As weekend crowds flood the Stevens Pass parking lot on a typical powder day, just a few miles away a single PistenBully 240d snowcat slowly chugs its way up the empty flanks of Windy Mountain.
Inside the snowcat’s tight quarters, 12 passengers are about to tap into what most skiers and snowboarders would call a dream day. Deep snow. No crowds. Quiet turns. Well, except for the noise of the Cummins diesel.
As Washington’s only cat-skiing operation, Cascade Powder Cats was founded in 1996 and moved to Stevens in 2005.
Whenever the snow is good and the avalanche danger manageable, the crew fires up the cat and shuttles a group of skiers and snowboarders for laps on a Weyerhaeuser-owned powder reserve.
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Cat and heli skiing operations have traditionally focused on spoon-feeding epic powder days to clients, but co-owner Ryan Murray says they’ve been trying to take a different approach to the backcountry.
“The big thing we noticed, is when you try to run a large-scale cat operation you actually encourage poor backcountry decision-making amongst clients,” Murray said. For example, sometimes skiers or snowboarders who would normally be more careful get careless because they have a guide to look after them.
Murray was part of a group of investors that purchased the operation for the 2007-08 season. After two recession years, Murray and Cascade Powder Cat lead guide Jay Bright bought out the rest of the owners and made an unusual business decision.
“We had the idea to sell a lot of the equipment and take a ‘less is more’ approach,” said Murray. “You’re never going to get rich working in the ski world, especially as a guide, so we reduced down to one snowcat and said, ‘Let’s just ski when it’s really good.’ ”
Both Murray and Bright work forestry jobs in the summer to subsidize their winters. Before Cascade Powder Cats, Murray held various mountain jobs including self-described “dirtbag ski tuner” at Bridger Bowl in Montana and ski patroller in Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe. Bright was a longtime ski patroller at Crystal Mountain and a guide throughout the Cascades and Sierra Nevada ranges.
Part of Murray and Bright’s redefining of Cascade Powder Cats included an increased focus on backcountry education. With Bright’s more than 20-plus years of patrol and guide experience, they began offering American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level I and Level II courses out of a backcountry yurt they built on Windy Mountain.
While most cat-skiing operations run rain or shine, Murray says they’re picky about which days they’ll ski.
“A lot of operations focus on a higher volume. We just make sure we ski the good days,” he says. “If it’s not going to be a fun day for us to ski, we reschedule.”
A typical winter day starts with Murray checking the weather at 3:30 a.m. If the weather report is positive, he leaves from Leavenworth to meet the other guides and the snowcat operator by 5:30 a.m. With another guide, he’ll head up to the yurt in a snow machine and make observations of the snow pack until the day’s skiers show up around 8:30 a.m. Clients then go through a 45-minute safety briefing and avalanche-transceiver check.
“We’re a long way from care. If someone gets hurt, there is no bump shack with ski patrollers to pull you off the mountain,” he said. “We encourage responsible behavior, and our clients love it. I think they learn a lot and still get an epic day.”
After the safety briefing, clients then get 6½
hours of powder laps on northwest-facing bowls and glades.
“My favorite days are when you get lifelong skiers who are in their 60s or 70s. Just watching their love for the sport makes you want to keep doing it your whole life,” Murray said.
Besides the 12 to 18 single-day cat tours per year, Cascade Powder Cats offers multiday guided tours where skiers use climbing skins and leg power to access the Windy Mountain terrain. In fact, it’s these types of tours that Murray and Bright tend to favor.
“We’re not just a cat-ski operation. We’re more of a backcountry experience,” Murray said. “We like to use cat skiing as the hook.”
John Kinmonth is a Northwest-based freelance snowboarder, writer and editor.