Powder Pursuit: Adventure company Steamboat Powdercats celebrates 40th anniversary
For the past 40 years, Steamboat Powdercats has been setting fresh tracks in the backcountry of Buffalo Pass as one of the longest running snowcat operations in Colorado.
“We didn’t know what to charge, we didn’t know what our expenses would be and we had never owned a snowcat before — we took a big risk,” said Barbara Taylor, who launched Steamboat Powdercats in 1983 with her ex-husband, Jupiter Jones. “We took a huge risk, but he was determined. He just knew that it was paradise.”
Taylor said the idea for Powdercats was born during a heli-skiing trip to Canada, where Jones made an observation that inspired the dream.
“We stood at the top of the hill, and he turned to me and he said, ‘You know we have snow this good in Steamboat,’” Taylor recalled. “When we got home, the next thing I know is I’m behind the sticks of a snowcat.”
Taylor put up her house to make Powdercats, which started with a single snowcat, a reality. However, when she arrived on Buffalo Pass on their first day with customers, it had dumped snow and she knew it was a good choice.
“It was a huge snow year — huge,” Taylor remembered. “It was unbelievable. We would go up the next day, and you couldn’t even see that the cat had been there. It was magic. We were just astounded because we knew it would be good, but we never thought that it would be that good.”
For the next 17 years, Steamboat Powdercats would spend the winters picking up guests in town and chauffeuring them up to some of the area’s best powder runs. Guests included skiing legends Warren Miller, Glen Plake, Klaus Obermeyer, Billy Kidd, Moose Barrows, and Steve and Phil Mahre. There were celebrities like country music singer Clint Black, politicians like Gov. Richard Lamb and his wife, and athletes including Martina Navratilova, just to name a few.
“One of my favorite runs ever in my whole life — I was going down Exhibition with Phil on one side of me and Steve on the other side, and the snow was about perfect,” said Mike Rakowski, who started working for Powdercats as a guide in 1989. “They were just laughing like little boys.”
Rakowski said that in the early days, he would jump in a van, get a list of names and pick guests up to meet for breakfast and watch a safety video before heading out into the backcountry. Over the years, the early morning stops have included Mazzola’s, the Tugboat and, since 2000, the Clocktower Building where Powdercats is located.
Kent Vertrees, master of chaos, said the adventure company has always wanted to provide a top-rate experience, offering breakfast and lunch from Steamboat Meat & Seafood and Yampa Sandwich Company. There are also snacks from Honey Stinger and Bar-U-Eat, and the day ends with an après-ski party where photographs from the day are given to guests at no extra charge.
Vertress said Steamboat Powdercats was able to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service prior to opening in the 1982-83 season. In 1992, the company was required to have an environmental assessment and was capped at 1,200 user days each year.
In the fall of that same year, Steamboat Powercats brought in a temporary warming cabin where guest could have lunch. The assessment also addressed signage the Forest Service hoped would help ease tensions between motorized and non-motorized users.
In 1999, Powdercats sold to a group of Front Range investors who remodeled the warming cabin, purchased new snowcats and brought in a new management team, which included Kent Vertress, who has been working under the title of adventure architect, and Eric Deering, who came on in 2001 and was eventually promoted to operations director.
There was another environmental assessment in 2002 that led to more growth for the outdoor adventure company.
“We expanded our terrain into Soda Creek by building an access road, and it gave us 2,200 user days,” Vertress said. “It really grew Steamboat Powdercats to where we are today and how we are a partner with the Forest Service.”
But there were some growing pains, too. The new owners were hoping to expand the Steamboat Powdercats model to other resort towns and into the summer with rafting operations. They also toyed with the idea of rebranding the company as Blue Sky West Adventures.
“It was a big idea of expanding into different destinations,” Deering said. “So, same model in Sun Valley or Vail — it was going to be Blue Sky West Adventures Steamboat, Blue Sky West Adventures Vail or Blue Sky West Adventures Sun Valley.”
But by 2006, the new owners had sold the rafting operations and come to embrace the brand Steamboat Powdercats.
“We’ve definitely learned that the place and what we do is very important,” Vertress said. “We are Steamboat and we are Powdercats. The name had 17 years of credibility and history, so we quickly tucked our tails and said, ‘We are Steamboat Powdercats,’ and Blue Sky West Adventures is our rafting company.”
The blueprint that Taylor and Jones started continued after the business sold in 1999, and while there have been a few changes, Deering said the culture and game plan remain the same.
“We’re a customer service business that goes skiing,” Deering said. “The time we take care of people — showing them a good time, talking with them and entertaining them — far outweighs the amount of time we’re actually skiing.”
Vertrees said Steamboat Powdercats is still looking to expand into the summer months in an effort to keep its guides leading tours outside. The company has also explored hosting international skiing adventures under the same culture that has persisted since it first started in 1983.
“I think more than anything, it’s the culture, and we’ve been told our culture is really healthy,” Vertrees said. “As soon as they walk in, we’re there — it’s like skiing with your buddies.”
As Steamboat Powdercats moves forward, Vertress said the company is looking at guided backcountry ski touring, backcountry bike tours and other outdoor recreational opportunities in both the summer and winter months.
“What has developed since that 2000 time period, where we were able to take what Barb and Jupiter started and then build on it, we kept the family-based feel to it but … we stepped up the game with staffing, with equipment, with amenities, maintenance, programming and that all-inclusive, higher-end feel. … It’s elevated us to the top of our industry.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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