We look as if we’re about to embark on a combat mission as we clamber off the bright yellow Bombardier snowcat.
Brimming with excitement, we scuff the snow off our ski boots and shove them into the bindings of our fat powder skis.
Goggles ready? Check.
Avalanche transceivers turned to send? Check.
Powder cords? Check.
Our mission: To ski where no skis have been before—at least, not since the last big powder dump. Mission leader Gary Ashurst dips over the edge of the cat track, his beefy skis rolling over marshmallow-like mounds of untracked snow.
Someone utters a meow. Another, a purr, and a couple of yodels later, the quest is on.
One by one we jump in after Ashurst, our howls and war whoops piercing the still air as we mount our assault on the virgin snow.
“I’m not a surfer, but this has got to be the same feeling,” enthuses Pete Whitehead.
Our quest for powder has brought us to Soldier SnowCats, which takes skiers and snowboarders into the vast backcountry southwest of Sun Valley via a groomer, like those which lay down the corduroy at nearby Soldier Mountain and Sun Valley ski resorts.
The backcountry cat skiing operation offers a playground of more than 1,500 acres, giving skiers and boarders a chance to make first tracks in untracked powder on every run, over and over and over again, all day long.
The sun has yet to peek over Cannonball Mountain as we file into the Ma-and-Pa-type lodge nestled at the base of the Soldier Mountain ski area.
A few howdy-dos and we’re on the move again, climbing into an enclosed passenger cab on the back of a quarter-million-dollar snowcat. The Plexiglas is broken—the result of a scrape with a tree branch during one of the snowcat’s forays into the backcountry. But it’s still comfortable inside the cab, which gets us out of any snow or cold that might blow our way today.
“It’s kind of different, getting into a cab and going off in the woods out of the resort with friends,” muses Matt Christian.
Like a tank, the 16-foot-wide cat chugs along a snow-covered road at about 12 miles per hour. Within minutes it turns uphill, its tracks threading their way through rolling hills and sparse pines. And we’re on our way to powder heaven.
Our party—eight skiers and two guides—fit comfortably in the cab with room to spare. Most are longtime friends and co-workers who banter back and forth.
Others, like Zach Settle and Lillie Lancaster, kneel on the padded seats, looking out the windows at the scenery.
“I feel like a puppy,” says Lancaster, as she surveys the leafless aspen in the creek bottoms and the reddish cliffs rising out of the snow in the distance.
Lancaster, who grew up in Louisiana, is new to snow country. But, she says, she loves everything about it but the cold.
Having just taken up snowboarding, she doubts that she’s going to make any first tracks today. But she’s come along to cheer her friends on and to experience what it’s like being in our own private Idaho—if just for a day.
The mountains that have come into view as the snowcat continues to climb have been christened with highly unimaginative names. There’s 9,147-foot Peak One, 9,529-foot Peak Two and the 9,666-foot Peak Three. A little beyond sits the granddaddy of them all—Smoky Dome which, at 10,095 feet, towers 5,000 feet over the Camas Prairie to the south.
We will not be skiing in the Smoky Dome area, our guide tells us. But check it out this summer, he adds—there’s a lake up there hidden from view.
At 8:30 a.m.—about a half-hour after we depart from the lodge—the cat shudders to a stop. We climb out, positioning our ski boots carefully on each rung of the ladder, and file into a yurt where we sip coffee and tea and munch on breakfast cookies while Ashurst describes how to use the avalanche transceivers he is loaning us for the day.
The avalanche risk is low to moderate today, he says. “In the bowls, we still could see some small stuff break loose. If that happens, just get out of the way and let it pass.
When you ski, look for an island of safety to go to if something happens. And don’t stop in the bottom of a chute.
“If you do get caught,” he adds, “swim as you slow down, and create an air pocket with your hands in front of your face as you start to stop. And relax so your body doesn’t use up its reserve of oxygen.”
Ashurst shows us how to turn our transceivers from “Send” to “Receive” to pick up the signal of a beacon that has been buried in the snow outside the yurt. We follow the beeps and signals as they become stronger until Settle finds the “buried” transceiver in a tree.
