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Friday, November 18, 2005

Organize a Cat Skiing Trip, Ski at a Discount"Robin's Adventures In Camping Equipment"

by: Lachlan Brown

What’s better than backcountry powder shared with a couple of good friends? What beats chasing your buddies through the trees, sharing great lines on open slopes and watching your mates “pop” off bumps into the “pow”? Now, if that though brings a smile, broaden the picture to include 12 good friends. Think about a day of great powder shared with the 12 people you most like to ski or ride with. Then expand that thought to three or four days in succession. Oh, yes, and throw in some uphill tranportation that gives you 12 to 15 great runs a day.

If it seems like a wild dream, it’s not. Snowcat skiers are doing it every year.

Assemble your own group to share a snowcat and two guides and to control the pace of each day’s skiing. The cat rides back up the mountain become almost as much fun as the runs down, filled with the old lies and jokes and stories that you all enjoy sharing. Evenings in the bar at the lodge playing pool or darts for “shots” or soaking in the hot tub just continue the fun of the day. Our "Favorite Chatter Creek Photos" (http://favorite-chatter-creek-photos.blogspot.com). were taken by some old friends who go cat skiing together every year.

Many cat skiing operators in BC encourage groups. At least two operators offer no particular incentive to group leaders, but point out the advantage to having companions that know one another and are all compatible skiers and riders. However, at least three BC operators provide group organizers a free seat and one operator offers two free seats (take 12 people, pay for 10). Other operators offer a discount ranging from $1200 per day, to $1500 for a 4-day tour. Typically, it’s all or nothing and the group size must be 12 to qualify for a discount. As nice as it is to get a great discount, Group Organizers shopping for a cat skiing tour should think about group discounts last, after making a short list of operators having terrain and skiing conditions that best suits their group’s needs.

Organizing a group is no cakewalk. The group organizer is the sole point of contact with the company. He or she collects and accounts for all funds, makes lump payments on behalf of the group, distributes company literature, collects client information and submits it to the company. Above all, the organizer ensures that group members understand the tour dates, transportation arrangements, meeting times and special conditions like baggage restrictions or clothing needed for the trip in to a remote lodge.

The real effort goes into filling the group with compatible skiers. A sign-up list circulated at the end of each tour always generates lots of interest in the following year. Everyone’s ready to be back next year; same time, same place, same group. Fantastic! However, things change a bit in the following weeks, when the deposit becomes due. People return home and remember (or are reminded of) family vacation promises, visiting relatives, budgetary constraints and other priorities. Then it’s “scramble time” for the Group Leader. The deposit is due shortly and the group is not full. Some Group Leaders end up subsidizing the group deposit.

Finally, the organizer handles last minute changes. People get sick or have emergencies or “things” happen at work and substitutes have to be arranged. Snowstorms can force last-minute changes to travel plans, requiring telephone calls to the entire group, as described in the article, “Getting to Chatter Creek: Go Early and Get there“ (http://backcountrywintervacations.com/getting-to-chatter-creek.html)

You may have known your buddies for years, but you don’t really understand them until you try to organize their ski trip. As one cat ski operator noted, “It’s like herding cats”. One or two email messages is not enough to convey critical dates and other information. There is always that benighted soul who forgets or is confused or looses forms or is always late with payments. Experience teaches the value of a standby list of people happy to step in and replace “foot-draggers”. That usually focuses the attention!

Regular reminders and specific confirmation is needed to ensure that people really do understand what they need to know, and that critical dates and times really have been recorded in next year’s calendar, and not this year’s. If the meeting point is in a different time zone, alarm bells have to be rung regularly, or people will forget the time shift, or get it backward. People need reminding that there is a day of travel before and after the dates of the tour. If tour members are married, it’s a good idea to ensure their wives know “the drill”.

Different organizers handle their discount in different ways. Merle McKnight, manager of Chatter Creek, in Golden recommends, “Put it in your pocket, you’ve earned it!” Many organizers do just that. Others share the discount with the group members, giving everyone a small discount. One organizer rents a bus to take his group from Calgary to Golden, where his cat skiing tour starts. That tour really starts and ends in Calgary and everything in between is a blur.

In the end, whatever frustration a group organizer may bear falls right away on that first run of the annual tour, as one’s mates charge down the hill, with whoops and hollers and powder snow flying. The grins on their faces make it all worth while!

