Imagine eight hours of skiing untracked, fresh powder with no lift lines and only a small group of fellow powder fanatics along with you on this ride. Snap your fingers because there’s no need to let this dream live only in your imagination. There are acres and acres of easily accessible – guide included – backcountry skiing available to you, within a short drive from these world-class resorts.
Even on paltry snow years, backcountry tour guides know where to find stashes of powder, which are inevitably accompanied by long ski runs, burning legs and hoots of excitement. Let’s be clear, area skiing is awesome. But there is something special about riding a few miles out in a snowcat, far from those angling in on lift lines and straight-lining down the slopes.
“It’s all about powder skiing. We don’t like dilly dallying for sure. We let people find their mojo, then they really start turning and burning,” says Jen Bartosz, who co-owns Vail Powder Guides with her husband Ben.
The Bartoszes have 35 combined years in the cat-ski business and have owned Vail Powder Guides since 2006. As you talk to them, you sense they are a team – living their dream with their dream job, which is just what you want when you’re far from a developed ski area. They talk extensively about safety, ability levels, athleticism versus ability, and what to expect from the day way before the first turn is made.
Craig Stuller, director of operations at Chicago Ridge, which operates out of Ski Cooper on top of the world, agrees. Guests need to know what to expect from the day before going out into untracked, pristine powder.
“It’s very much a dynamic operation. We have to figure out how to manage the terrain, how to manage the group because of the varying skill levels. It’s amazing how well it works, it’s such a tilted house of cards but we pull it off,” says Stuller.
The companies pull it off, indeed, thanks to passionate individuals who know the terrain, know how to guide the skiers and generally have years of experience. It’s a bit of a (snow) dance, really.
The guides find out what the group expects from the day and then they work together to deliver the goods. “I have seen bad skiers have a great time in bad snow. Good skiers have a bad time in good snow. We try not to make presumptions on people’s behalf, we lay the facts out as we see them and have very experienced group, with knowledge of backcountry terrain. I can’t say enough about people who we work with,” adds Stuller.
The guides set the pace for the day, give advice on where the skiers and riders should go, which tracks to follow to make sure the group has the best possible experience.
The backcountry operators agree that skiers need to be intermediate to advanced skiers. They assess skill level on the phone when booking the trip. Vail Powder Guides operates out of the White River National Forest on top of Vail Pass, where they have access to 3500 acres of skiable, powder terrain. Chicago Ridge is behind Ski Cooper on the Continental Divide and has access to White River and San Isabel National Forests.
“If you were to come ski with us, we have an extensive conversation on the phone first, gauging what their ski level is and how hearty you are, emphasize a positive attitude and athleticism versus a true ability those two things go a long way,” Jen says.
John DiToro, a longtime client of Vail Powder Guides and skiing aficionado, has taken hele-skiing trips in Brittish Columbia, hails from Vermont and firmly believes he’s had a better time cat skiing here than any of those other experiences.
Skiers and Boarders Beware
Warning! If you try backcountry cat skiing once, more than likely you are going to want to try it again. And again. And again. The Bartoszes and Stuller have come to know their clients well. Some book for an entire week, some come multiple times throughout the winter and others fit it in throughout the season. It can be a group experience – up to 12 can ride in the snowcat – or one or two can book. Regardless, it’s going to be a special experience.
“We rarely have unhappy people at the end of the day,” Stuller says. “We try to be the highlight of anyone’s ski vacation. We have dedicated people who come up year after year or come up four or five times a year.”
Not only is it a highlight, though, it’s a day of guaranteed happy exhaustion. “A typical day is 8 to 12 runs. If you’re not whipped at end of day, we didn’t do our job,” Stuller adds.
Ben agrees. “Standing around is one of the least favorite activities. We do six to eight runs before lunch,” Ben says. “We ski late into the day. After lunch we do anywhere from two to four runs. We return with almost 100-percent guest satisfaction.” Guests have been known nodded off on the cat drive back – something Ben and Jen love to see.
Part of the fun – besides the powder, the fresh runs, the delicious lunches served in the yurt and the overall backcountry experience of course – is going out with a group.
“It goes back to really taking the time to build cohesive groups, sometimes it’s a fair mix of people from all over the world. One of the great things about it is that it’s easy for everyone to have enjoyable time and meet some other interesting folks,” Ben says. “The skiing is great but for us it’s the amazing people we get to ski and ride with.”
The guides not only gauge the experience level of the group, they tour the group around, finding the powder, creating fresh tracks, which is good for the group today as well the one that comes out tomorrow. Last winter, when snow conditions were less than fabulous, the backcountry tour operators were still able to find the powder and to get first tracks.
Trips will be canceled, though, if the conditions aren’t worthy or if it’s unsafe. Sure, it might be disappointing, but not nearly as sad if you were to show up ready for freshies only to find rocks and poor snow.
“We guarantee fresh tracks, powder, fresh snow. But if we don’t have it, we don’t run the trip,” says Jen. “It used to be that you booked a trip, and you are going, we never participate in that. It hurts.”
DiToro has been on both sides of the cancellation policy. “The thing I believe that is unique is that they are committed to not take you out unless they think it’s going to be a very good powder day. [I’ve had trips] cancelled because they didn’t think the snow would be up to their standards. Ben and Jen are very conscious about that,” DiToro says with respect in his voice.
Not all tips are created equally, though. Skiing isn’t always on the forefront of a client’s mind. Last year long-time Vail local and ripping skier Jen Mason was part of a group who had an amazing late-season ski day with Chicago Ridge. Amongst laughter and chatter, the guides deftly set up a winter wonderland scene for a marriage proposal that got everybody teary eyed. The guides videoed the entire thing.
All in a day’s work. “It’s definitely a great job. When we’re out there, we are loving life for sure. A bad day at our office is nothing to cry about,” Jen sums it up.
The fine print:
It’s not all about skiing or snowboarding, you know. The outfitters provide pretty close to a gourmet lunch served in a yurt. Best yet, there’s no calorie counting after hard skiing for four or five hours. Adventures start around 9 and end about 4. The companies provide you powder skis – fatty skis to help you float through the powder. It’s fun to try new equipment, but, Stuller recommends you tote along your tried-and-true skis as well. You don’t want to be out on an bluebird powder day and regret not having your favorite gear with you. Finally, keep a good attitude – you’re out there to have fun, darn it!