At the NASJA meeting in January at Red/Whitewater we had the opportunity to meet with a few of the snowcat/heli operators on our last night in Nelson. I was invited along with Sun Valley photographer Karl Weatherly to ski White Grizzly March 5-8. Karl has been there 4 times before, it's his favorite place to ski anywhere and this time he celebrated his 60th birthday here on March 7. White Grizzly is distinctive for its long, steep and consistent fall lines of 2,500+ vertical, 80+% of it in the trees, thus their bumper sticker "Ski Good or Eat Wood." In general I do better in the more open terrain and I expected to wear down some over the course of 4 days. This fortunately turned out not to be the case due to stellar snow conditions.
Monday March 5
For only the second time I can recall (last year in Niseko) there was perhaps too much snow. It had snowed 50 inches in the prior 80 hours and added another 4 during the day. The rain/snow line was at 3,100 feet and the ski terrain ranges from 7,300 to 4,200. Avalanche danger was extreme so we dropped in usually around 6,500 feet. Pickups were on the higher road through a clearcut around 5,100. They thought the lowest 1,000 vertical would be heavier and hard to slog through until the snow settled.
For safety and to keep moving we were in the steepest and tightest trees, but with that much snow (fairly dense, estimated about 10%) resistance was high and speed not an issue. They were justifiably very safety conscious, warned us about tree wells and showed us a slide that owner Brad Karafil triggered right next to the cat road.
They also tested a cut block after our transceiver drill before we started skiing.
With such long tree runs, White Grizzly always skis with 2 tail guides to better keep track of people, help with falls and lost gear and to keep moving at a good pace. In one case I was near lead guide Shawn when he yelled to stop as he got a radio call from one of the tail guides. I stopped too abruptly, fell over headfirst on my back and the deep snow slid over my face. When I first brushed it away, more more snow replaced it so Shawn had to clear it away before I could get up.
At the bottom of every run the arms and front of my jacket would be caked in snow, which I would brush off as much as I could before getting in the cat. Nonetheless by the end of the day most everyone's clothing was wet or clammy from wet or melting snow in the cat.
With transceiver drills short runs and frequent regrouping under the intense conditions we only skied 7,800 vertical. But we were quite sure how amazing the rest of the trip was going to be.
Tuesday, March 6
The storm let up overnight and we even had a few sunny breaks in the morning. One of the reasons we were there was to see Jean-Francois Racine http://jfracine.com , who paints mountain/ski scenes for White Grizzly. He set up at our first drop point and painted for about 5 hours.
As expected conditions were epic, probably rivaled in my 56 days of cat experience only by Chatter Creek in 2008. The snow was not flying over our heads much as it was denser than 2008 or on the frigid days earlier this year at Mustang, but it was as forgiving as can be for aggressive fall line skiing in the trees. This is the most comfortable I've ever been tree skiing.
Love Triangle buried boulder field
Clear cut around 5,000 feet.
Snow mushroom near cat pickup.
The rest of the group were Canadians in their late 30's with a gung-ho attitude.
One of them lost a ski (brand new Rossi S7), reminiscent of my incident first day at Mustang this year. As in that case a tail guide helped with the search while the rest of us went for another lap, coming in from above to assist with the search. About 5 minutes after we arrived the tail guide found the ski, off to the side rather than above or below as one would expect.
With some delay due to the ski search our 5th run Lover's leap was about 1,000 vertical to a high pickup followed by a full length 6th run Bishop's Prayer finishing about 4:15PM, total 13,800 vertical. Due to sunlight hours Brad said a typical ski day ranges from 5 runs at New Year's to 6 runs mid-February. March under good conditions can be 7 or 8 runs, but our Brad described our group as "above average in ability but below average in organization." With regroups, photo ops, etc. we were doing 6 runs, which at 15K+ is a full day on White Grizzly's terrain and considerably more than the 10-12K at many operations. 8 runs would be 22K, and you would need a very strong and disciplined group to sustain that.
