Snowcat skiing is off-piste, alpine skiing that is accessed by a snowcat instead of a ski lift. Snowcat skiing is essentially about skiing in a natural – albeit highly selected – environment without the effort or gear compromise required for hiking into these areas as in ski touring or ski mountaineering. The service is less expensive and more environmentally friendly than heliskiing.
Most snowcat skiers are seeking specific, pleasurable skiing conditions that are hard to replicate in the highly manipulated terrain of ski resorts: particularly powder snow, but also long descents, natural terrain contours and features, smooth corn snow, old-growth tree glades, steep and extreme slopes, or for the more adventuresome, wild snow and a natural, variable environment.
The presence of the guide and machine offer some protection against the risks and discomforts unavoidably associated with entering this mountainous environment, allowing skiers with little or no mountain sense to enjoy a wild environment.
Usually the customer books a one to four day snowcat skiing package, including 5 to 12 runs a day and lunch. Accommodation can vary from Atco trailers to five star luxury lodges. There are as few as 4 or as many as 12 skiers, depending on the snowcat type. On most tours, a group of snowcat skiers are led by an experienced guide and possibly an assistant, or "tailgunner". The snowcat typically meets the ski group in an open area in a valley. The guide or a snowcat crew member load the skis and poles into an exterior basket. The skiers board the snowcat and are transported uphill. After unloading, the clients do not ski off at random; the guides decide exactly where the clients will ski. Often a guide will go first to assess the snow, avalanche or glacier conditions, then signal the clients to proceed. Depending on the conditions, the clients may ski en-masse, in teams of two (buddy), or in less stable conditions, one at a time. The guide may instruct the group to stay to one side or the other of the guide's ski tracks in order to avoid glacial serac falls & crevasses, avalanche starting zones, cliffs, crusty snow or other potential difficulties that are not obvious to untrained eyes. On a broad, stable slope, the guide may allow the clients to spread out & pick their own line of descent.
Equipment and gear
Avalanche transceivers are required and a buddy system is mandatory because of the danger of avalanches. Clothing needs mirror ski resort activity level: layered clothing fit for sub-zero temperatures, goggles, hat, ski gloves, and neck warmers. European-model heliskiers are really just ski mountaineers with a vertical assist, so they require ski touring equipment appropriate to the location and conditions.
Fatter off-piste, powder, freeride or "all-mountain" skis are used by the majority of snowcat skiers. They are less tiring in use and handle difficult terrain more easily. The introduction of these skis, originally known as "fat boys", has led to an increase in the amount of vertical feet skied, as the skiers become less tired and spend less time looking for lost skis. They have also been linked with decreased injury rates.
Cat skiing was done on the main range in Australia from the 1950s through to the late 1970s. The last operation based out of Thredbo was closed down in the late 1970s by the New South Wales National Park Service.
In 1965 Ontario native Allan Drury, while working in Aspen, noticed that snowcats were being used to shuttle skiers up an unfinished ski area whose lifts weren't yet running. With a vision of starting a wilderness snowcat operation Allan moved to Calgary, Alberta to search for the perfect location. In 1975 Allan's vision of backcountry snowcat skiing in Canada became a reality when he and his wife Brenda moved to British Columbia and opened Selkirk Wilderness Skiing. In 1979, friend and fellow cat-ski pioneer, Brent McCorquodale, opened British Columbia’s second snowcat operation, Great Northern Snowcat Skiing, in the historic mining town of Trout Lake. Cat Powder in Revelstoke and Island Lake Catskiing near Fernie were soon to follow. Over 30 years later there are snowcat skiing operations scattered throughout BC Canada. The combination of abundant snowfall, cool temperatures and regular breaks in weather systems, as well as massive networks of forestry roads leading deep into the mountains, make British Columbia Canada ideal for catskiing and snowboarding.
- "Snowcat Skiing". Retrieved 16 July 2014.