Paradise, UT – It’s nearly dark as I’m shouldering my skis and walking back to my truck, parked at the end of an unplowed private ranch road in the southeastern corner of northern Utah’s agrarian Cache Valley. The smell of diesel still wafts from the rumbling red snowcat that I just disembarked. Horses and deer run through the surrounding fields as I bid farewell to my 15 newest friends, and I drive off into a blinding snowstorm, my headlights struggling to pierce the wall of falling snow that’s intensifying by the minute.
I reach for the dashboard and crank up the heat, smiling to myself as I’m dead tired but nevertheless content after an 11-hour day with Whisper Ridge Cat Skiing. Don’t feel left out if you’ve never heard of them, for you’re hardly alone.
America’s Newest Snowcat Skiing
“New” doesn’t begin to describe Whisper Ridge . Prior to my January ski day the company had hosted one (count ’em, one!) paying group, a menagerie of bartenders and servers from Vail. Whisper Ridge had only taken delivery of their first snowcat five days prior to my arrival, and received their Conditional Use Permit from the county the day before that. While they’re still getting their feet wet, Whisper Ridge’s novelty belies one pretty impressive statistic behind their operation: 30,000 freakin’ acres, all privately owned. To put it in perspective, that’s more land than is occupied by all 14 of Utah’s lift-served ski resorts combined.
“Because our terrain is so large (and will become larger), we have diverse terrain. We can accommodate those looking for big open bowls, heavily wooded to sparsely wooded glades. Low to high angle, short to long runs,” says Whisper Ridge majority owner Dan Lockwood, a hulking bear of a man who also served as our cat driver for the day. Lockwood’s warm smile, however, belies his size, and his affable personality instantly welcomes strangers.
When I asked him why he founded Whisper Ridge, he smiled and pithily responded, “Because I like people.”
I felt like I’d just been answered by a beauty pageant contestant.
Whisper Ridge is headquartered in the offices of Lockwood’s summer business, Pine Ridge Excavation & Landscape, near the bottom of Powder Mountain’s access road in the tiny hamlet of Eden, Utah. Our group met there at 7 a.m., just as light began to glow in the eastern sky across the Ogden Valley. There, everyone who arrived was greeted by partner Doug Scovel and guide Kevin Sheridan, who both introduced guests to each other, too, immediately breaking the ice and creating the foundation for new friendships that would build throughout the day.
One person who wasn’t there, however, was Lockwood. While building a cat road the day before, he nicked a boulder with the corner of the machine’s blade, rupturing a hydraulic hose and damaging a track. Just a few hours earlier, at 3 a.m. he was still welding repairs in his shop.
After receiving beacons and a light breakfast in a bag, we all headed to our respective vehicles for a one-hour convoy to the snowcat. Therein lies one admitted weakness of Whisper Ridge’s first season. From a marketing perspective, a home base smack dab in between Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Nordic Valley is enviable, but the fact of the matter is that although the skiing is only 19 miles away as the crow flies, that crow only flies in summer when the road over Avon Pass is open. Winter drivers must take a circuitous route over the North Ogden Divide to Brigham City, and up over Sardine Canyon to the Cache Valley, before backtracking back southeast to Paradise.
Whisper Ridge, however, is poised to resolve that next winter, although exactly how that will happen has yet to be determined (or at least confirmed). A beautiful log cabin owned by Lockwood’s family sits at the head of the cat road, which could be used as a base of operations or even as an overnight lodge for guests. Lockwood also foresees a heli-ski component for Whisper Ridge, which by next season could also include a helicopter shuttle for cat skiing guests from Eden to the Paradise trailhead. With four to six snowcats, and Whisper Ridge’s permit area reaching across Ant Flats, a second trailhead could also be established on the Monte Cristo Road, half the driving distance from Eden.
All of this sounds grandiose, but don’t write off Lockwood and his partners just yet, for this ain’t their first rodeo. With an undergrad degree in biology and graduate studies in ecology, Lockwood has extensive experience managing ranch lands across North America and beyond. He has also guided hunting and fishing trips literally around the world, and partner Scovel ran a fly fishing guide service in Hawaii. Given their summer excavation and rock quarry business, Lockwood and his partners know their way around heavy equipment like a snowcat with their eyes closed.
“We were looking for a way to make sense out of our family property that adjoins our ski area, as well as provide an opportunity to secure winter work as we are in the construction industry and have significant heavy equipment and operator experience,” Lockwood explains. “Cort (Lockwood’s son, currently pursuing an MBA at Utah State University) is an avid skier and loves the winter sports scene, as do I. I spent years guiding adventure sports and do really enjoy people out to have a good time. Cat skiing seemed to make the most sense to bring some things together.”
Thus far, they’ve put this all together without incurring any debt load, either.
Lockwood and his partners have formed a team that includes professional Snowbasin ski patrollers/EMTs who hold advanced avalanche certification for his cat skiing guides, and thanks to their summer gravel pit his company has clearance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to use explosives to mitigate avalanche risk, a rarity in the cat skiing industry.
And then there’s that whole 30,000-acre thing.
Who wants a snack?
After loading the cat in Paradise, we began our slow 45-minute rumble up Paradise Dry Canyon to the skiing with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blaring over the cat’s sound system. Throughout the ride, guide Kevin Sheridan’s hospitality was irrepressible, repeatedly offering all manner of snacks and beverages — water, granola bars, M&Ms, Snickers, coffee and more.
In between all of Sheridan’s offers we found the time to get to know each other a little bit better. Everyone aboard was from Utah, with Shawn of Salt Lake City ski shop The Sports Den, his wife Mandy and yours truly the most distant guests. Some already knew each other, while most of us didn’t. I wiped the condensation from my window to get a better look at the terrain, which was improving with each foot of elevation as we climbed further and further into the canyon. Juniper and sage brush gradually gave way to firs that studded steep north-facing slopes. The snow pack steadily deepened.
