Colorado skiers know pain. I don’t just mean physical pain, the inevitable bumps and bruises that all of us-no matter how skilled-are destined to endure. I mean the pain of congestion-crawling I-70 traffic jams and similarly clogged lift lines. I mean the pain of inflation-$150 lift tickets and $20 chili bowls. These hellish realities-while admittedly trivial in the grand scheme of life-are thorns in the Gore-Tex of Front Range skiers, maybe even frustrations enough to make you second-guess slogging to the mountains on a Saturday morning.
But far from the icy, mobbed groomers, there exists a painless paradise of empty runs and deep snow-a place where lift lines don’t even exist. A place where rubber-tracked limousines chug uphill like some kind of arctic Transformers, turning powder-covered pitches into private freeways toward backcountry bliss. As snow dumps on surrounding peaks, enlightened skiers scope mind-boggling lines from the heated comfort of the cab. Surround sound? Check. A hot beverage? Yes, please. Ready for another untracked run? Definitely! Cap it all off with a Colorado cold one? Don’t mind if I do.
This is the realm of cat skiing. It comes in various forms, ranging from basic, free in-bounds shuttles with Loveland’s Ridge Cat to midrange resort-based backcountry options, such as Monarch’s Snowcat Tours, to independent operations, such as Front Range favorite Powder Addiction and the ultra-plush Eleven Experience. Whatever powder-pursuing path you choose, cat skiing is a bucket list must for any experienced Colorado skier or shredder. To set you to dreaming, here’s a rundown of some of your options.
Deep Daze in Irwin, Colorado
Ten miles west of Crested Butte sits a snowy speck on the map called Irwin. It’s a tiny townsite so remote that it’s accessible in winter only by snowmobile and snowcat. For a devout ski bum like myself, who considers the Rockies church and powder religion, Irwin is heaven.
And if Irwin is heaven, that makes Eleven Experience-the high-end, high-octane, Crested Butte-based adventure travel operator that grants access to this zone-a pricey Saint Peter. Those lucky, and wealthy, enough to grease the gatekeeper’s palms are ushered into a promised land of virgin powder in the cushy comfort of one of Eleven’s snowcats.
If you’ve ever sampled Irwin’s mythical snow, you’ll agree that such praise lacks hyperbole. For those unfamiliar with the freakish orographic storms that bless this backwoods hamlet with nearly 500 inches of snowfall annually, be advised: This is no standard backcountry zone. Although Irwin is but a quick cat ride from Crested Butte, Irwin’s snowfall in some seasons is triple that of the neighboring resort.
Snow may be in surplus out at Irwin, but entry is in short supply-and that’s a good thing. Eleven smartly limits consumption and parses out terrain so that pow-and fresh tracks-remains on tap days after a storm. Eleven operates three cats, but rarely are they all running at once. An average day sees 10-15 skiers touring 1,000-some-acres.
Last winter, after storms swathed the West Elks in more than a meter of fluffy stuff, I was one of the lucky few. As the Eleven snowcat trundled west out of Crested Butte, I felt like Charlie Bucket clutching a Golden Ticket; I was finally on my way to Wonka’s.
Scarp Ridge, Eleven’s staggering Irwin playground, offers a variety of terrain and steepness for skiers of differing skill levels. We warmed up with mellow powder turns through treed glades, and worked our way up to steep, narrow chutes and 15-foot cliffs. In between, we snacked, jammed out in the cat and stopped for a delectable lunch in a cozy cabin.
Although Eleven’s tenure possesses the untouched allure of a backcountry zone, a team of avalanche safety professionals controls the terrain much like a ski resort-with an explosives program and careful slope management. That means you can take on steep terrain you likely wouldn’t even consider on your average Colorado backcountry tour. Not only are you often taking on more tantalizing terrain, but you’re also taking on more of it. A 5,000-foot day of human-powered touring might take a fit group all day. When cat skiing, you’re looking at that kind of vertical before lunch. That day, we clocked eight hoot-inducing laps averaging over 1,000 feet each and still had time for a couple Colorado microbrews before the sun set. Looking back up at a day’s worth of tracks and a season’s worth of memories, I couldn’t help but think, As much as I love to climb that stairway to heaven, there’s something to be said for taking the escalator.