“This is fun. I want one of these,” Lillie says of the beacons which resemble walkie-talkies strapped to our chests.
Lesson over, we climb back into the cat. Ten minutes later we’re eyeing what will be our first run for the day. It’s a fairly gentle open slope ringed with Ponderosa pine and subalpine fir that takes us down through some trees onto yet another open slope.
It’s a good warm-up for the day and a way for Ashurst to assess our skill level so he can tailor the rest of the day to our abilities.
“Pick a buddy,” he tells us. “We’re going to be skiing in a lot of trees today and it will be impossible for me to keep track of all of you.”
And he’s off, leading the way. >>>
One by one, each of us dives in, our bodies weaving and bobbing as we carve graceful arcs into the blank canvas that lies before us.
At the bottom, our carriage awaits to carry us to a new adventure.
We return to the top where gnarled and twisted trees tell a tale of precarious life in Idaho’s rugged backcountry.
“I’ve never been to the Alps, but some people tell me this is like skiing the Alps,” says Larry Davenport, the senior part of the father-son team that manages Soldier SnowCats.
“The word that comes to mind is beautiful—that, and peaceful. There’s a rugged beauty here.”
The month of January brought one snow after another. But we’ve come after a long dry spell at the end of February. For the first time all winter, temperatures have gotten warm enough to do a little melting and refreezing.
Consequently, the first couple hundred yards of our next jaunt is punctuated with crusty snow that makes us thankful for the wider platform of the fat skis beneath our feet.
Ashurst leads us on a traverse across the hill to an area just below an outcropping of spire-like rocks.
The snow is purr-fect—everything you’d want in a cat skiing trip. Laurie Sammis points her skis downhill, her tips alternately diving and rising in the snow as her tails send up plumes behind them.
Swoosh! Swoosh! Robin Leahy drops in after her, painting her version of a Picasso on the snow.
Settle, a snowboard instructor at Sun Valley, follows, floating weightlessly as if skimming through clouds. He comes to a screeching stop spraying the others at the bottom, a grin almost as long as his snowboard pasted across his face.
“This is so much fun,” he exclaims. “And not just the riding part. The cat ride’s part of the fun, too.”
Soldier SnowCats’ permit lies in the midst of the Soldier Mountains, a mountain range southwest of Sun Valley that stretches some 30 miles from one end to the other.
Eventually, Soldier SnowCats would love to set up a hut-to-hut ski touring operation but, for now, that is just a dream, Ashurst tells us.
The mountains—softer, more rounded versions of the rugged, jagged Sawtooth and Pioneer peaks to the north—were named for the town of Soldier, which was large enough to boast an opera house in the 1880s but withered away after the railroad bypassed it by a couple of miles.
But the roundness of the mountains can be deceiving.
“We’ve got runs that are 35 degrees and 40 degrees, cornices and cliffs you can jump off and, of course, plenty of powder fields,” says Kyle Davenport.
Since this range sits on the edge of the Camas Prairie, it’s not uncommon for hundred-mile-per-hour winds to sweep across the ridgetops. But 10 feet below the ridgelines you can often find snow that’s hardly been touched, says Ashurst.
Ashurst spent 20 years guiding skiers and climbers in the French Alps before returning to Idaho.
“You can tell a German skier by looking at the tracks,” he tells us. “They make tight little turns, leaving plenty of virgin snow for those behind them. Americans ski all over the place.”
Snowcat skiing has often been called “the poor man’s heli-skiing.” But it feels plenty luxurious to us, considering we don’t have to wrestle with putting sticky skins on the bottoms of our skis every time we wish to return to the top.
Soldier SnowCats attracts a wide range of skiers and boarders, from powder pigs bent on racking up 20,000 vertical feet in a day to those just out to enjoy one another’s company away from the lift lines at nearby ski resorts.
Even Soldier Mountain ski area owner Bruce Willis shows up now and then, relishing the opportunity to ski out of the public eye. >>>
Most of the skiers are from Sun Valley, Boise and Twin Falls. But others come from Germany, Austria and even Russia, sometimes arranging their vacations around the cat ski trip.
