PUBLISHED: 4:08 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Taking on the slopes in Haines

Photo by Matt Borsch
  Skier Damon Hoffman takes a run called Fat Stacks.
The wind had been blowing in Haines and the surrounding mountains for six days.

And the moment the skiers and snowboarders emerged from the snowcat, a tracked machine designed to move through snowy mountains, it was apparent the wind at 3,000 feet was even more powerful than down by the Klehini River, where the ascent started.

"It's like Everest up here," shouted Joe, a local who came for a day of snowboarding, while a cloud of snow whipped past and obscured the surrounding peaks.

Guide Scott Sundberg assured the group that they'd find good snow, powder even, but the alpine terrain surrounding the snowcat was completely wind-scoured, a smooth sheen punctuated by deep drifts of loose snow.

People quickly strapped into their snowboards and skis and descended several hundred yards into the leeward side of a patch of trees, where the wind was no longer whipping about and the snow was soft powder. Everyone was smiling with pleasure and relief.

"We're going to ski in the trees today," Sundberg said.

"I want you to ski in groups of two or three, with one radio in each group. We're going to follow this fall line and when you get to the logging road, stop and wait for the cat to come get you."

There were 10 people the snowcat, with two guides, plus a driver in an enclosed, heated cab up front.

The snowcat, which is like a gondola box on tracks, can carry up to fourteen people.

The crew was a mixture of locals and tourists: a couple from Idaho on a two-week ski trip, some Canadians down for a weekend of skiing, two high school kids from Haines and a few others.

This is the first year that a company has offered snowcat skiing in the Chilkat Valley, and locals have been taking advantage of it.

"Dude, it's awesome," said Christian Lende, a senior in high school.

"You don't have to hike for your turns."

And unlike helicopter skiing, which costs several hundred dollars, it is relatively affordable and accessible for intermediate skiers.

When the wind isn't blowing, wide-open glades of moderately steep terrain is available for skiing, said Sundberg, who is co-owner of the snowcat company.

The skiers and snowboarders in the group had varying degrees of backcountry experience, so the guides dispersed themselves amongst the crew. Everyone was required to carry shovels and wear beacons, a tracking device to help locate buried avalanche victims.

During the 40-minute ride up the mountain, the guides taught a crash-course in backcountry skiing safety and technique and handed out two-way radios.

However, Sundberg assured the group that the skiing wouldn't occur in avalanche terrain, since the high winds precluded the snowcat from climbing to the high terrain and the good snow was in low-angle, forested slopes.

The group dispersed into the trees, the guides intermingled themselves.

The terrain featured spruce and hemlock forest and the snow was still soft from the protection of the trees.

Several hundred feet down the hillside, the forest gave way to a clearing where a group of snowboarders hooted with delight while carving big turns in soft snow before they descended into the trees again. Three snowboarders were funneled into a tight ravine before once again emerging into an open glade with soft snow creating pillows on top of large rocks.

Finally, 1,500 feet later, the downhill crossed a snow-covered logging road, where everybody regrouped and climbed back into the snowcat to head back up the mountain.

Sipping tea from thermoses and eating snacks, the group talked about the terrain and the snow conditions and pestered the guides with questions.

Up front, in the heated cab, the driver, "Hoss," had goggles lying out on the dashboard, drying them out with the defroster.

A 20 minute snowcat ride and the group was once again in the windy alpine.

An average day of cat skiing made includes up to eight runs, totaling nearly 15,00 vertical feet of skiing. Without the wind, the cat can go higher by nearly 1,000 feet and skiers can access a greater variety of terrain.

The highlight of cat skiing is the final run, when skiers drop down to near sea level, a long run through open glades and fresh powder that leaves people panting with exhaustion.