Friday, April 3, 2009

My Own Private Colorado

The people: you, some guides and 11 of your friends or total strangers bundled up with ski gear. The place: a secluded bowl that only the crazies on the mountain would want to hike to. The scene: freshies in the snow even when a snowfall hasn't hit in more than three days, plus steeps and cornices some drool over. And you hit it all day.

I might be getting a little extreme, but if you're even slightly into skiing--especially if you're a powder hound--the KAT tour at Keystone Resort in Colorado is one experience you won't want to miss. Snowcat skiing in the controlled backcountry at Keystone Resort in Colorado takes you skiing and dials the adventure factor far past normal. Even I would swap ice and groomers--stuff I could cruise all day because I'm in my comfort zone and think I look good--for knee-deep swallows, trailblazing bowls and fresh tracks. My form goes out the window, I'm on foreign skis to keep me afloat in the powder, and negotiating with conditions I once only read about in magazines or watched in Warren Miller movies. But if you want to feel like king or queen of the mountain, hit runs that are only skied a handful of times between snowfalls and be a part of exploratory territory (one of our guides said a lift might be built on our private spot someday and we're helping pave the way), this is one experience not to miss. At $200 a pop and not needing to purchase a mountain lift ticket for the day since you're with the cat, it's downright affordable for what you get in return.

The morning starts off meeting up at the base to check in and sign the waiver. It might seem like you're signing your life away, but really it's the same release you'd see if you looked at the fine print for skiing at Keystone and obtaining a lift ticket. Then it's up the mountain to the KAT yurt for orientation, learning how to use the beacon, losing some layers or gear in the cubby the guides labeled especially for you, and trading your daily skis for some super-fat powder hounds. We're all trading up to the Salomon Czar skis--and with names like Neon Nights and McCrazy to identify ours in the pack--to give us that extra leverage and floating prowess in the powder we'll be searching for all day, and we're slinging beacons over our shoulders under our jackets so we can be found in case of emergency. Luckily we're not being full-flung into backcountry prep and avalanche training, otherwise I might second guess my decision to head out--too many avalanches my eyes spot on the ski blotter. But we get a few quick instructions and guidelines and then it's off to board the snowcat and head out to the backcountry and get our ski on. Whoo-hoo!

Talk about feeling like we're kings and queens of the mountain. The cat only seats 12 skiers and it's so beastly, any skier that even tries to get in its path darts away when it comes chugging along. And that's just the ride along the track to get into the bowls we'll be hitting all day. Once we trek into the desolate bowls, the snow is ours for the taking. Duke and Brewer, our guides for the day, scout out our starting point, the cat stops and we unload out the back ready to start our first adventure. Our guides are handing us our skis and then we're off to follow Duke to the path he suggests we take to meet the cat--one he's selected based on the temps and time of day knowing that he has to break some of us in (OK, me, really) gently and that this snow is going to be nice now and get heavy later. We take off one by one to create S-curves side by side. Well, that's with the exception of me who couldn't quite get a handle on her demo skis and spent most of the time in the powder that everyone else was enjoying struggling to steer or just flopping over. Let's just say, you can easily get out of your element in the backcountry and even the easiest of turns can just throw you for a loop. But making fresh tracks and finding powder so unexpectedly deep that your pole sinks in far further than you imagined is always a welcome sight. Then it's to the group gathering point, either midway down the trail or at the bottom where the cat is waiting for us to load up. I'm not digging being covered in snow so early in the morning and am hoping the rest of the day pans out better than my first run.

Duke and Brewer scout of some of the best spots in the backcountry for us to ski. With the lack of fresh snow and tours going out regularly, they're pretty selective but manage to find several spots where we're tearing up fresh tracks--and finding it hard to believe that we're leaving any untouched snow for those who'll follow. We have the mountain to ourselves as we continue to ski down one by one. And with the pressure of those to follow us, you have to keep skiing even though your quads are screaming in pain (mine liked to yell break time and when I ignored their requests I'd flop over or go pizza-style down the terrain) and we had the added bonus of looking for rocks and rough spots thanks to the wind-blown snow cover. Not to mention the constantly shifting snow conditions. While lucking out with a no-clouds-in-the-sky sunny day--and warm at that--the snow got so heavy in spots we started refering to it as mashed potatoes. And heavy isn't fun to ski, so at least I knew my inability to navigate wasn't 100 percent operator error--the snow made me do it!

Before heading in for lunch, Duke and Brewer led us to Two If By Sea (pictured in the distance), one of the backcountry runs that any instructor will point out when talking about terrain on the mountain. It's one of the longest runs and they'll say you just keep turning and turning and turning. And it's true--pristine skiing even when the wind attacks it and one run where you almost want to turn an empty slate into a slalom run, taking as many turns to keep going, going, going. I stopped twice to regroup, as did some others, but it was more to keep my form intact and enjoy the run than anything else. That and I was desperate for refueling so lunch in the yurt couldn't come soon enough.

Yep, lunch is included in this backcountry adventure--it's even snowmobiled in daily and set up gourmet-style in a mid-mountain yurt--and a welcome break for the legs. We're treated to warm bowls of black bean soup, Caesar salad and make-your-own sandwiches, and we're warned to save room for dessert. Why? Because it's a cheesecake prepared by some of the finest chefs at the resort--all of the food comes from Alpenglow Stube which posts gourmet prix fixe dining at 11,000 feet--and its Turtle style laden with caramel and nuts. Yum, it's hard to resist having a second slice but I know I'll go into food coma if I do. Not a good mix for hitting the mountain in the afternoon, and having to push through snow that's starting to turn thick and heavy like mashed potatoes.

We get our lunch break and then it's back to the cat for more exploration. While we're deposited in roughly the same location each trip up, we find a different way to go down every time. And even if with the sun moving closer to the horizon, we still have a good three to four runs left before quitting time--which can be good or bad depending on the Jello feeling in your legs. I'm still struggling as we go down, having a few good turns and then pushing through soreness but failing miserably. Part of the fun is falling in the snow, but I feel kind of dumb doing it in front of a bunch of top skiers, and looking bad doing it. Like finding thin cover with a rock hiding underneath or flying over a tree--that happened to others but I just caught myself in the heaviness. The only problem is now the runs start going by in a blur, up and down, up and down.

Near the end of the day, it's decided we have time for one more run, a bonus for pushing it earlier and flying down each run faster than some tours go. We end up returning to the spot where the day first started, but this time we don't have to comb the trail one set of tracks next to the other. It's a free-for-all to make it to the cat: ski the trees, head down a gully that's a natural halfpipe, stay above the gully for more controlled skiing. We know it has to be a good run since it's the last trip in the backcountry. It ends on a good note for me when I survive traversing the valley that tripped me up in the morning--and finally feel like I can turn on my skis.

Then it's back onto the cat to load out of the bowls, down the cat track and to the yurt where we stored our skis at the start of the day. As you bumble along, you can't help but want to nod off. It's been an exhausting day. You could say it gets worse too--skiing down the front side of the mountain to end the day. You've been pushing through powder for six hours and now you're hitting the skied-out groomers while acclimating to shorter and skinnier skis again. And in my case, those that desperately need to be sharpened to hold an edge on the icier sections. Back at the bottom both apres and the hot tub are calling my name. I'm needing some much needed relief on my legs. But it was well worth it. Too bad my next run will have to wait 'til next year, but this will hopefully hold me over until then. Posted by Kate


  1. That's called living the dream!!!

  2. yeah i know...I wish I was back out there right now :) thanks for reading!!



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