tr.verb sur·prised, sur·pris·ing, sur·pris·es
To encounter suddenly or unexpectedly; to attack or capture suddenly and without warning; to cause to feel wonder, astonishment or amazement at something unanticipated.
The ache in my quads has reached a burning crescendo as I make my final turns through the soft, boot-deep snow, stopping just short of the group waiting below me. “Dang what an amazing surprise this was today,” I say out loud. Our lead guide, Ken Barrett, owner of Selkirk Powder Company (SPC), looks back at me and smiles: “And there’s the title for your story my friend.”
I’m not gonna lie, writing for an outdoor magazine does occasionally have its perks. So when Ken Barrett invited OTM to come out and experience his backcountry brand of cat skiing, we jumped at the opportunity. In all honesty, the invitation was met with a little apprehension given that our region was enduring one of its typical mid-January, high-pressure lulls with the resorts begging for anything from the clouds above to help cover their bulletproof snowpack.
As I strap on my avalanche beacon, I ask the SPC check-in clerk how the conditions have been. He quickly smirks back at me: “riding in the backcountry is always better than not riding in the backcountry,” he says. Okay, obviously a dumb question. For those who don’t know, cat skiing is essentially backcountry skiing with the use of a snowcat to return you to the summit. Snowcats are like snowmobiles on steroids with large, heated cabs that can seat up to 10 people.
Unloading from the top of Schweitzer’s Great Escape quad, we work our way over to SPC’s launch point, which is the northwest facing backside (out of bounds) region of Schweitzer Peak. After reviewing all final safety protocols, we slowly slither our way into our first glade and begin our descent to the valley. All of my apprehensions are immediately resolved as the velvety, untouched snow gives way under my skis. Diving deeper into the trees, the snow seems to be getting lighter and fluffier with each turn. I stop for a moment to catch my breath and look around. I look left and right, and I can’t see a single track anywhere – just blankets and pillows of pure, white, untouched snow for as far as I can see. At that moment I realize I am living every skier’s dream come true.
“We essentially have 3,000 plus acres of open bowls and glades spanning a 3-mile long ridge that we work with. Finding fresh snow is never a problem,” Barrett says as we finish up our first run of the day. “You’ll notice that the snow is especially good here in the trees where it gets a lot of protection from the elements,” he says. SPC’s designated backcountry is located roughly 30 miles from one of the wettest areas in the Rocky Mountains, making snow quality excellent and very dependable. “An average season for us is 300 plus inches,” he says. “But more importantly we retain a base with ridge depths that are commonly 10 to 12 feet, with drifts up to 20 feet.”
Riding the cat back to the summit for round 2, we’re all sporting perma-grins with the anticipation of the moment having met reality. “This is a huge bucket-list thing for us. We’ve all been skiing up in Canada, but have never been cat-skiing before,” says John Holland, a SPC guest on our trip who is part of a 3 man crew that drove over from Bellingham the night before. “We heard great things about the snow over here and the cat operation. It’s my buddy’s birthday, so we just decided to go for it,” he says.
Selkirk Powder Company operates on a concessionaire’s contract with Schweitzer Mountain Resort, while working in cooperation with the Idaho Department of Lands. “We have a mutual aid agreement that makes this operation beneficial to all 3 groups,” says Barrett. “It’s enabled us to operate successfully for the last 10 years.”
It’s important to emphasize here that backcountry cat skiing and riding is not the same as resort skiing and riding. There are no patrolled areas, avalanche control operations, hazard removal or groomed runs. It’s just you, the natural environment, and all of the inherent risks that go along with that. SPC does everything they can to help manage those risks and assure that their clients’ experiences are positive. All of SPC’s guides are fully certified and maintain annual proficiency ratings for medical and avalanche procedures.
Gathering in the cat for our final ride back to the lodge, Brian Kamin, one of SPC’s co-founders, reels off our stats for the day from his trusty IPhone app: “8 runs and a little over 10 miles of vertical today,” he announces to the spent group of powder hounds who are all looking barely coherent with glazed over eyes and heads drenched in sweat. I’m definitely stoked to hear these numbers; I just don’t have the energy to show it. The great snow, the beautiful backcountry, and the amazing service of SPC all made for one very incredible (and surprising) day in the Idaho wilderness.
SPC operates from mid-December to mid-April (snow permitting). The terrain is moderately difficult with several steep pitches and some densely treed areas. It’s recommended that you be a strong skier before attempting cat skiing. Costs vary depending on the size of the group and the number of days you ski. For more information, visit www.selkirkpowder.com.
To learn more about cat skiing and backcountry skiing and riding in Idaho, check out: www.visitidaho.org/backcountry-skiing.