience by offering a unique and exciting
alternative to in-bounds skiing on trails. But if a resort is looking for
an additional means of driving revenues, snowcat skiing may not be the answer.
Independent snowcat tour operators generally have to charge two or three times
as much money as the resort operators in order to be profitable. Given the
advantages that resorts offer in terms of trained ski patrol, guides, mechanics,
and repair shops, and conveniences such as guest lodging, rental shops, resort
restaurants, etc., resort-based snowcat operations often prove cheaper and
more desirable to powder-seeking snow riders. And that is making the big cats
a popular attraction at ski areas throughout the country.

This article is reprinted with the permission of the National
Ski Areas Association.

Leave a Reply