Wednesday March 7
Weather was high overcast all day so the snow settled marginally more compared to Tuesday. but we still had to watch out for tree wells.
Ski conditions remained outstanding and with the settling snow we were allowed into a few open spaces. In general White Grizzly's terrain is forested except for the clearcut, but there are some huge boulder fields, notably North Bowl and Bu Bu Bowl that get buried under 3 meters or more of snow, but in some cases leaving pillow lines or bigger drops for guests who want some air time like several of the Canadians.
I generally prefer to keep my skis in the snow.
We skied 6 runs and 15,500 vertical.
Thursday March 8
Today it got warmer, with sun most of the morning. Panoramic views across the valley to the Purcells and Bugaboos.
This was a good test for snow conditions because I generally like to keep my cat skiing trips in midwinter for good preservation if it hasn't snowed recently. The big sprawling operations like Chatter, Mustang and Baldface with 30,000+ acres have exposures all over the map. White Grizzly has 11,000 acres of tenure but are only using 6,500 of it now because they choose to run only one cat to maintain more personalized service. With one cat it takes 3 weeks to track out the 6,500 acres if there is no new snow, and all of it is on one broad forested face with predominant north east exposure. We took an early run in the Secret Gully/McSteamy's area that faced more directly east. Where sun exposed it became more like smooth cream cheese, fine while we were skiing it but likely less so in the future after an overnight freeze. Most of the skiing was on more north facing terrain under similar conditions to the previous 2 days. If the snow gets too heavy at lower elevation they will use the higher pickup, but you're still getting close to 2,000 vertical per run doing that. We were still going to the low pickup for all 6 runs and 15,400 vertical. Snow was still outstanding in the ~500 vertical clearcut and just starting to get heavier for the final 500 or so below that.
I used White Grizzly's rental skis, which were White Dot Preachers. Interestingly Brad is not a big fan of rockered skis. He thinks short and wide is the way to go in the trees. The Preachers were 155cm at the tip and 115 underfoot but only 169cm. At any rate they worked great for me, but most powder skis would have been fine in these conditions. Karl was on the same Head Jimis that I have but he is a much stronger tree skier than I am.
Brad and Carole Karafil have a somewhat distinctive philosophy in the cat skiing world. They want to provide a hands-on premium level ski experience for a bit less cost than many other places. The going rate for a tour at Mustang, Chatter Creek, Baldface, Island Lake is about $900 per day. Occasionally, as I did in 2010 following the economic crash, you can get in one of those places last minute for a discount.
Brad and Carole have the opposite view, as they would like to reward their repeat customers. The price per day decreases based upon how many days and how far you book in advance. A single day late booking is $800 per day. A trip advanced booked a year ahead for 4 days is $600 per day.
The lodge facility, food etc. are similar in quality to what I've seen at Mustang, Chatter Creek and Baldface, just smaller because there is only one group. The reason cost is lower is because the lodge is in Meadow Creek, accessible and hooked up to BC's power grid rather than in a remote location needing generator power. Furthermore they rent the lodge to work crews during the summer, which helps subsidize the skiing. The disadvantage is that you leave the lodge at 8AM, drive to a staging area, take the cat up 5,000+ feet and start skiing around 9:45AM. You get back to the lodge around 5:30PM. Normally this would mean less skiing, but because of the long runs and strong groups in fact you get more than at most places as noted above. If you're price sensitive, the extra 2 hours per day in transit is a small price to pay for a ski experience equal (and perhaps better for tree skiing aficionados) to the most expensive places.
With regard to experience, White Grizzly is not the place for first timers unless you have experience and comfort in skiing long and steep tree runs. Brad or Carole conduct extensive phone interviews with first timers, warn them they will be sitting out runs if they can't keep up and suggest trying somewhere else first if they are not sure.
Edited by Tony Crocker - 3/31/12 at 10:48pm