By R. Scott Rappold
These mountains were snowy, vast and deep, with not a cut ski run, chairlift or any other trapping of civilization in sight.
Aside from our group of a dozen hardy skiers and snowboarders, two guides and the tracked snowcat that lumbered us up to this remote ridge, all was still. This winter wonderland was ours and ours alone, the snow an untouched canvas waiting to be carved up. Imagine skiing in a Robert Frost poem.
Welcome to Purgatory Snowcat Adventures, Colorado's largest backcountry snowcat operation, with 36,000 acres of terrain to ski, ten times as much as the largest Colorado Ski Country USA resort.
As a confirmed powder addict, I had long dreamed of backcountry skiing in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado's largest mountain range. The possibility became a reality after Purgatory Resort purchased San Juan Untracked in 2016, renaming the operation and bringing it into the Ski Country USA family of skiing.
Having thus played my journalist card to schmooze my way onto a trip, we set out Feb. 3 for the wilds of the San Juans, a day that would offer challenges and rewards - not to mention some amazing mountain views - that in-bounds skiers can only dream about.
A long way from home
To get there, we (a) rode a chairlift from the base of Purgatory Resort and skied down to a van; (b) rumbled along miles on snowy forest roads in said van, with tracks instead of tires; and (c) hopped onto a snowcat that after a ridiculously steep ascent deposited us on a ridge above timberline.
This is wild country and to get injured, lost or buried in snow would have dire consequences. Nothing is groomed or blasted for avalanche control, which is why we wore avalanche beacons that most of us had just a faint idea of how to use.
Fortunately our guides did.
Grady James has been guiding here for six years, through three different owners. He started as a teenager cleaning the snowcats in exchange for free skiing and worked his way in. Other than discounts for Purgatory pass-holders who want to book a trip, not much has changed this winter. It was and is still based out of the ski area.
"We're still trying to run the classic operation that we had. There's a reason that we were successful for 20 years so were kind of trying to keep that same formula," he said.
The formula seems simple - find some powder and ski it - but it is actually infinitely more complex - as we were to find out.
At the mercy of Mother Nature
"The bowls are variable - and that's putting it lightly."
That was James's response when I asked why we weren't skiing some of the higher terrain, tasty-looking cirques and steep mountainsides that looked ripe for the plucking. It hadn't snowed in a week and strong winds out of the north had blasted north-facing terrain, which in our hemisphere is the stuff you want to ski.
"We knew going into today that the winds had been out of the north for certain aspects and certain shots were going to be a little tricky to actually ski, but there are also those little hidden gems where you can go get it. If you don't know the terrain you'd probably have no idea they're there."
It's not just the weather they monitor, but snow conditions too. When they're not guiding trips they're often out here evaluating snow in different parts of the permitted terrain, "making sure we're always able to have our fingers on the pulse of the snow and making sure we're taking its vitals week in and week out."
So to find the pockets, one guide would ski down, setting his tracks as our boundary. With a buddy, we would then roughly follow his course, picking our own way down a ridge and into the trees, where the snow was soft and buttery and all ours. The first time I turned a corner and emerged into a meadow where the snowcat waited, I breathed a sigh of relief. In my powder exuberance I'd strayed beyond the boundary tracks.
After two more runs here, each time exploring new areas of trees, the snowcat brought us to a new spot. We took turns traversing around a large open hillside, where the snow was no good, to a wind-sheltered slope where it was good. Very good. Snow flying in your face with every turn good.
After a Spartan lunch of sandwiches, chips and a candy bar, we ventured to a new skiing spot, high on a wind-swept ridge. The guides instructed us where to go, waiting at two different rendezvous points to count heads and show us the next line. Where the terrain was avalanche-grade, we skied one at a time. In the milder meadows and in the trees, we explored with our buddies.
The snow beyond the ropes of a ski area is a living, ever-changing thing, especially when it hasn't snowed in a while. What is creamy goodness one minute can turn to hard crust that will steal an edge and send you topsy-turvy. It was fun yet challenging, and two of the older members of the group decided to stay in the snowcat when last run was called at 2:30.
Save the best for last? I don't know if that was on purpose but the sweet spot we found was one of the best of the day, with soft snow that skied like cold smoke the day after a storm. The long ride back to Purgatory was quieter than in the morning, exhausted skiers and snowboarders swapping stories from the day or just staring out the windows.
James, the guide, said the snowcat operation adds an important niche to southwest Colorado skiing.
"If you look at the San Juans in general you have the ritzy, high-class and pretty hardcore skiing at Telluride, but it's a 2.5-hour drive from here. Then there's Silverton Mountain, which is uber-hardcore," he said. "Then you have Purgatory which is the ultimate family mountain. People are able to go there with all ability levels and have fun. The cat skiing adds that additional element of powder skiing for advanced skiers."
"Maybe the rest of the family wants to go out and ski Purgatory and get a feel for sliding on snow and they're more intermediate or beginners, but dad is more advanced and can come out and get after it with us."
For those of us who'd been getting after it in the snowcat, these weren't lifelong friendships we'd made, but we all shared a camaraderie, partners in a $350-per-person adventure. I might never see any of them again, but they remain part of my memory of the day, like the snowboarder from New Mexico with a hangover who fought through it all day, only to throw up out the door on the ride back. Or the snowboarder whose name I never got but became my skiing buddy because we both skied the same speed. Or the two older skiers who both kissed some rough snow and had the blood to show for it.
We'd been to the outer limits and back, an adventure transcending anything you'll find off a chair lift.