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NY Times, B.C. CatSkiing

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 
November 14, 2004


Rumbling Up to the Power Runs


OMETHING had gone very wrong. It was in the voice of the clerk when I arrived late at the hotel, and in the way a guest leaned over the front desk, conspiratorially, to listen to her. I caught the word "avalanche." I heard the words "just finished skiing a run" and "still haven't found him." Then I heard the name of the company that, for the next three days, was to take me Sno-Cat skiing outside of Nelson, British Columbia.

I sat in the hotel dining room, alone, feeling a widening pit in my gut that until a few minutes previous had only been hunger.

Commercialized outdoor recreation is booming in British Columbia, and Sno-Cat skiing is no exception. Twenty-three Sno-Cat companies now have permission to use the tank-treaded, slope-crawling machines to transport skiers to the province's backcountry ridgelines, a 50 percent increase in just over three years. Several more companies are also seeking approval. That's precisely what the government wants to see. After election victory of his Liberal Party in 2001, the provincial premier, Gordon Campbell, challenged the tourism industry to double revenues as a way to reduce the province's reliance on unstable industries like logging and mining. The government pledged to do its part by processing the applications of outfitters in just 140 days; in the past the process took at two years or longer. Critics have expressed fears that the expedited process gives short shrift to environmental concerns and may allow unsafe companies to open up shop.

Even as competition increases, British Columbia's Sno-Cat skiing industry seems to be finding plenty of customers. More skiers are weary of jockeying for untouched snow at expensive resorts yet want a midpriced alternative to heli-skiing. A week of Sno-Cat skiing in wild country away from lift lines costs about half the price of a $5,000 heli-skiing week. And Sno-Cats, unlike choppers, are rarely idled by heavy weather.

I signed on in February for three days of guided Sno-Cat skiing with Valhalla Powdercats, a company that is entering its third season. It is one of at least seven Sno-Cat operators within a 90-minute drive of the town of Nelson, in southeast British Columbia. As I packed my bags for Nelson it began to snow, and four feet fell in about one week. Only on my arrival did I hear that the day before, a huge avalanche had slammed into a Valhalla group that had just finished skiing a run. A San Francisco man died. The company shut its doors for several days.

Shaken, but not wanting to turn tail, I called and filled a last-minute opening at Baldface Lodge. Another Nelson-based outfit, Baldface is one of a few Sno-Cat skiing companies in the province that run multiday trips out of their own remote mountain lodges that can be reached in winter only by helicopter ferry or snowmobile. Baldface also has an impressive cadre of ski guides led by John Buffery, an internationally known avalanche-safety teacher.

As the helicopter rose from Nelson into the folds of blue mountains, its windows revealed slope after open slope where avalanches had ripped out and run toward the valley floor. I knew our guides wouldn't place us near such suspect terrain. But when you're on edge, every fact that the senses sponge up acquires new menace. That night I picked distractedly at an avalanche-safety handbook I had bought, but I couldn't concentrate. On the lodge's stereo, Stevie Ray Vaughn was singing "Couldn't Stand the Weather."

The next morning we strapped on avalanche transceivers and listened as our lead guide, Ramin Sherkat, lectured on Sno-Cat skiing's do's and don'ts. Mostly, they were don'ts: Don't ski until told. Don't lose sight of your assigned partner. Don't stray from where the guide tells you to ski. We practiced using our transceivers, which send out signals that allow other users to locate a buried comrade. Ramin's lecture, and the beacon practice, seemed particularly urgent and thorough after what had just happened a few mountains away. Though mellow, Ramin also knew he had to prove himself as the group's alpha male: when their blood is running high, powderhounds are anarchists. Unless well schooled, they are deaf to orders.

"I've been backcountry skiing for 20 years and I've never had to dig someone out, and I don't plan to today," he concluded, somewhere between a drill-sergeant's command and a reassurance.

Baldface Lodge sits at 6,700 feet in the southern Selkirk Mountains, placed among whaleback ridges gentle enough for Sno-Cats to climb yet with steep flanks bearded with hemlock and fir. The other Sno-Cat with its load of 12 skiers went its way for the day, and ours soon disgorged us on a ridge crest above the lodge and departed, leaving us to gape at the sights along the horizon: Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, the Purcell Mountains and Valhalla Provincial Park. A whoop went up. Ramin smiled, a magnanimous dictator. One by one, we left the view to chase him down a mellow run called BB Bowl.