After passing through a gate that left mere inches on the side of each track to squeeze through, we paused for a quick beacon check before heading up to the skiing.
Our ski day was spent in two sectors, the first of which was a terrain pod named POF (formerly “Plenty of Fish”, now renamed “Plenty of Freshies” even though Sheridan refused to divulge the origin of its first name) that ranged in altitude from 7,000 to 7,850 feet. Throughout the morning we’d start each run from the same height of land and work our way around the hill from west-facing aspects to northeast. On each run, Sheridan would lead, while fellow guide Gina Thomason would run sweep and mountain operations manager Tommy Keating would wander off on his own to explore future lines.
Lockwood brought the cat to a halt at the top of POF and dropped the blade as we all climbed out. Sheridan pointed in a general direction, asked that we farm the snow a bit and stopped halfway down. One by one we pushed off in an orderly fashion, something that wouldn’t happen again for the rest of the day.
Despite the westerly aspect, the snow was delightful untracked Utah fluff that billowed up around my legs on every turn. Widely spaced conifers speckled the slope with a perfect intermediate pitch. It was so good, it felt like cheating. Here I was, skiing in a private enclave surrounded by “No Trespassing” signs, and I didn’t even have to work my lungs to get there. I didn’t earn these turns, the cat did. I did my best to keep a governor on the throttle, but it wasn’t easy.
We all regrouped around Sheridan before finishing our run down to the pickup point. It was clear that this first lap was our shakedown cruise, and the guides would relax the tension on our leash for the rest of the day.
We continued to work POF for a total of seven laps, rotating around the mountain face in a clockwise direction until we were headed northeast. Some routes had tighter trees, while others had steeper, more open lines. All were delightfully consistent in their slope angle and snow quality. Sheridan eventually stopped talking about farming snow and would just point in a general direction and let us loose. Runs were now non-stop, and more than once I found myself skiing in front of the guide, a major no-no at some other cat operations.
“You all know where the pickup point is,” he would say. “You can’t go wrong.”
Sheridan and his cohorts stashed a couple of coolers containing our lunch near the cat pickup at the bottom of POF. Although they offered a lunch break, none of us were having any of that. We’d eat on the cat during the ride back up for another run, thank you very much!
After lunch we switched to another, taller terrain pod just west of POF, where we logged another four runs. If anything, these longer runs were even more consistently pitched, and all faced north. Lockwood struggled to get his behemoth up the final steep pitch in the cat road on the first ascent, and he awaited delivery of a winch cat the following week to build the road all the way to the crest of the ridge.
But that didn’t matter, for even these abbreviated runs were the highlight of the day. Each got better, like an orchestra building to a crescendo or a fireworks display working up to the grand finale. Our own grand finale came courtesy of Keating, who by himself slogged through deep snow to set a half-mile long, gradually ascending traverse line so that we could sample one of their favorite runs in this sector even though the cat couldn’t yet make the ridge.
That line was absolutely stellar and well worth the schlep. It can only be better now that Lockwood has finished building the cat road to access its full 1,250 vertical feet. I lost count of the repeated face shots before we all regrouped at the pickup at 5:15 with winds increasing, snowfall picking up and daylight fading as another Wasatch winter storm moved in.
“Bring a smile to their face and a desire in their heart to return”
They may be brand new, and even though they already started with a pretty high baseline the staff at Whisper Ridge is learning more and more about maximizing the experience with each group they host. Lockwood is unequivocal in his goal: “Cort and I are hoping to work together to develop Whisper Ridge to one of the premier cat skiing destinations in North America.”
With a location just north of a town called Eden, and just east of another place called Paradise, how can it not be?
“The terrain will be mind-boggling once they have completed cutting the cat tracks to all of the areas and elevations,” says Jean Kluk, a New Hampshire resident who’s spent the past few ski seasons wintering in Utah. She skied with Whisper Ridge a week ago as part of a women’s trip organized by SheShreds.co. “Dan, the owner and cat driver, is an extremely enthusiastic guy and takes care to ensure his clients all have smiles on their faces. We had fresh tracks for every run, saving some of the best snow and aspects for the final crème de la crème.”
Kluk came away sufficiently impressed that she’s already planning a return visit in March to sample some more of Whisper Ridge’s terrain.
“I would love to see and ski more of the terrain that Dan was pointing out to us but that was not avalanche-safe that day,” she yearns, adding that she felt like the team at Whisper Ridge made her group’s safety their first priority. “All of us gals appreciated the judgement by guide Tommy Keating.”
When conceptualizing Whisper Ridge, Lockwood and his partners looked at several other cat operators in Utah, Colorado and Montana.
“I think the thing that seemed to ring out of all of these experiences was that they were all good operations. Where there was separation was in the quality of the guides, the cats and the distance traveled in a cat. Everyone seemed to enjoy a good cat ride in, and very few enjoy a long cat ride out. Those that ran on public land faced some unwanted competition, and they were smallish or had little terrain to develop.”
With 30,000 acres of private land, Whisper Ridge has no such limitation. In fact, although Sheridan and Keating spent much of this summer exploring their ski terrain, they still have yet to uncover much of their permit area.
“Yes, we will be opening new terrain almost weekly, understanding we will have little of our overall terrain open by year-end,” Lockwood says. “However, we have plans for yurts and first-drop heli, as well as full-blown heliskiing for next season. ”
Lockwood approaches his new business plan with a simple question: “Can you lead a group typically dominated by alphas, can you deliver the goods and help them to relax and enjoy the experience, and most of all send them home satisfied and full of great memories that when recounted, bring a smile to their face and a desire in their heart to return?”
You did, Dan. Trust me, you did.