Most are intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders who lust after first tracks all winter long. But a skier from South Africa did just fine, even though he had only been on snow two weeks, says Ashurst. And a professor from Australia went from never skiing before to skiing the bowls in one week.
“I told him, ‘Speed is your friend,’” Ashurst recalls. “He ended up in a few yard sales, but he also had a ball.”
We head up again—this time to a wind-scoured ridge near a weather station. From there we traverse along a steep drop-off, all the while eyeing the snow-covered prairie below where the hills fade away like ripples at the end of a whitewater rapid.
“It can be beautiful up here. We’ll be skiing under cobalt blue skis and the valley will be fogged in and we can just watch the fog slowly recede,” says Ashurst. “And in March and April we get good corn snow runs up to 2,500 feet long.”
We take our skis off and trudge up the last hundred feet through a rocky area to the top.
There, as Ashurst warns us not to stand too far out on the hanging cornice, we survey our options.
A few of us elect to take the easy way down, dipping off a slope to the right through trees.
Others elect to gamble, skiing the chutes that thread through rocky spires to our left.
Whitehead is the first to go, jumping off a cornice and hopping right, then left, as he makes a few tight turns before the couloir widens.
Sammis is next, the group cheering her on as she dips into a rhythmic rhapsody of zigzags.
Settle dips into a funnel farther up the ridge. He disappears for a second, then shoots out at the bottom as if he is shooting out of a waterslide at a theme park.
“My heart was racing so hard! I’ve been wanting to jump off that cliff since I first saw it this morning,” he says with breathless exhilaration. “I’ve been studying the line. I thought it might be just wide enough if I didn’t hit a rock or have a wreck.”
Abruptly, he changes his demeanor as if mugging for news cameras: “You’ve just gotta get out there, give 110 percent and pray to God you get out of there alive.”
The group returns to the site, this time trudging even higher. Assistant guide Adam Humbach, who fights fires during summer months, is quick to grab the skis off one skier’s shoulders and carry them to the top along with his own.
“The hero. The man who can do anything,” Settle jokes.
“I’m living a dream,” Humbach replies. “I don’t have anything to complain about.”
We do some more powder surfing and stop long enough for Ashurst to point out Baldy. From this vantage point it resembles a flattened dome—hardly impressive amidst the jagged Pioneer peaks that loom over it.
With several runs under our ski parkas, we make a quick stop back at the yurt where we pile cold turkey and roast beef slices on sandwiches. Lancaster and her friend are ferried back to Soldier Mountain by snowmobile so they can make a few turns at the laid-back family ski hill that started with a single rope tow in 1948.
And then we’re off again.
The cat tilts one way, then another, as we head up to another jumping-off point at Peak Two. We come face to face with the branch of a whitebark pine blocking our way.
There’s nothing to do but drive right through it. Bang!—and up we go.
We’ve come to like the sound of the snowcat coming to get us when we’re in a place that would be nearly impossible to ski out of. But we really like the sound of the snowcat leaving after it’s dropped us off to ski.
This time we drop into Big Bowl. Whitehead dips into another chute. The first three turns are rock hard, setting him to scream in fun like a wild man. He guns for a jump and flips through the air, spinning like a ferris wheel out of control until he lands, spread eagle, one of his skis taking off without him.
He inhales a nose full of powder, but comes up with a grin on his face and a story to tell.
As evening approaches, the snow gets colder, turning to crunchy waves at the bottom.
Christian turns, squinting, as he watches the sun shining on bald knobs in the distance. “Can you believe we were way up on that hill not too long ago?”
Craig Wolfrom, flush with the glow of his first cat ski trip, nods his head.
“I would recommend this to any intermediate skier,” he says. “It’s the perfect mix of riding lifts and heli-skiing. You’ve got the social part on the ride up and incredible snow on the way down—without any rush!”
Karen Bossick came late to the sport of skiing, having grown up in the flatlands of the Midwest. But she can’t get enough of it now—“I love the feeling of dancing down the slopes,” she says.
Sun Valley Magazine would like to thank Scott USA and Soldier SnowCats.