The higher open bowls above timberline tantalized, but Ramin kept us away from the places where tall timber did not anchor the restless snowpack. It was small sacrifice: I have skied with five Sno-Cat skiing companies, and the tilted forests of the southern Selkirks serve up the steepest and best tree skiing I've done. We dodged through glades of hemlocks tinseled with moss. Some seemed to shift and materialize without warning at the tail end of a swooping turn. Others occasionally drew one of us, head first, into the suffocating tree wells that form in deep snow around their trunks (hence the need to ski with a partner). On each run, both Ramin and our "tail gunner" guide skied with a pack containing shovels and avalanche probes, as did one other member of our group. Baldface was not a vacation aimed at "gapers," as some skiers term anyone who is hesitant or fumbling.

Words fail when you try to describe how it feels to make clean, fast turns down a steep mountainside in snow that bow-breaks at your knees. My fellow skiers were no help; after each run they were all happy expletives and wide grins. It made me think of Hemingway's taciturn characters in the story "Cross Country Snow": "There's nothing really can touch skiing, is there?" Nick said. "The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run."

"Huh," said George. "It's too swell to talk about."

Some novice Sno-Cat skiers, however, are a little disappointed until they settle into the experience. Runs are often brief, usually less than 2,000 vertical feet. (Drop much lower and the return trip uphill, in a Sno-Cat that moves at 9 miles an hour, could take all day.) A typical day Sno-Cat includes only about nine runs and 12,000 feet of skiing, which a hard-charging skier can post before lunch at Vail.

Then there's the transportation. Sitting in a cab bolted to a Sno-Cat's back as the machine growls and lurches uphill on roads of packed snow can make for a rough ride. Sometimes, when the vehicle is jostling and the windows are fogged and you lose the horizon and a whiff of diesel exhaust finds your nostrils, you feel that your breakfast may make a return appearance. On my first Sno-Cat trip several years ago, before I learned to stake out a window seat, I took Dramamine.

Now, I almost look forward to the rides uphill. The cab of a Sno-Cat is a movable barstool. Crammed shoulder-to-shoulder for up to a half-hour at a time, skiers bond quickly. Stories are swapped. Blue jokes ricochet around the cab. (Sno-Cat skiing, like heli-skiing, seems to attract more men than women.)

At about 3:30 p.m. the Sno-Cat dropped us off on a ridgeline for a brief ski back down to Baldface's handsome timber-framed lodge. If our Sno-Cats were the satellite hangouts, the lodge, a three-story great room with a soapstone stove, was the communal clubhouse. We ate well at big tables in the honeyed glow of the larch center beams. Afterward, some repaired to the outdoor hot tub. Some found a leather couch and a book. Some found the bar. For a dehydrated skier who was coming from sea level, the 5 percent beer on tap from the Nelson Brewing Company lost nothing in the exchange rate.

Medicated with Advil or Scotch, we rarely lasted late, or cared what our bedrooms looked like. This was good. Baldface's owners expect to expand the lodge and build 23 permanent rooms by the winter of 2005-6. Until then, the sleeping quarters are spare rooms within heated trailers, placed side by side and connected by a frosty hallway. Padding through the set of "Ice Station Zebra" at 2 a.m., clad only in boxer shorts, is a rude way to reach the bathroom.

The days blurred together. Each morning we awoke early, downed a big breakfast, loaded into the Sno-Cat, piled out like paratroops on ridge tops for bouncing rides down runs with names like Cheeky Monkey and the Tao of Pow. Each afternoon we returned to the lodge's hot soup and warm fire. The sign-up list for massages began to fill.

Departure day was a parting gift. The dropcloth of clouds that had settled over our trip's middle days lifted. Morning sun slanted through the old-growth trees like cathedral light from high windows, and lighted up the new hoarfrost. The air was spearmint. The snow had continued to stabilize, and our guides smiled and pointed us down an untouched run called Cold Mushi. From the bottom we watched the young snowboarders in our group free-fall from the 20-foot cliffs. We cheered when they landed well, and louder when they didn't.

Ramin only smiled when we asked to do it again. He took us to another ridge and told us that we'd been good clients, and had listened well. "Now you've got your reward."

The run, Confirmation, had not been skied since the big snow. A steep rib, perhaps 45 degrees in spots, cascaded from the ridge's backbone, furred with hemlock and lumpy with rollovers and drop-offs. Soon we were all roaring down, trailing hoots and looking our best of the week.

At the bottom almost all of us were slapping hands, saying lots of things, as they climbed inside for another ride skyward. For once, I didn't join in. It was too swell to talk about.

Visitor Information

Nelson, British Columbia, sits on the edge of Kootenay Lake in the lap of the Selkirk Mountains.

