by Darren Davidson

Originally designed as mechanical beasts of burden for use in winter-bound locations, today cabin-mounted snow cats stuffed with passengers rumble across the deep snows that blanket some of B.C.'s biggest mountain ranges. Conveniently, those mountains lay just a half-day's drive from the Spokane area.

Cats can access heavenly hinterland zones once reserved for the semi-elite crowds of the heli-skiing market, for a fraction of the price.

A prime week at Selkirk Wilderness Skiing, located 90 minutes north of Nelson, British Columbia, fetches $3,500, compared to nearly $7,000 at one of the province's heli-ski lodges, where you might be dinged for extra runs as well. While a week-long stay might be beyond either your budget or the boss's approval, a number of cat skiing venues, like Valhalla Powder Cats, located 25 minutes west of Nelson, offer decent day rates of $250 in the shoulder season and $300 during the busier times of the winter.

There are other advantages, too. Because the terrain isn't as big and the transportation mode isn't as high-risk, cat skiing is more laid back; avalanche hazards are lower, too.

But most important, the skiing and boarding is simply sick. Consider a mountain the size of Whistler or Vail -- honest -- covered in 20 inches of untouched snow, all for you and 11 others for a day, or a week. (Most cat skiing operations run no more than one or two cats at a time.) The machines are comfy, warm and dry. Rides from the bottom of one run to another rarely take more than 20 minutes or so, and lunch and snacks are always provided.

While the going may sound a little slow compared to helicopter-assisted turns, think again. Some cat operations have brazenly challenged heli-skiing's coveted weekly vertical totals. White Grizzly Adventures, located two hours north of Nelson, guarantees 100,000 feet of vertical over six days. According to owner Brad Karafil, that's comparable to week-long totals promised at five-star heli-ski resorts like Canadian Mountain Holidays and Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing.

While there are a few dozen snowcat skiing operations spread throughout the States -- and likely none in the mountains of Europe, where they are not permitted -- the world's highest concentration of snowcat operations is in southeastern British Columbia.

All 14 of the BC Helicopter and Snowcat Skiing Operators Association's member cat operations are located in B.C.'s interior.

Thanks to its proximity to Pacific Ocean, winter weather and the cataclysmic forces that perfectly forged B.C.'s geography, there's no place better suited for cat skiing, according to the industry's unofficial godfather.

"I don't think there's any place else in the world like it," says Al Drury.

"Maybe Europe 300 years ago," he laughs.

Drury and his wife Brenda founded Selkirk Wilderness Skiing in 1975. Based in the rural community of Meadow Creek, operating on mountains high above the north end of Kootenay Lake, Selkirk is arguably the world's first and oldest cat skiing operation. The 61-year-old Drury says the region and its surrounding sub-ranges are made-to-fit, from a cat-skiing perspective.

"The combination of the snow, snowpack and glaciated terrain is really conducive to travelling around the mountains," he says.

Here are three British Columbia cat skiing locations sure to make you purr:

Baldface Lodge -- Entering its fourth season, the only thing bigger than Baldface's colossal 45-square-mile play space is the pile of big-name interest it's corralled in an incredibly short time. Baldface's big-time promise has lured the likes of three-time world snowboard champ Craig Kelly, who passed away last winter in an avalanche in Rogers Pass. Kelly was also a shareholder.

Canada's 14-time snowboard World Cup event winner, Mark Fawcett, joined the marquee cast as a guide last season., (250) 352-0006

Island Lake Resort -- Island Lake is a year-round resort that boasts two separate cat skiing operations. The terrain is awesome. Huge bowls, 1,000-year-old cedar stands and the same enormous snowfall that's put nearby Fernie on the global powder-Mecca hit list. Island Lake also owns Powder Cowboy, a smaller cat skiing operation located 10 minutes west by helicopter., (888) 422-8754

Valhalla Powdercats -- Entering its second season, Valhalla takes skiers and boarders into a 47-square-kilometer tenure located high above the famed Slocan Valley, British Columbia's counterculture epicenter. The company offers daily and multi-day rates, with great terrain ideal for long, steep shredding -- as long as 3,000 feet through mighty-old-growth spruce. What's more, more than a third of the operation's stuff is in the alpine, making for huge, wide-open turns way above the treeline., (250) 352-7656

Publication date: 11/13/03

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