Steamboat Powdercats guiding company responds to ski touring demand
March 11, 2018
BUFFALO PASS — A Steamboat Springs company renowned for providing endless powder days to skiers and snowboarders with help from a fleet of snowcats has been testing the market for human-powered adventures.
With a winter storm approaching from the west, most of the skiers and snowboarders who arrived at the Steamboat Powdercats office last Sunday had a reservation for one of the 36 seats on the three snowcats that provide access to 4,000 acres of terrain in the Routt National Forest just north of town.
Bob Forster and his daughter Liz instead had a seat on a snowmobile that would drop them off after a 20-minute ride up Buffalo Pass.
For the rest of the day, with backcountry guide Eric Haskell, Liz and Bob would wave to the passing snowcats but rely purely on their lungs, muscles and the skins on the bottoms of their skis to explore the powder on the north-facing slopes of Soda Mountain.
"I'd much rather have a day out in the woods with my skins and one or two or three people," Bob said. "People that would rather hike for three hours to get one run in rather than be on the lifts. Enjoying it. Soaking it in at a slow pace."
Diversifying the business
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This winter, Powdercats began to tap into a growing customer base comprised of athletes like Liz and Bob, who prefer to climb up mountains to earn their turns through untouched snow.
"We look at the success of this year's program as another piece of evidence that this is a good, viable business model, and it's a product that people want," Powdercats director Eric Deering said.
With the sport of ski touring growing, some believe there are opportunities in Steamboat, and outfitters are eager to work with federal land managers to offer more locally.
There are obstacles though.
For more than three decades Powdercats has relied on its snowcats to provide memorable days to thousands of skiers on Buffalo Pass, where the Colorado snowpack record was set in May 2011.
Through a permit with the U.S. Forest Service, Powdercats each season can host up to 2,200 people, and those customers get to ski between 8,000 to 14,000 vertical feet of terrain on the daylong tours.
Deering, who started working for the company 17 years ago as a guide, said a few things led Powdercats to start offering guided, non-motorized tours this winter.
The company teaches Level 1 avalanche courses, and skiers wanted to continue their learning with actual experience in the backcountry.
"They wanted to be shown 'How do I deal with skins?'" Deering said. "'What do I bring? How do I route find?' They kind of wanted a backcountry 101."
Powdercats got a positive response when they asked guests if they would be interested in the trips, and the decision to offer them was further prompted by a slow start to the winter.
"Because of the lack of snow early on and the warm temps we couldn't start running tours until about a week after we had planned," Deering said.
The snow troubles continued, and some trips had to be cancelled in January because roads could not be built for the snowcats to reach outlying terrain.
"We're definitely farmers and dependent on the weather," Deering said. "Dependent on the snow for sure."
Powdercats was able to get the blessing of Forest Service officials to offer guided touring this season within their existing permit area.
The company so far has given 13 of the daylong tours, which cost $675 for two people.
"I think we exceeded expectations a bit," Deering said. "It got up and jamming right off the bat."
The tours have catered to people of all abilities — on both skis and splitboards — who share a passion for adventure.
Eric Haskell, who has been a Powdercats guide since 2016, grew up in Colorado eyeing the out-of-bounds terrain while skiing at resorts.
"Just seeing lines in the mountains that were beyond the boundaries and wanting to go over there," Haskell said of his interest in the backcountry.
While attending college, his touring skills and passion grew. So did the popularity of the sport as equipment became lighter and more user friendly.
During the 2015-16 ski season, the number of people who accessed non-resort terrain in the backcountry was up 21 percent over the previous season, according to a survey by Snowsports Industries America. Backcountry equipment sales were also up eight percent to $34 million.
"I think it's exploding right now," Haskell said. "You can tell local touring spots are getting more and more crowded especially in the Summit County area, and we're starting to see that on Buff Pass a little bit."
More than a sport
After taking two runs down Soda Mountain with Haskell, and with the wind picking up and snow falling, Bob and Liz took shelter in the trees to eat lunch.
Bob, 55, has spent his career working in real estate in New York and is trying to make Steamboat his full-time home.
Liz, 22, recently graduated from Colorado College in Colorado Springs and now works as a journalist at The Gazette in Colorado Springs. The two said they caught the ski touring bug in 2012.
Bob said sometime in the 1980s he read an article in a magazine about the famous, multi-day Haute Route traverse through the French and Swiss Alps.
"I kind of just said 'I want to do this,'" Bob said.
His boss asked him to go on the six-day trip in 2012, but the boss had to back out.
"The guide was already set up, so Elizabeth (Liz) and I went by ourselves and did the Haute Route, and that's where we learned to ski tour," Bob said.
Liz was just 16 at the time, but she was passing other skiers on the climbs.
"It has nothing to do with age," Bob said. "It's mostly mental to be able to skin five hours a day climbing."
After the Haute trip, Liz and Bob were hooked, and since then have been taking touring vacations together at least once a year and developing friendships along the way.
"The relationships you build with people when you are out here I think is really stripped down," Liz said. "There is just so much distraction in day-to-day life."
Liz and Bob are expert skiers and were not phased by the incoming cold front and the 40-mph winds that hit Soda Mountain during the tour and shut down chairlifts a few miles south at Steamboat Ski Area.
Last season, they did a multi-day tour of Wyoming's Teton National Park, which included one day with a seven-hour, 6,000-foot climb up South Teton.
"There are not many people I can do this with," Bob said. "She is one of the very, very few."
Powdercats wants to offer non-motorized ski tours beyond the area that is currently shared by its snowcats and members of the public on snowmobiles.
"Due to the success and interest we’ve had this season, we believe there is only going to be more and more demand for this type of guided experience here in Northwest Colorado," said Kent Vertrees, who has the Powdercats' job title of "Master of Chaos" because he oversees everything from reservations to marketing.
He envisions tours without the initial snowmobile ride. Skiers would leave the Dry Lake parking area on Buff Pass and access the Bear Tree Ridge or lower Soda Creek areas.
"When you look at other mountain ranges and ski resorts in Colorado and beyond, most other locations have a multitude of non-motorized options from day to overnight trips, from yurts, huts and lodges, and guided or unguided options," Vertrees said. "Here in the Steamboat zone, beyond us, there is really only Rocky Mountain Ventures guiding non-motorized tours on Rabbit Ears, but that’s really it."
Patrick Meyer bought Rocky Mountain Ventures in 2008. He is permitted to guide snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing on Rabbit Ears in addition to ice climbing at Fish Creek Falls.
Meyer said he has seen backcountry skiing become more popular, especially with older skiers.
“There has been more of a demand,” Meyer said. “Backcountry is cool now, so they want to get out and learn how to do it”
Adding more guiding operations on public lands would require approvals from the U.S. Forest Service.
"It's certainly not something that we're not working on, but it is a slow process," said Erica Dickerman, who supervises commercial guiding locally for the Forest Service.
The process involves a needs assessment and a capacity analysis, which Dickerman said have been completed.
Environmental studies would then need to be done for specific sites.
Dickerman said she was aware of numerous other people and businesses that want the opportunity to guide and offer hut trips, and the Forest Service has to consider competing interests.
If it was decided to expand opportunities, the Forest Service would issue a prospectus to let businesses submit individual proposals.
She said the Forest Service has to use its resources to focus on priorities, which are currently timber sales, fire and fuels reduction. Expanded guiding does not fall under either of those.
"We're just not at a place to open the doors yet," said Dickerman, who added the Forest Service is open to talking to anyone about future uses.