Steamboat Powdercats guiding company responds to ski touring demand
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
This winter (2018), 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.”