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Prrr and growl: snowcats!

Spring Break special web series



Whistler during Spring Break is the place to be and over the next few days Pique will provide details of Whistler's most popular spring time activities. Every day a new activity will be profiled and in this report we feature the use of cats to get to the area's best powder skiing spots.

As soon as the smell of the sled smoke hit me — a mix of unfiltered gasoline and sweet 4-stroke oil — I knew this was to be no pampered ride. As I fought my mechanized beasty like a bucking bronco up the dirt road of Hurley Pass, I was already deep into the adventure, eating up the snow dust and over-steering my corners. Steep mountains rose up on either side of the old logging road, casting vast shadows over the forested terrain. I hadn't expected getting to Backcountry Snowcats to dose me in both scenic panoramas and surging adrenaline. And certainly for ACMG certified guide Chris Atkinson and tail guide Laura Sager, sledding in at speed is a humdrum ride. But for me, I'm already eyes wide to the possibilities, eyeing lines and passes, more mountains than I could shake all my quiver at.

Backcountry Snowcats is a local's operation for those in-the-know, hidden away up Hurley Pass, with tenure over an impressive array of alpine bowls, deep tree skiing, and a burnt-out forest offering a playground of pillows and drops, with higher aspects showcasing enough steeps and couloirs to get your jizz on (especially with names like G-Spot). Owned by locals Reg and Kathy Milne, and scouted out long ago back in 1982, the operation finally launched in 2005 after years of permit-wrangling. What is here is the start of a dream, with the rustic but endearing and comfortable accommodation somewhat reminiscent of McMurdo Station in John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi flick, The Thing (which, incidentally, was shot up north near Stewart, B.C.). I immediately fell in love with the place. This is an outfit where evidently riding is the priority.

Which isn't to say that the delicacies weren't awesome. Bulging lunches, logger's breakfasts and crack coffee were always on tap. Deep leather couches provide the seating for the media room's plasma screen, almost as comfortable as the outdoor hot tub, submerged in an ocean expanse of snow and with a panoramic view of the pass' splendour. Sled in your own beer — packing cans in with your camera and other breakables proved to be a new skill — and keep it cold in the igloo freezer. Hook up to the beaming wi-fi and email pics to coworkers of the day's carnage. Growzer, the lodge's cat, guards your belongings while you're out with his big brother, a sharp-clawed snowcat driven by Oliver. Time to crawl up the mountain — and growl down.

I was lucky on this trip and had stumbled upon the season-ending bender of a few touring locals from the wilds of Vancouver Island. As well as offering snowcat riding, Backcountry Snowcats accommodates sled-assisted tours, self-contained touring parties, nordic skiers — easy enough to groom some fresh trails in the Valley with one of two cats — and slednecks. This particular crew had just wrapped up five days of self-contained touring with some sled assists, and was now eager for two days of lazybones cat riding. They had been returning for years and quickly filled me in on the basics, pointing out yesterday touring lines, far up in the alpine, their powder eights visible from the valley floor in the evening alpenglow. It was April, it was cold, it had just snowed the previous day and the hours of sunlight made for long days out in the wild. As the millions upon milions of stars came out that night, I marvelled at their expanse and eagerly awaited the morning — but not before downing a few neat martinis thanks to the Island crew.