Steamboat Powdercats picked us up at our hotel at 7:30am sharp. This was exactly the time they said they would pick us up, and reflecting back I shouldn't be surprised that they were right on time. Everything this crew does is professional. The van drove us a short five minutes down Rt 40 to the Powdercats headquarters in Steamboat Springs. Here we had a chance to have OJ, coffee, bagels, and muffins while getting to know the others who would join us in our cat.
Each cat holds 12 skiers and three guides. This being our first time backcountry/powder skiing we (my wife and me) opted to do the Intermediate level. After breakfast they handed out avi beacons with a brief introduction as to their function. They explained that the terrain we were skiing was extremely low avalanche risk, but for safety we'd all wear beacons anyways. The last order of business before heading out was to choose right sized ski poles and verify that the skis we'd selected the evening before were in the van taking us to the cats. I chose to ski on K2 Coombas at 181 and my wife was on the same ski at 167. This turned out to be a very bad ski for her, but luckily she was able to change into a different pair after a few runs. More on that later. We all loaded into the van and headed up into the mountains to meet our cats. This was about a 20 minute drive until we saw our cats already running and warmed up for us.
Loading up into the cats for the first time
The guides explained to us that the ride up for our first run would be the longest since we had to gain elevation first. Subsequent rides would indeed be shorter. This is where I'm going to share maybe the one gripe I had with our day. The windows on the cat rattled REALLY badly when the cat was in motion. It was headache inducing loud. It was better when the cat was on softer snow, but it made talking in the cat nearly impossible and somewhat diminished ones ability to enjoy being in the backcountry while reflecting on the previous run. I hope this is something they can address in the future. It's a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, but worth mentioning nonetheless.
After what felt like forever (anticipation to blame) the cat arrived at the top of our first run and deposited its human cargo. It was about 9pm and I'd estimate the temperature was around 20 degrees with a moderate breeze making it feel just slightly chilly. The sky directly above us was gray though we could see blue sky not far off in the distance.
Steamboat resort can be seen off in the distance
Clouds would give way to all bluebirds by noon
Rabbit Ears pass also off in the distance
Our guides for the day were Matt, Mike, and Caroline. Before we headed down our first run they explained to us how they ski in the backcountry. A lead guide would set the trail down the run. Just before though he or she would tell us we should stay left of their tracks, right of their tracks, or 20-30 feet on either side. It was amazing how well they knew the terrain. This instruction would ensure no one ended up hucking a cliff unintentionally. With this last bit of advice, we were off. As would be the case for most of the day, the top 1/3 of our runs was wind affected but the lower two thirds was boot-high chalkly deliciousness. The depth varied anywhere from ankle high on some of the more exposed runs to boot high elsewhere. It felt bottomless everywhere.
Getting instructions from our guide Matt
Me attempting to not apply East coast skiing technique to Western pow
Great scenery all day long
Except for this one runout to the cat under some not so scenic powerlines
The Mrs getting into it, though still on the K2s
Our guide Caroline was on tele
As the morning wore on the clouds gave way to bluebirds and sunscreen was in order for everyone. I'd booked this trip three months prior, and if I had my pick of the weather I would have preferred it were dumping, but my close second choice would have been clear blue Western sky. It had snowed 15" two days prior and been sunny and warm the previous day. Consequently we stayed on North facing aspects for most of the morning until the sun had a chance to soften up the other aspects that had crusted up over night. We skied nine runs before lunch. It's worth a brief diversion here to mention that the food served for lunch was really good. This operation has a small cabin somewhere within the permitted area and serves its guests a hot lunch that for us was soup to start, then steak, potatoes and broccoli for an entree.
Cabin where we had lunch
Inside the cabin. It was an unexpectedly classy lunch
They also had puppies along, not sure my wife wasn't enjoying this even more than the skiing
After lunch we headed back out and went in search of more Southerly facing aspects that were just getting into their prime condition. Perhaps the only other faux pas of the day (rattling cat windows being the other) was when our guide Matt put us on a run about 30-60 minutes too early, according to him. This aspect hadn't quite softened up enough yet and we had a crunchy ride down full of awkward shoulder steered turns down. Though none of us minded at all you could tell Matt took it hard and both apologized and promised our next runs would be better. He wasn't kidding! The next five runs of the day were creamy, bottomless heaven. As mentioned above, my wife was having trouble managing the Coombas she had been given so they switched her into some shorter Armadas with tip/tail rocker. I didn't catch the model of these skis, so if anyone can identify them for us I'd be grateful. She really liked them and it immediately gave her a boost in skiing confidence.
Wife and her Armadas. Can anyone name the exact model?
At one point during an afternoon run I was having so much fun I attempted to catch a little air off a pillow between two pines and landed about two feet in front of a large pile of wind slab. Not being familiar with this terrain feature I wasn't ready at all for the subsequent abrupt stop. My bindings (both) released and I went face first and head over heels about twenty feet down the hill. It was a soft landing and I came up grinning. Thankfully my equipment was easily located and I continued on my way. It was all part of a broader theme for me. Namely, skiing the mountain on her terms, not the manufactured surface the resort's operations crew wants to provide. It's hard to explain, but I certainly felt more connected to my environment.
This isn't me, but a picture of another guy in our group. I assume my crash looked similar
The final run of the day had our group perched at the top of a steeper meadow, tips just hanging out over the edge. With a blanket of virgin untracked in front of us and no sound but our breathing we all instinctively went quiet for a moment and let the serenity of our surroundings implant itself in our mind. One by one we floated down to the cat waiting at the bottom.
Just before one of our last runs
I'm lovin it
It's worth noting that somehow on the last run one of the guests in our group found his way into a tree well. It was scary for a moment hearing the trailing guide radio down that she was fishing him out of a treewell, but they both came down the trail a few minutes later grinning and joking about the experience. Caroline had him put a branch in his helmet strap for comic relief and lighten the situation. Knowing that treewells kill skiers each year we were all reminded how professional the guides are and what a great job Caroline did in rescuing the stricken skier so quickly.
Good for a laugh
After the day of skiing is done they bring you back to their offices in Steamboat Springs for complimentary beers, story telling, and looking at the pictures from the day. It's a great way to wind down and share in the camaraderie of your group before parting ways. All in all, for our first backcountry experience it was a fantastic trip and my wife and I are already planning next year's visit.