Sno-Cat Skiing the Monashee Mountains - Better than Heli-Skiing?
I see something very bright as we finally reach snow. We’ve been bumping around in an old school bus while ascending a slushy, dirty, gravel road from Highway 1 just West of Revelstoke.
It's "Maude" one of three brightly painted Sno-Cats - another one is called "Harold" - they will take us deep into the spectacular Monashee Mountains in British Columbia. Not a soul will be there except the 30 lucky Sno-Cat skiers just waiting for those fresh tracks, along with the fun staff, wonderful chef, and professional guides. We see the tired but smiling faces of the previous group get out of the Sno-Cats. They look for their luggage and skis prior to taking our spots in the bus for the ride back down the hill. We ask them the much anticipated question, “How was it?”
The gorgeous Monashee Mountains stretch 329 miles from north o south (93 miles east to west) and are mostly in British Columbia, but extend into Washington State. Mt Monashee is the highest point at 10,741 feet. The beautiful old growth spruce trees end at 7000 feet (tree line) and are almost perfectly spaced for powder skiing. On the West side of the mountains it snows –cold and light - nearly 60 feet in a season. The base reaches its maximum at about 12 ½ feet in March. The Monashees are part of the Columbia Range which is part of the Canadian Rockies-they look exactly like you think they should.
Revelstoke BC now has a ski area that originally was a Sno-Cat operation which many in our group frequented. On the first day of our trip we “took it easy” knowing what was to come, and checked out the old runs in the new area. Revelstoke Mountain Resort is in its fourth season and boasts the greatest vertical in North America serviced by a lift-5,620 feet. It currently has two lifts and one gondola with a surprisingly varied and large amount of terrain. Modest motels in town are the primary lodging option unless one stays at the new luxurious Nelson Lodge up at the resort. Revelstoke is a place we will go back to.
Mustang Powder, the Sno-Cat operation we selected definitely caters to stronger skiers. You must be ready (with your lunch) - no stopping – to get in the Sno-Cat at 8:30am and ski until at least 4:30pm. If you get tired you had better sit out a run in Harold or Maude so the other 11 skiers won’t miss a turn. With this rigor, we skied just under 20,000 vertical feet each day which is typical at Mustang. Heli-Skiers can average up to 25,000 vertical per day – “if” the helicopter can fly. Sno-Cats run every day no matter the weather - not true with helicopters. The great news is that Sno–Cat skiing is about one half the price of Heli-Skiing even at a higher end place like Mustang!
The magnificent timber frame lodge sits alone at 5700 Feet in the middle of the expansive 30,000 acre tenure (like a forest land lease) which happens to be 11 ½ times the size of our local ski area. Morning begins at 7:00 am when you hear a knock on your door asking you if you’d like cream or sugar in your coffee, which they serve you “in bed”. A breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruit, yogurt and whatever else the chef comes up with is ready at 7:30 while the highly trained, professional guides (rigorous certification in Canada) talk about current snow conditions. The first day begins with a two hour avalanche class which includes transceiver practice. Safety is taken very seriously and everyone must wear the transceivers they provide. The whole thing actually made me a bit nervous in the beginning.
A really fun part of Sno-Cat skiing is the Sno-Cat itself. You can only imagine the jokes, stories, friendships, and naps that occur when 12 excited powder skiers are together for 15 runs a day. Each ride up is about 15 minutes. It’s nice to get a group together that are all compatible skiers. Our group certainly fit the bill. We had me, my brother, my nephew, and five friends from Seattle. Since we did not have a full Sno-Cat some great guys joined us - the “snow board dude”, the generous ski shop owner, a fast skiing forestry consultant, a “regular” (12 trips to Mustang) from San Francisco, and a ski patrolman from Blackcomb - don’t say Whistler. We had a ball - my favorite part was when my nephew leaned over to me and said “I have never seen my Dad laugh so hard”.
The tired but smiling faces we asked, “How was it?” at the beginning of the trip actually told us that is was “epic”, a word we love to hear. We had been a bit worried because the temperature in town was stuck on 39 degrees F - too warm. Those faces did not disappoint us, that is for sure. Once we unloaded the Sno-Cat the first day, clicked in, and pushed off you could immediately feel the free flowing “turns” in the deep powder. The much sought after “fresh tracks” were finally realized. I couldn't resist letting out screams of joy.
We had some of the best skiing we had ever experienced. The first two days we were skiing in nearly 3 feet of “new” - almost too much. I got caught in a small slide but was not concerned although I did switch to big fat skis. We skied in the trees to mitigate the avalanche danger and visibility issues but the runs were “epic” as promised. The third day I had to sit out due to “back issues” and my nephew sat out due to a knee injury.
On the fourth day the snow and clouds cleared. It was a “bluebird day”. We headed out to the Northern part of the tenure on newly plowed Sno-Cat roads.We were above tree line.As we unloaded the Sno-Cat, one couldn't help but stop and look out at the endless white. In the distance rugged peaks touched the deep blue sky giving some sense of boundary to the expanse. It was quiet. All you could hear was the hum of the Sno-Cat and the wonderful crunching under our ski boots signaling the cold, light snow we love to call powder. Incredible day!
After skiing everyone congregates and enjoys some drinks and an appetizer - my favorite were the crab cakes. With any luck the clouds clear because the view of the mountains out the lodge is spectacular. We got to see it in clear weather with nearly a full moon. Around 7:00 pm a four course local organic dinner is served. One night we had a mixed green salad, parsnip and green apple soup, followed by pork tenderloin, topped off with individual chocolate soufflés. Every night at dinner my friends and family made a toast to me for organizing-they were duly impressed and having fun. I had been to Mustang Powder before and was so happy to be sharing it with them, especially with such good snow conditions.
After four fabulous days we headed down in the Sno-Cat. We are now the tired but smiling faces getting out of “Maude” looking for our luggage and skis. A group of very festive skiers on the way up asked us the much anticipated question we had asked, “How was it?” I answered, “Absolutely incredible”. My nephew answered, “Epic
If you go:
There are many options in addition to Mustang Powder for Sno-Cat and Heli-Skiing in both the Monashee and Selkirk Mountains. The ski season lasts from approximately December 1st to April 1st. Mustang often books up a year out since “first dibs” are given to returning groups for the following year. In recent years there seems to be more spots available 6 months out – probably due to the economy and/or the US exchange rate. If you have last minute flexibility it looks like you can get a great deal! Daily rates at Mustang range from $600-$900 per day depending on the time of year and include food, lodging, and skiing. A Sno-Cat generally accommodates 12 skiers. It’s nice to have your own group but you can go as a single or with a smaller group and take your chances with “strangers”. Trip insurance is available – it proved handy for my brother and nephew.