by Kristen Lummis, braveskimom.com
When guided cat skiing started at Monarch Mountain in the late 1980s, not a lot of people had heard of Monarch, according to long-time guide Gail Bindner.
Established in 1939, Monarch is one of the oldest resorts in Colorado. Straddling the Continental Divide with views from Pikes Peak to the 14ers of the San Juans, the resort is both surprisingly close to Colorado Springs and Pueblo (1 ½ to 2 hours) and remote. The nearest town is Salida, with a population of just over 5,000.
“Cat skiing really changed Monarch,” shares Bindner. “Before that most people only heard of Monarch because of our junior race team. But once we started cat skiing, suddenly everyone wanted to come.”
Count me among them. For three seasons, I’d been hoping to take a day trip with Monarch Cat Skiing. This year, it finally happened and on a sunny January day, a group of two guides, five skiers and one snowboarder hopped into Monarch’s plush, 15-person snowcat and ventured into the area’s most remote and extreme territory.
A Good Time, Guaranteed
When you think of cat skiing you probably think of fresh, untracked powder. While we had a beautiful day to ski, you may recall that fresh snow was sparse in January.
But an inch or two here, another inch there, can add up to surprisingly generous, soft snow at the top of the Colorado Rockies. As you might guess, the wind whips along the top of these high peaks continually depositing plenty blower pow, or “transport” on certain aspects.
So while there wasn’t fresh snow, our guides found plenty of soft snow. We had no complaints as we skied wide, open bowls, short chutes and untouched glades of trees from the top of an area called Dog Ridge.
Monarch Cat Skiing has five guides, all of whom come from ski patrol and know the resort’s 1000 acres of cat ski terrain intimately. They know where to find the best snow, according to each day’s conditions, and pride themselves on “never taking guests on a bad tour.”
“While we obviously can’t guarantee fresh powder,” laughs Bindner, “we mine as much snow as we can.”
Whether it’s your first cat trip or your tenth, here are some tips from the Monarch Cat Skiing guides to help you make the most of your day.
1. Be on top of your game and ready for anything. (This means no hangovers, according to one guide).
2. Bring your powder skis. 96 mm underfoot is recommended and demo skis are available from the Monarch rental shop.
3. Bring water and snacks to eat in the cat. While lunch is included, you’ll want to have fuel on hand when you need it.
4. Focus on safety. Pay attention to the pre-trip video. Transponders are required and provided. BCA float packs are optional and available from Monarch Cat Skiing.
5. Listen to the guides and follow their instructions. They’ll gladly show you the best lines.
6. Pace yourself. Trips run from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Lunch takes about an hour, so you’re looking at 6 hours of challenging skiing. On average you’ll ski 10-12 runs at about 900 vertical feet per run.
7. Have fun, go hard, laugh a lot.
When You Go…
Cat skiing at Monarch, or anywhere, is not cheap. Trips during high season, roughly mid-January through March, are $300 per person, while early and late season are $225 per person.
In addition to paying for the cat, guides, safety gear and lunch, you’re paying for avalanche mitigation. Monarch ski patrol and Monarch Cat Skiing work their backcountry terrain throughout the entire season to minimize risk.
On the day of our tour, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a “moderate” avalanche rating above tree line. Because of the ongoing efforts of Monarch Mountain, the safety rating for the 1,000 acres where we were skiing was more favorable.
Anyone age 14 and up can take a cat trip. While the guides will work to ensure that everyone has a fun, enjoyable experience, the day will be most fun if everyone has advanced skills, experience in powder and comfort on steep, sometimes exposed, terrain.