Having written so much about organizing groups, I should add that, over the years, I’ve had a number trips with two or three friends, sharing a snowcat with strangers. Without exception, these trips have been wonderful experiences. I’ve made new friends and have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Even though I am an experienced skier, I have rarely felt held back by weaker skiers. Well, perhaps just once. Snowcat skiing is so “laid back” and relaxed and guides are so skilled, that a range in ability within a group can “work” very well. Most snowcat skiing operators encourage just strong intermediate and expert skiers, so “slower” skiers are rarely far behind. More often than not, they end up waiting while the hotshots “scope out” special challenges; cliffs, bumps and the like.

If you don’t really know what cat skiing is, check out Cat Skiing Articles at http://cat-skiing-articles.blogspot.com/.

About The Author


Lockie Brown lives in Vancouver and skis regularly at Whistler and Blackcomb. For five years, he has organized snowcat sking tours to Chatter Creek , near Golden (http://www.backcountrywintervacations.com/). Before that, he had a number of trips to Island Lake Lodge near Fernie. For lots of photos about cat skiing, Lockie suggests the Chatter News at http://powder-skiing.blogspot.com.

lockiebrown@hotmail.com

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Snowcat Skiing Are You Ready"Robin's Adventures In Camping Equipment"

Backcountry Skiing: Getting there can be Half the Fun
by: Lachlan brown

Western Canada is a land of mountains, lakes and rivers. There are also deserts (yes, Walter, small deserts), huge forested plateaus and lush farmland, but mountains are a predominant feature. From the Coast Range in the west to the Rockies in the east, from the Cascades in the south, to the Cassiar Range in the north, there is one range after another; the Cariboos, the Monashees, and the Selkirks, to name just a few.

The mountains of British Columbia offer untold opportunities for every kind of skiing, including backcountry touring, snowcat skiing and heli-skiing. There are many ski resorts and many backcountry lodges, mostly located near small interior towns, away from the large population centers and international airports.

Getting to a backcountry skiing holiday can involve travel on roads that traverse narrow valleys and high passes. After heavy snowfalls, roads can sometimes be closed while crews clear away debris from slides.

At the end of January 2004, a heavy snowfall caused overnight closures on some BC highways. Two days later, a second storm closed other roads, including the Trans Canada highway. This is a tale of getting from Vancouver to Golden BC in the midst of these storms.

The weather in Vancouver was mild. There had been a recent gaggle of small disturbances, but no big storms. The freezing level was too high. We prayed for snow. We watched the forecasts, but things looked “iffy”.

After months of anticipation, our trip to Chatter Creek was nearing. In two days our annual powder-bash would begin. Four days of cat skiing in Rocky Mountain powder!

This year, we had a group of 24 old friends and regular ski buddies. Many had been to Chatter Creek before and knew what to expect. We were all anxiously counting down the days.

Most of us live in Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler. Individually, we had made our arrangements for getting to Golden. Some would fly to Calgary, rent a car and drive together to Golden, a four-hour trip through Banff, Lake Louise and the Kicking Horse Pass. They would arrive in Golden just in time for our 3:00 PM helicopter flight into the lodge.

Others would drive from Vancouver or Whistler, at best a long nine-hour trip. With an early start on flight day, and with hard steady driving, they should easily reach Golden in time. I would leave a day early, stay with one of the group in Kamloops, and have a leisurely drive to Golden the next day.

Missing the helicopter flight to the lodge was to be avoided. No one’s budget covered an extra night in Golden and a private helicopter flight.

The flights don’t wait. They have to go on time. They would deliver us to the lodge and bring out departing guests. The transfer starts in mid-afternoon (time varies as the winter progresses) and has to be to be completed in daylight.

Two days to go and the telephone rang. “Hi, it’s Merle.”

My heart sank. A call this late from Merle McKnight, Chatter Creek’s marvelous manager, could only mean trouble. What was wrong?

“We’ve had a 'dump'! The passes are closed in both directions. No one is getting though. Crews will work all night and the roads should open sometime tomorrow. However, there is talk of yet more snow. Get here a day early. Come tomorrow!"

Good news and bad news! Lots of fresh snow at Chatter Creek, but getting there would be a challenge.

One always heeds Merle’s advice! As my group’s organizer, it was time to start phoning.

Hours later, everyone had been alerted. Most were changing their plans but some could not or decided to chance it. Not a good plan! Weather in the Interior can be unpredictable.

I called Al in Kamloops. “We’ll be there by 10:00 AM tomorrow, let’s go right through. We can ski Kicking Horse in the morning, before our flight”. “Fine”! Al would be ready.

