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Steamboat Magazine

Facilitating Freshies

12/06/2021 01:21PM ● By Eugene Buchanan

Photography courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats.

Story by Eugene Buchanan
Photography courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats

– With backcountry skiing and splitboarding becoming the fastest-growing category in the snowsports industry (thank you, pandemic), local snowcat outfitter Steamboat Powdercats is laying tracks for a new program catering to its growing participants: backcountry tours.

Powdercats “Intro to Backcountry” program is designed to teach people the basic skills needed to safely explore the backcountry on their own – with the bonus of an initial ride up the mountain so you don’t have to earn every single turn yourself.

"We started it about three years ago, but it’s been growing ever since and about doubling every season,” says Powdercats manager Kent Vertrees. “We had a super successful season with it last year, taking nearly 100 people out.”

While he says they’re not avalanche courses per se, the program is designed to help teach the basics of backcountry touring, from how to use such equipment as touring bindings (including the best tricks for flipping up those finnicky heel-lifts) and putting on and taking off skins to the nuances of safe route selection and the best techniques for making kick turns.

Know Before You Go:
• Take an avalanche class
• Research the myriad of online avalanche awareness and education recourses available

Plan and Prepare:
• Learn about the area you’re going into
• Check the avalanche forecast and weather report
• Create a tour plan to match your skill and fitness level (consider plan A, B, C)
• Pick your backcountry partners wisely (do you have the same goals?)
• Double-check your gear (backpack, shovel, probe, beacon, extra batteries, skins, tool kit, first aid kit, water, food, extra layers, extra goggles/glasses/gloves/layers, hand warmers, cell phone, etc.)
• Create an emergency action plan (consider what you will do if you have to evacuate someone)

Execute your plan:
• Stick to your tour plan
• Examine the snow throughout your trip for any signs of instability
• Pay attention to the weather (is it matching the forecast?)
• Stay in constant communication with your ski partners

Enjoy the post-trip fiesta:
• Stock a cooler with beverages of your choice in your rig at the trailhead
• Change out of sweaty clothes
• Recollect on the trip with your ski partners as to how your plan matched your execution

The trips cater to all ability and fitness levels, regardless of experience, from never-evers to experienced backcountry tourers. Leading the program this year are longtime Powdercats guides Brian Gardel and Dan Hohl.

“We custom-tailor each tour to the group and whatever their experience level is,” adds Director of Operations Eric Deering. “That dictates where we take them. Last year we had a skimo racer from Switzerland who just wanted a guide to go touring with who just about killed me.”


The courses are also valuable for those planning on taking avalanche courses. (Powdercats offers several Level 1 Avalanche Certification courses each season.)

“One problem across the industry is that people show up to these courses to learn avalanche safety and rescue, but a lot of time gets eaten up because they don’t know how to use their gear,” Deering says. “This helps get people comfortable with their equipment and being in that kind of terrain.”

Another big advantage, Vertrees adds, is that the touring groups can get to areas the snowcats can’t –which is especially useful on low precipitation years. “Last year we had to cancel snowcats because of the low snowfall, but we kept our backcountry skiing program going because we can get into different zones,” he says.

"And the skiing was incredible.”

Another advantage: a snowmobile or snowcat “bump” up into the touring terrain, accessing virgin snow while racking up a little extra vertical.

One favorite trip, Vertrees says, is the “Soda Surprise,” including a drop-off on the top of Soda Mountain, with the day’s last run skiing down the Nose of Soda into the Soda Creek drainage and touring the Ditch Trail out.

The company can take backcountry skiers out within their permit boundary, he adds, unless they’re “egressing out of the terrain.” A great escape from the ski area crowds, a typical day, he adds, includes up to six laps or so of skinning and skiing.

The tours are private and limited to up to four guests per guide. Departing at 7:30 a.m. and returning late afternoon, they include a motorized bump into the terrain, snacks, water, hot drink, deli lunch from Yampa Sandwich Co., and beacon, shovel and probe. Participants need to provide their own touring gear (skis or splitboard and skins) and pack.

“Backcountry touring is getting more and more popular every year,” Vertrees says. “Look at Bluebird Backcountry, a touring-only ‘resort’ which just opened on the other side of Rabbit Ears Pass. So, we figured, why not? And we have much better terrain and snow.”