Deserted slopes on the cheap

Huw J. Williams checks out the budget options

People go to resorts because they have lift facilities, but there’s plenty more winter wonderland than the best-serviced ski hills offer. Helicopters can provide a Pegasus ride to deserted powder fields but £300-plus is a lot to pay for a day’s play. Now, instead of getting the high-speed quad to the top, you can drive up. Snowcat concessions provide access to terrain free from lifts and crowds. They can offer fresh powder, run after run, and at half the cost of a helicopter service. There are more than 20 snowcat services operating in North America, many close to established resorts.

Blue Sky West Steamboat Springs, Colorado

This outfit entices people out of the lift queues and away from the marked pistes, where 12,000 acres of undeveloped mountain terrain await. Two groups go out each day but you’re unlikely to see the other snowcat. Sometimes their snaking turns can be seen cutting through the powder but the guides try to ensure you get fresh snowfields on each run.

Up to 12 people share a snowcat in coach-style, two-by-two seats. They are heated and have a CD player. Two guides and a driver accompany each party.

Snowcat concessions choose terrain that has low avalanche risk, but this is the backcountry and it can still bite. Any operation should provide avalanche transceivers and teach you how to use them. Sometimes guests are also given shovels and probes.

Blue Sky West claims to be able to cater to all levels. The guides spend the first couple of runs assessing the abilities in the group. Though many of its glades and open fields are not intimidating, to get the full enjoyment of the terrain, a good level of competence and previous deep powder experience would be beneficial. The tree runs are a mixture of silver-skinned Aspens and mid-sized pines. The spacing between them varies from leisurely to tight, and the slopes are steep enough to maintain a good speed without the risk of continually sinking to a stop. The length of runs offered by snowcat concessions is shorter than those that can be squeezed out of most resorts, but the quality more than compensates.

The day is split into two parts. Lunch is on the mountain at a small lodge, although there is little encouragement to lounge around – most people are keen to get back out as soon as possible.

What it costs: Prices for the day range from $199 in low season to $313 in high season. Blue Sky West does not have its own accommodation but has associations with hotels and condominiums in Steamboat Springs.

Where to book: Blue Sky West, PO Box 3239, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, 80477, US. Tel:                        001 970 871 4260            , visit, email:

Irwin Lodge, Colorado

This is a 20-minute drive and a 30-minute snowmobile ride from Crested Butte. It boasts 600 inches of snow a season and runs of up to 640 vertical metres. Unlike Blue Sky West, it specialises in multi-day packages with guests staying at its 21-room lodge at the base of its terrain. The ground floor is open plan with dining area, bar, lounge and a large walk-around fireplace. The day starts with breakfast. Safety briefings and transceiver training are given to newcomers and the cat leaves at 8.30am.

Irwin Lodge is one of the longer running operations, having opened in 1976. The 2,200-acre site is National Forest land and was once home to a thriving 19th-century silver mining community. Work stopped after ore prices fell and avalanches buried several mines. Some of the terrain is still prone to avalanche risk but the area is controlled.

Even if some slopes are closed at times, the concession has a variety of terrain and the guides take groups to safer areas. Lunch is back at the lodge and this reduces the number of runs that can be made in a day. Other factors are the number of people in a group, their experience and also the weather.

The evening meal is prepared by a gourmet chef. Post meal, guests soak in an outside hot tub, prop up the bar or watch TV.

What it costs: Staying at Irwin Lodge costs $280-$580 per person per night depending on room and season, and includes lodging, guided activities and three gourmet meals per day, but not bar bills.

Where to book: Irwin Lodge, PO Box 457, 311 Fifth Street, Crested Butte, Colorado 81224. Further information: 001 970 349390, Note: The snowcat operation is presently up for sale, so details could change for next season.

Monashee Powder Adventures, British Columbia

This is one of the more remote snowcat operations. The meeting place for the trip is a small cafe in a tiny roadside hamlet two hours’ drive from Kelwona airport and 90 minutes from Silver Star resort.

Once everyone is assembled, the guides lead off a convoy of vehicles. The drive is another half an hour up a dirt logging road, slippery with mud and frozen slush. Just when the snow starts to dominate, the track widens and cars are parked. The vehicles are left behind and the party takes to snowmobiles, two per sled. Each tows a limber – like the ones snow patrols use to evacuate injured skiers from the hills – for the luggage.

The trip involves an hour of night driving along a snaking snow trail, ever upwards, the headlights swaying back and forth, picking out snowflakes and trees. Even if you are unfamiliar with being on a snowmobile, driving is the best option because riding pillion means you feel every bump, rut and turn with added ferocity.

Just when the feeling of adventure is starting to wear thin and it feels that walking has to be better option, the path opens up. A final steep incline points your gaze at the sky. On the edge of a ridge looking back down the access valley is a large four-storey timber lodge.

The ground floor houses the staff and a drying room, the next level is open plan with a bar, lounge area, open fire and dining tables. Above are the rooms, which are simple, clean and functional. The penthouse is home for the owners, head guides and their families.

Sleep comes easily the first night and in the morning two buffets await in the large communal room. One for breakfast, the other to make packed lunches for the day. There are only 24 guests at any one time, and they are usually split between two snowcats that leave at 8.30am and don’t return until 4pm.

What it costs: Staying at Monashee Powder Adventures costs Canadian C$450 a day and trips are for three, four or seven days.

Where to book: Monashee Powder Adventures, RR#2, Site 23, Comp 11Chase, British Columbia V0E 1M0, Canada. Tel:                         001 250 679-8120 , visit,

The Guardian, Saturday 22 March 2003 [read it here]

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