A few hours later, a mate and I were on the road. After days of drizzle, the day dawned sunny and mild. It was like spring!

The first mountain road is the Coquihalla. It was bare and the sky was clear. There was no hint of a storm. The roads ahead were reported open.

I thought to myself, “I’m never going to hear the end of this! After getting all those people to change their plans, I’m going to get some rockets.”

We were in Kamloops in less than four hours. We picked up Al and six hours later we were in Golden. There had been a delay at Three Valley Gap, where road crews were cleaning up a slide. However, there had been no real problem and the driving had been easy. False alarm! Oh well, we would get a morning at Kicking Horse Resort before our afternoon flight to Chatter Creek.

Morning dawned, and I arose to look outside. My car had become a huge white mound. Not even the tires were visible! It had dumped overnight and it was still dumping! On went the “telly”. The road to the east was closed again. The road to the west could close at any time.

Some of the lads were leaving the coast in the “wee” hours, much earlier than usual to give themselves extra time. Would they make it? Would they get through Three Valley Gap and then the high Rogers Pass before things shut down? The road was bound to close, it was just a matter of time.

At 2:00PM, shaking off the Kicking Horse powder, we headed for the airport. The radio advised that all the passes were now closed. Had our friends made it?

As we drove up to the hanger, we saw all sorts of activity. There was Owen, and Jim was there too. The others from the coast had arrived, the last cars allowed through. Great relief!

However, as we assembled to count heads; 17,18,19,20….?? We were missing the four who were flying to Calgary. They were not to be seen.

A cell phone rang. Chris and Kevin were stopped on the Radium road. The Kicking Horse Pass was closed, so they had tried the alternate route. No luck, it was closed too. They were there for the night. Disaster!

Guests fly to the lodge in three flights, one flight of 12 and two flights of 6. If all 20 of us were to fly to the lodge that night, the stragglers would have an expensive private flight the next day.

Merle and her husband Mike came to the rescue. A radio call was made to the lodge.

“Were there six departing clients willing to stay over and fly out in the morning?” Affirmative! No problem! There were many volunteers.

Merle then asked, “Now, are any two people willing to stay tonight in Golden? Then the last flight of 6 will fly in the morning”

Silence. Glum faces. Hands in pockets. No volunteers!

There was more discussion. “Was anyone willing to snowmobile to the lodge tonight?”

Hesitation, then Tony, good old Tony, raised his hand. He would do it. A ninety-km trip on a snowmobile, following a leader at high speed on a cold night with fresh snow on an unplowed road was not anyone’s idea of fun! Tony would have a 90-km blizzard.

Merle explained, “If we sled the luggage to the lodge tonight, and one person sleds too, then we’ll put an extra person in the large ‘bird’ and the last flight will go in the morning. There will be no extra charges and everyone that’s here will get in tonight.

Perfect! Relief! We would have warm drinks and a meal waiting for Tony.

The flight to Chatter Creek was spectacular, with shafts of late afternoon sunlight striking the surrounding peaks. In 20 minutes, back on the ground, we stumbling though the fresh “powder” to the welcoming door of Vertebrae Lodge. Eighteen glum-faced skiers and boarders passed us on the way. After a great tour, no one wanted to leave. Six smiling faces greeted us at the door. They would get another great meal and an extra night at Vertebrae Lodge, an unexpected bonus.

Two hours later, Tony arrived, a frozen “Michelin Man”. It took a while to thaw him out. Next morning, not long after breakfast, we heard the familiar sound of an approaching helicopter. The last four were arriving.

Our group was complete, the weather was clear, there was lots of fresh snow and our Chatter Creek tour was launched. It turned out to be the best tour yet!

Travel to Golden is not usually difficult. This was an infrequent, but very possible case. The roads from the east and the west both go over high passes, and can pose a problem. The road from the south (Spokane WA) follows valleys and is rarely closed.

For more information on getting to Golden for your cat skiing adventure, look at the “Getting to Golden” page on the Chatter Creek Web site, at http://www.backcountrywintervacations.com/golden-bc.html . A photo journal on Chatter Creek is located at http://powder-skiing.blogspot.com/

About The Author


Lockie Brown has cat skied for about 10 years, taking groups of 12 and 24 friends to different cat ski venues in British Columbia. He now takes his groups to Chatter Creek near Golden, B.C. For information on Chatter Creek, please look at .
http://backcountrywintervacations.com/.

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