More Vertical, Maximum Fun: A Primer on Snowcat Skiing in Salt Lake City

The author harvesting the goods of cat skiing.
The author harvesting the goods of cat skiing. Johnny Adolphson, Park City Powder Cats
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Corduroy is fine, bumps build character, and spring corn leads to a dandy goggle tan. But the real reason we ski is for powder: the pure, untouched stuff that drives us to get up at 6 am on snow days, skip work, drive up the canyon, and fight for first chair. It’s why we ski tour the weekend after a storm to eke out any clean line we can.

But there’s another way to achieve powder nirvana. You'll have to pony up for it, but a cat ski ride (or better yet, a cat ski day) can garner maximum untracked runs with minimal hiking. It’s not quite as damaging to your wallet as than heli-skiing, and fortunately, there are multiple local operations that offer endless premium snow just a short schlep from your casa.

A snowcat (species pictured below) is normally how the resorts groom their runs, but cat skiing operations add enclosed passenger seating in the back, allowing skiers and boarders to load up and safely hitch a ride. Play your cards right, and they might even crank up the heater and the stereo for you. Depending on your budget and preferences, you can go with a guided or non-guided service, and bring a boatload of friends or not. However you go about it, you're virtually guaranteed an untracked run that’s faster than touring, and you don’t need to sell a kidney to do it.

Here's a primer on snowcat skiing in Salt Lake City, which, if you ask us, is an ideal way to wrap up the 2014/2015 ski season. (Apologies in advance if you get hooked.)

The snowcat in its natural habitat, high Uintas, Utah
The snowcat in its natural habitat, high Uintas, Utah Beth Lopez

What to Bring

Wear your regular ski clothing and bring your skis, boots, and poles. Bringing a small backpack is also smart for carrying avy gear, sunscreen, and extra layers. When you’re out for a full day on the slopes, temperatures can vary dramatically, and you wouldn’t want to spoil a perfect run with overheating or shivering. Be prepared to bundle up or dress down.

You’ll also want to stow a large water bottle, perhaps a Thermos of tea, and some easy-to-carry snacks like energy bars. And while we can’t put a flask on the official list of cat skiing equipment, it would be a bit silly not to bring one.

A Blast on a Budget: Cat Skiing at Powder Mountain

Powder Mountain, a low-key, locals-oriented resort, is just an hour drive north of town, and it offers guided tours that include lunch and snow safety equipment. Or, you can take a DIY approach (provided you have your own avy gear and know-how) and score single cat rides for $18 a pop.

You won’t get a fancy meal or guide service with this no-frills option, but who needs it when you’re getting 2,000 feet of soft snow per run at such a price? Sign up at their base-area adventure center, load up for a short snowcat ride up Lightning Ridge, and enjoy the run of your life.

Powder Mountain is light on après options, but you can saddle up at the Shooting Star saloon on the way back to Salt Lake for a hard-earned beer, a bite, and, of course, a little bragging about your adventure.

In confined quarters with suspicious characters, location undisclosed
In confined quarters with suspicious characters, location undisclosed Beth Lopez

Upping the Ante: A Guided Day with Park City Powder Cats

If you can save your pennies for a complete day of cat skiing in the Uintas, Park City Powder Cats offers full-service ski guiding, avalanche safety equipment, and lunch for about $450/person (closer to $400/person if you have a cat-full of friends) . It’s an investment for sure, but you’re signing up for a day you’ll never forget.

You'll meet at the Powder Cats lodge outside Oakley, Utah at 8:30 am to check in, snag some coffee, meet your guide, and load up. If you don’t have avy gear, they’ll outfit you and will help keep a sharp eye on snow safety throughout the day. An hourlong cat ride will take you to some excellent untouched terrain, which the guide can tailor according to skiers’ ability.

Cat and dog
Cat and dog Beth Lopez

You can then sail through run after run of untouched fluff, bonding with your group and swapping jokes with your guides. At the bottom of each run, the snowcat will pull up and await your happy herd, then drop you off at the top for another go. Halfway through the day, guides will pull out sandwiches, chips, and cups of soup for everyone to enjoy either in the snow or inside the snowcat.

At the end of the day, nobody wants to be one who cries uncle, but eventually everyone will tucker out and plop back into their seats for a drowsy ride back to the lodge, where you'll pull your boots off by the fire, enjoy some snacks, and toast your guide. Usually for a few extra bucks, you can purchase a digital photo of one of your best powder turns of the day. It’s a nice little way to make your investment last forever—at least in pixels.

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