Park City Powder Cats

Close your eyes. There are no liftlines, no crowds. The race for first tracks in an inch of resortdust-on-crust is the farthest thing from your mind. You are in the western Uintas (Yoo-in-tahs), Utah’shighest mountain range. Snow falls from the flat mid-April sky.

It precipitates every single day of the year up here. Twenty-five miles northeast of Park City is a small cabin built for the set of a failed television show-akind of Western with modern, Baywatch fictional appeal. Surrounding the cabin, on the privately ownedThousand Peaks Ranch, are 60,000 acres of quiet mountains whose rolls and wind-blown lips cast grayshadows onto untracked snow-around 500 inches of it a season. Ray Santa Maria, a transplanted surfer,knows the area well. He’s been operating Park City Powder Cats here for five years. It’s his home break.During that time, Park City Powder Cats has evolved into a premier snowcat operation. It’s no resortsideshow, or temporary expansion substitute, but the real thing. Its glades and open bowls are an end inthemselves, offering visitors a comfortable adventure and a glimpse into the mountains they wouldn’totherwise experience.

Locals partake, too, for snow unlike that of any lift ticket-virgin powder-and withoutthe threat of it being tracked up by mid morning. Allen Titensor, a frequent cat customer and director of anarea ski school, describes cat-boarding as “an affordable heli day. It’s a step above lift service, like you’retreating yourself-or being treated.” The fact that the snow will be good as long as your legs are sets a relaxedtone for the day. No pressure, no hurry, just fresh turns with friends. Outside the cabin, where guests attendto waivers and their equipment, hums the diesel Kässbohrer 240D snowcat with a custom-made sky roof,and very sufficient stereo system (bring a tape). To the rhythm of the Rolling Stones, the cat moves outacross the valley, over a bridge, and onto the treed lower slopes. At a healthy snowcat clip of about fifteenmiles per hour, riders arrive atop one of the many accessible peaks in twenty minutes or so. Terrain istypically a big issue with snowcat operations. The cats themselves are limited by design to areas withridgeline access-they can’t necessarily go up just any slope, even though it sometimes seems that way (manyresorts use a winch to assist cats with grooming steep slopes). It’s these very requirements and limitations,ones that plague most cat outfits, that make the terrain at Park City Powder Cats unique. Through some actof God, and the operator’s planning and experience, Park City Powder Cats has some of the best terrainanywhere-especially if you’re on a snowboard. Every cruisy glade and steep bowl is blessed with acatwalk-like ridgeline that perfectly accommodates the fourteen-foot-wide aluminum (better for lightpowder) tracks of the Kässbohrer. From the moment you disembark, fall-line powder is the theme du jour.

Whether on Windy Peak, August Ham, or Corn Bowl, riders get to the bottom with frosted beards and bigsmiles, and without the awkward traverses or runouts standard at other snowcat and heli outfits. The cat iswaiting at the bottom, or close by. After 5,000 vertical feet of Uinta powder, or about halfway through atypical day, riders descend on a welcome sight. A sort of Julie Andrews winter picnic. Soups, sandwiches,and all the fixin’s, are silver-plattered on a table etched out of snow, while tunes of choice echo from withinthe cat. When snow starts falling and visibility diminishes, it’s off to the trees of Sherwood Forest.

Throughout the day, the two guides decide on the best slopes to ride based on the group’s ability level andthe snow conditions. Unlike heli-boarding, inclement weather doesn’t have much effect on a day ofcat-boarding, if anything it just means better, deeper snow. Aside from the freedom to operate in poorweather, cat-serviced powder riding is inherently less expensive and safer than heli-boarding. Rounding outthe afterrnoon in the glades, or with some of what Allen calls “let your hair blow behind ya” turns on GiantSteps, is the perfect nightcap to the powder party. Back at the cabin, on the Western set, it’s clear that whilethe television show only lasted three episodes, the fantasy lives on every time there’s a powder day atThousand Peaks Ranch. Park City Powder Cats runs from December through April. Call (801) 649-6596for information.