Of course, I suppose this paradise isn’t completely painless. You feel the pain of fatigued quads, ill-prepared for the laps of seemingly bottomless powder. The pain of overworked dimples. And perhaps the most acute pain of all-when you load up that snowcat one last time and leave heaven behind.
7 Colorado Cat Skiing Operations
Check out these snowcat ops for a heavenly day of deep powder.
*Asterisks note our team’s top cat skiing picks for proximity to Colorado Springs.
Cost: $489 per person
Discount: $429 per person if you buy out the cat
Average daily vertical: 10,000 feet
Average Runs Per Day: 10
Best for: Aggressive intermediates and up
From the Cat’s Mouth: “You ride up the gondola and simply get in the cat. No long drives or shuttles.”
–Bob Perlmutter, manager
Location: Crested Butte
Cost: Full Scarp Ridge Lodge packages start at $2,800 per night, double occupancy, or $15,520 per night for private lodge buyout based on 10 guests (2 night minimum).
Cat Skiing Only: $650 per person, when booked through Irwin Guides
Max Vertical in a Single Run: 2,100 feet
Average Runs Per Day: 8-12
Best for: Intermediate to advanced skiers chasing deep snow with deep pockets
From the Cat’s Mouth: “We have an amazing guide staff full of some of the most experienced, qualified and certified guides in the industry, and this increases the safety of the day and the quality of the experience.”
-Billy Rankin, snow safety director
Cost: $310 per person
Discounts: Private cats run $3,410 and fit 12 people.
Max Vertical in a Single Run: 1,132 feet
Average Runs Per Day: 8
Best for: Intermediate skiers looking for a first-time cat experience
From the Cat’s Mouth: “An incredible value within a short and scenic drive from the Front Range.”
-John Ulbrich, mountain operations manager
Cost: $400 per person
Discounts: $300 early and late season
Max Vertical in a Single Run: 1,600 feet
Best for: Expert skiers averse to ritzy resorts
From the Cat’s Mouth: “Monarch can boast some of the best and steepest terrain in Colorado. Every aspect is available, ensuring we can find good snow to ski.”
-Aaron Peyrouse, cat skiing manager
Cost: $475 per person
Discounts: $4,750 for full cat (12 guests), $400 per person early season
Max Vertical in a Single Run: 2,750 feet
Average Runs Per Day: 9-12
Best for: Intermediate to advanced skiers making a trip from the Front Range
From the Cat’s Mouth: “What sets Powder Addiction apart is not only the vast 2,600-acre terrain on Jones Pass, but our dedicated team of highly certified guides. ”
-Jen Harper, marketing director
Cost: $450 per person
Discount: Full cat, $4,000
Max Vertical in a Single Run: 1,500 feet
Average Runs Per Day: 10-12
Best for: Powder lovers who don’t mind unbeatable views of the Weminuche Wilderness
From the Cat’s Mouth: “We get our clients skiing within 15 minutes of leaving our parking lot, and ski all the way to our base area at the end of the day!”
-Matt Gerhardt, reservations and marketing
Cost: $625 per person
Discounts: $6,250 per private cat (holds 12 guests)
Max Vertical in a Single Run: 1,600 feet
Average Runs Per Day: 12
Best for: intermediate, advanced and expert skiers-Steamboat Powdercats prebooks groups by ability level.
From the Cat’s Mouth: “Buffalo Pass is annually one of the deepest snowpacks in Colorado and is the home of Champagne Powder, the lightest, driest snow you will ever experience.”
-Eric Deering, director
3 Inbounds Cats
A few resorts offer free and cheap snowcat runs within ski area boundaries.
Cost: $10 per ride
Pickup: Top of the Outback Express lift
Access: The North and South bowls
Best for: Intermediates and up who don’t want to hike
Cost: Free with Copper Mountain lift ticket
Pickup: Base of Mountain Chief chairlift
Schedule: Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., conditions permitting
Best for: Experts amped on fresh tracks
Cost: Free, just pick up a cat pass with a Loveland lift ticket. First come, first served.
Pickup: Gate 1N off Lift 9
Schedule: 10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., conditions permitting
Best for: Experts who want to access Loveland’s high-alpine terrain