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Backcountry Skiing for Intermediate Skiers
by: Lachlan Brown
Snowcats have made backcountry skiing accessible to intermediate skiers.
Backcountry skiing offers vast expanses of soft, consistent powder snow in remote and spectacular high-mountain settings. Often considered the domain of hardy and self-reliant ski touring enthusiasts, or of proficient and deep-pocketed helicopter skiers, backcountry skiing is now easily accessible to intermediate-level snowcat skiers.
Snowcat skiing is typically much more affordable than helicopter skiing and can be more adaptable to skier ability. Also, it requires no special equipment or backcountry experience. However, good physical fitness is desirable, especially in skiers with little powder snow experience.
Snowcat skiing operators offer full-service tours into remote, high alpine areas. Guests stay in comfortable lodges offering double-occupancy bedrooms with private baths, excellent food, and outdoor hot tubs, complete with bar service. Guests' needs and comfort and safety comes first, both inside the lodge and on the hill. Everyone has a good time.
Western Canada boasts many backcountry lodges, where intermediate and expert skiers alike use snowcats to access the very best of backcountry skiing. One such lodge can be viewed on the Internet at http://www.backcountrywintervacations.com/vertebrae-lodge.html.
Guests ski in groups of 12. Each group has a dedicated snowcat, two highly qualified guides and a driver. Groups can be assembled according to ability, and because the snowcat and guides move at the pleasure of the group, the whole party enjoys terrain and a pace of skiing that best suits them. There is never pressure to maximize the utilization of the equipment. Snowcat skiing is equally enjoyable for experts and strong intermediates alike and for both skiers and snowboarders.
On the hill, the lead guide sets the track and the guests follow, with everyone skiing in fresh, untracked snow. The guide stops periodically to regroup and to give people a chance to rest, to take pictures and to share their experiences. The frequency of stops depends on the ability and strength of the group. Strong groups may ski non-stop to the bottom; 1800 to 2000 ft. of pure joy! Other groups may have a few stops along the way. The guests determine the pace, not the guide.
The lead guide keeps his flock together and sees that no one falls too far behind. The second guide, called the "tailgunner", is always the last person down the hill. If a guest falls or has difficulty, the tailgunner will be at their side to assist.
Snowcat skiing offers a special experience for family groups (children aged 19 & older)*, ladies groups, groups of business associates or groups of friends. In a diverse social group, everyone can feel relaxed and "part of a team". Companions can be enjoyed, not only in the lodge in the evenings, but also on the ski hill. Groups keep together and interact while skiing and, on the ride back up the hill, share jokes and conversation. The snowcat rides allow guests to unbutton, warm up, dry out, enjoy some lunch and to take more pictures.
Many guests arrive in prearranged groups of 12, organized by one of the group members. These groups fill a single snowcat and can be very compatible, with everyone skiing well together.
However, individual guests can be assured of just as good a time as members of pre-arranged social groups. The tour operator will usually try to place individuals in a suitable group and they will quickly make new friends and fit in to a very sociable environment.
Guides are expert in finding "lines" for skiers of differing ability. Better skiers might enjoy some "steeps" or "pop" off bumps while others in the group are guided on a more "mellow" line. Everyone has ample opportunity to challenge themselves.
As the end of the day approaches, and guests may start to tire, they are welcome to sit out a run and ride back down the hill with the snowcat driver. A slower skier may occasionally "sit out" a run to allow the rest of the group to ski a little faster. If a guest wants to "call it a day", a staff member will drive them back to the lodge on a snowmobile. Staff is committed to service and want to make guests as comfortable and relaxed as possible.
Safety is the primary concern in the backcountry. Snowcat skiers are always led by fully trained guides. The guide not only selects safe terrain, but also the safest track through the terrain. When the snow is unstable in the alpine regions, above the tree line, skiing will be restricted to more stable slopes at lower elevations. The first line of defense is prudence and even in periods of high stability, guides will always "play it safe".
"Tree skiing" is a fixture of all backcountry skiing. Snowcat skiers never hesitate due to weather. On stormy days, snowcat skiers just head to the trees, where the snow's best and the visibility is good.
The smooth consistency of the snow and short, fat "powder" skis allow intermediate skiers to master terrain they would not normally attempt. There are no moguls and lumps of snow to contend with. The snow is soft and light and helps control speed. Skiers who rarely "ski the trees" not only find they can do it, but that it's fun! The sense of accomplishment and delight after a first "tree run" is enormous.
Snowcat skiing offers a welcoming, fun-filled and comfortable experience to skiers and snowboarders having a wide range of abilities. It's an experience that's nice to share with friends and family, but single individuals can be assured of enjoying themselves, having wonderful skiing and of making new friends.
Many snowcat operators recommend that skiers be at least "strong intermediates" and some snowcat operators prefer expert skiers only. However, physically fit intermediate skiers of lesser ability can also do well at many snowcat skiing venues, especially if they are part of a specially organized group of 12. Skiers who are unsure of their ability should discuss their concerns with a tour operator, who will be pleased to make recommendations.
*Children younger than 19 may often accompany their parents. However, more mature offspring will better enjoy the other guests and life in the lodge. Guests in their 20's will relate well to many of the staff.