With a population of 9,300, Nelson is the Berkeley of the Kootenays - a thriving little town with a countercultural atmosphere, peopled by graying American draft resisters, students who attend local schools of art and Asian medicine and young mountain-loving athletes. The only businesses that outnumber the head shops and hemp clothing boutiques are outdoor gear stores.

Getting There

Skiers from the United States who don't drive to Nelson frequently fly into Spokane, Wash., which is served by several major airlines, and then rent a car for the 145-mile drive north across the Canadian border. Air Canada flies into Castlegar, British Columbia, about 25 miles from Nelson, but local people refer to the airport (thanks to frequent bad weather) as "Cancelgard"; plan on arriving a day early to avoid complications. Round-trip fare from Vancouver is $213, at $1.23 (Canadian) to the United States dollar.

Debbie's Shuttle, (250) 229-5374, (208) 651-0922, www.debbiesshuttle.com, runs a van service from the Spokane airport daily during the winder, with Nelson round trip $125.


The Heritage Inn, 422 Vernon Street, (877) 568-0888, www.heritageinn.org, is housed in a 106-year-old building, complete with 43 Victorian-style rooms and creaky, Victorian-era stairs. Located downtown, the hotel also has several restaurants and bars, so it can be noisy on weekends. Rates for a double room with full breakfast begin at $64.

The Dancing Bear Inn, 171 Baker Street, (877) 352-7573, www.dancingbearinn.com, is a handsome hostel that accommodates 43 people in shared, private and family rooms, and a cozy central room with a fireplace. Rates begin at $16.25 a night for shared rooms that accommodate six or eight people, and $37 for private double rooms.


For good espresso, and a taste of the Nelson vibe, head to Oso Negro, (877) 232-6489, 522 Victoria Street.

Many locals dine at Rice, 301 Baker Street, (250) 352-0933, which offers a combination of cuisines from sushi to tapas, frequently using local and organic ingredients.

Dinner at the All Seasons Café, 620 Herridge Lane, (250) 352-0101, is one of the best meals between Vancouver and Banff, and the menu features items like cornmeal-crusted tofu. Entrees $14.50 to $26.


Baldface Lodge, (250) 352-0006, www.baldface.net, offers three- and four-day Sno-Cat skiing trips in the mountains above Nelson. Packages begin at $366 a day plus tax, and include accommodation, meals, safety equipment, ski rentals and ski guides. A round-trip helicopter flight to the backcountry lodge costs $122. Ski season usually is mid-December until early April.

Another Nelson-based outfit, Snowwater Heli-Skiing, (866) 722-7669, www.snoh2o.com, offers multiday Sno-Cat skiing packages with accommodation at the company's backcountry timber-frame lodge. The trip rate is $366 a day.

It's worth making time to ski at the Whitewater Winter Resort, (800) 666-9420, www.skiwhitewater.com, a small but steep ski hill, with a vertical drop of only 1,300 feet, about 10 miles outside of Nelson that gets lots of snow. A lift pass is $34.

Guided snowmobile trips and backcountry skiing can also be arranged. For information about activities: Nelson Visitor Info Center, www.DiscoverNelson.com, (877) 663-5706.
post #2 of 9

Nelson cats

Anyone skied with one of the Nelson cat operations?
post #3 of 9
I'm headed to Nelson tomorrow and have 3-days booked with Valhalla Powdercats. I'll report when I get back.
post #4 of 9
Thread Starter 

baldface mountain

kinda odd, sorta.

about three weeks ago i found like an orphan on the sidewalk a just-like-new BALDFACE MOUNTAIN CAT SKIING (out of nelson) t-shirt. not sure whether or not it means anything but it fits and is a dang handsome forest green.

post #5 of 9
Bummer crank, you should have been here last week before the temps went through the cieling. The avalanche hazard is rated as extreme right now. If possible I'd consider potponing a week or two until this cycle runs it course.

Valhalla has some smoking terrain & great owners.
Baldface has good terrain and the owners are dicks.
Snowwater has limited terrain and the owner is a possibly scitsophenic (sp).

I've skied all the terrain at one time or another prior to cat ops in the area and would say that for terrain I'd choose valhalla.
post #6 of 9


Thanks for the advise, I'm going to do at least a day with them. What about Retallack?
post #7 of 9
It has been almomst 20 years since I last skied that terrain but as I recall there is some really nice terrain but much of it tends to be avalanche prone. From what I've heard they are not getting as much snow as Valhalla this year.
post #8 of 9

and lifts?

What about lift-served in the area? Red vs. Whitewater?
post #9 of 9
Red has bigger vert 5 times the amount of terrain. Whitewater has better snow - gets about 45 ft to Red's 30 -35 ft of snowfall per year. I like Red Better because you can ski there a lifetime and still be challenged and interested
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