Great cat skiing in Canada
Dave Watts casts his mind back a week or two to his visit to western Canada, and in particular to Island Lake Lodge, almost next door to Fernie ski resort.
I’ve sampled 10 or 12 cat skiing operations in north America, and a return visit to Island Lake Lodge earlier this month confirmed that it is simply the best. It is accessed by a private road to an isolated car park and then a 30-minute snowcat ride. When you arrive you are greeted by two sumptuous log-built lodges with spacious and comfortable bedrooms with large en-suite bathrooms, each with a huge bathtub and large walk-in shower. There’s another lodge with more modest accommodation at lower prices – all have great outdoor hot tubs with stunning views of the mountains. There’s a restaurant that serves good modern Canadian cuisine and a separate bar in a fourth building that also houses the ski room and guides’ offices.
But this comfortable lodging is the icing on the cake. The cake itself is the fabulous cat skiing in untracked powder. I stayed and skied there for two days during my Canadian trip. They have over 7,000 acres of terrain and only three snowcats, each holding a maximum of 12 guests – so that’s nearly 200 acres for each guest even when they are full. Snow cat skiing is much more relaxing (and much cheaper) than heli skiing – but you get the same opportunity to ski untracked snow in varied terrain.
The ILL snowcats are fitted with comfortable seats and a sound system that you can dock your iPod in. The cat drops you off at the top of a run with your two guides, – one leading the group, the other sweeping at the back and helping anyone who falls. Then the cat meets you at the bottom of the run and takes you up to another. You spend roughly the same time riding up as you do skiing down – time to relax, dry your goggles out and munch on the plentiful supply of sandwiches, cakes and snacks provided.
Conditions were challenging for the guides when I arrived, following rain the previous day. Thankfully, 20cm of fresh snow overnight meant good conditions for the top half of each run we did, but the snow cat skiing became heavier lower down. Yet more snow during that day and the next night meant better conditions the next day and our whole group was whooping and hollering with joy as we tore up the untracked powder through the trees. Our group included four male snowboarders from the UK plus another British snowboarding girl. Everyone loved it.
Naturally, they take the risk of avalanches very seriously here – as I confirmed when allowed to sit in on the guides’ meetings before and after cat skiing, where avalanche risk is discussed in detail and the guides agree on which runs are safe to be skied, which are not and which need to be checked out by special ‘snow safety’ guides. On this occasion, we were not able to access the high ‘Alpine’ terrain above the treeline because of the high avalanche risk caused by the rain and warm weather. But on my previous one-day visit several years ago with Chris Gill, we had skied the Alpine virtually all day and had a wonderful time amid stunning scenery.
So if you get the chance and you enjoy untracked powder, give Island Lake Lodge a go. They offer mainly 3 and 4-day cat skiing packages. But if they aren’t full, they offer skiing by the day – so if you are in the Fernie area, contact them to check availability. Before the recession they were booked two years in advance. But in January this winter they had plenty of space for day skiers.