Quest for Powder
Our mission: To ski where no skis have been before—at least, not since the last big powder dump.
Photography: Craig Wolfrom
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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. >>>