So, you’ve dreamt of heli-skiing but not quite ready for the extreme heights, avalanche risk, or price tag that comes with it? Cat skiing is a cost-effective alternative that offers the same perfect lines you see in ski films.
Perfect s-curves through blankets of fluffy snow. Bottomless powder and face shots. It’s the stuff dreams – and blockbuster ski films – are made of.
You can blame filmmakers like Warren Miller for forging the myth that this kind of skiing is reserved for Red Bull-sponsored fanatics jumping off cliffs and out of helicopters. It’s not. Here’s the secret they’re not telling you: epic backcountry powder snow is accessible – and affordable – via a very user-friendly alternative called cat skiing.
It’s this user-friendly alternative that sees me covered in feather-light snow just a few kilometres from the boundary of Grand Targhee ski resort in Wyoming, USA. I’m bogged in a thick pillow of the stuff, having lost control in sheer delight at the surfy feeling of bouncing through it on super-wide skis.
The problem – and it’s a good problem to have – is that you easily lose concentration between all the whooping and laughing that accompanies your route downhill. It’s hard to get your head out of the clouds when you are quite literally skiing a landscape you would expect to see through the window of an A380 Airbus cruising at 25,000 feet.
Fortunately, only 11 other skiers and snowboarders are around to laugh at my stack. We’re all confident skiing off-piste, but only two – our guides – are professionals. There’s not a Red Bull sponsor brand in sight. It means we all take turns cartwheeling through fields and eating snow at various points in the day.
Paul, our silver-bearded guide who has skied and worked in snow resorts for more years than he cares to admit, starts the tour at 8.30am by clearing up some misconceptions. The first may seem obvious: “Cat skiing does not involve cats – at least, not the four-legged, mewing type.”
Our “snowcat” is effectively a tractor that can drive through snow, like those grooming machines you may have seen glossing over ski resort runs at night. It’s warm, stocked with drinks and snacks, and a great place for bantering with new friends about the epic powder you all just scored. A somewhat more comforting experience than cramming into a roaring helicopter in the wind and being precariously dropped on a snowy cliff that could fall into an avalanche at any moment.
Grand Targhee is the little-known “other” Wyoming resort, just over the hill from its more popular cousin, Jackson Hole. Both resorts sit in the Teton Mountain Range but Targhee faces west, so it cops the brunt of the snowstorms travelling across the plains from the northwest of the US in winter. When a snowstorm hits Jackson Hole and lights up social media, you can bet your expensive US dollars that Grand Targhee is quietly revelling in even greater total accumulation.
Today, we’re experiencing this situation in the flesh. Jackson Hole radio reports are claiming 15 inches has landed overnight; but when we head out at Grand Targhee, the snow stakes are up to at least 30 inches (a whopping 76cm).
The most valuable piece of advice Paul offers before we set out is to swap my all-mountain skis for “fat skis” at the Grand Targhee rental store.
“Go for something about 115-120mm underfoot,” he urges. “You’ll thank me.”
I heed his years of experience and race to the store, returning with planks that look more like two snowboards than skis. I’m sceptical – until I lean my knees into the first turn downhill. Rather than working hard to pop in and out of such deep turns, I sail through smoothly and swiftly. It’s like floating through clouds on an Airbus, compared to a six-seater plane in turbulence.
Granted, the snowcat doesn’t reach the remote cliff faces you have seen helicopters land on in extreme skiing movies. But the advantage when compared to heli-skiing is that the avalanche risk on the gentle slopes around Targhee is close to zero. In any case, the runs we score are more than steep enough to elicit the right mix of fear and adrenaline as we launch downhill.
Grand Targhee’s snowcats can drive through foggy days when helicopters won’t fly. Where you might get about five runs in a full day of heli-skiing, our group scores nine or 10. We also have time to pause for a leisurely lunch of bread rolls, soup and hot drinks in a heated marquee on the mountain. All for a third to half the price of heli-skiing.
By the end of the day, I’m convinced most strong intermediate skiers could jump on fat skis for a day of cat skiing and look like they’re pitching for a Red Bull sponsorship in a heli-ski movie. The only obvious difference would be felt in their much lighter back pocket.
Grand Targhee Cat Skiing tours run daily in winter, weather permitting, and cost US$495 per person.
Grand Targhee offers a range of on-snow hotels and rental homes starting at about US$200 per night and available via grandtarghee.com/lodging/.
If staying in Jackson Hole, you can either drive yourself, book a taxi, or ride the Grand Targhee shuttle bus, which drops you at the resort base.