Photos by Rebekah Stevens
There is a reason I live at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon. I can leisurely crawl out of bed 15 minutes before the lifts open and still make it to Alta before the lifties unfasten the rope to Collins. Yes, I know, lucky me, but truth be told January was a little bare, and the Wasatch had been withholding the famous flakes that make a local’s heart skip a beat. We’d had a couple storms, but nothing significant, and it got skied out before you could even begin to think about clicking into your rockers. So I was aching for some soft, fluffy turns.
I placed a call to my old buddy, owner and lead guide, Ray Santa Maria, at Park City Powder Cats. Reaching their manager of operations, Johnny Adolphson, I gave him the “I’ll help you if you help me” spiel and I was in. A storm was heading towards Utah’s Uinta Mountains and they would get me on the next available seat. Well, I got a call two days later (on my birthday thank you) and was set for the following morning.
I had a preconceived notion of what the day was going to be like even before I awoke to my cell phone beeping at the ungodly hour of 6:00 a.m. The last time I skied in the Uinta’s with the Cats, I had to meet up with the crew at the Yarrow Hotel. This is how they did it back in the day. I was shooting photos for Descent and we had wait for all the guys to get themselves together.
It was a crowded ride in a shuttle out to Thousand Peaks Ranch. The sun was barely peaking over the wild, untamed Uinta Mountain Range, illuminating the cold, barren cabin in icy pink hues when we arrived. Our breath sparkled in the air as we gasped in the bitter chill of an early winter morning at the base of the magnificent Uintas. We huddled into the cabin as someone tried to get a fire going. I stood there in dismay as I realized I was going to have to strip out of what warmth I had and into the clothes we would be shooting. Really, who wouldn’t sell their house and dog to shoot photos with a renowned photographer all while racking up pristine, untouched vertical feet in one of the most breathtaking places on the planet?
Yet, there I was breathing heavily into my clenched up mittens and wishing I were home in bed. As the cabin warmed and the old snow cat purred its way towards the cabin I finally let myself go and the day was filled with pure pleasure and insane vertical.
So, there I was, trying to relax in the final moments getting up when I realized I had fallen back asleep and it was 6:40! I was supposed to be at the cabin at 8:30!!! I pulled on my ski clothes and rushed out the door. Snow had fallen overnight and the roads were icy. The shadows of the evening still lingered as I crested Parley’s Summit, passing all the creepers who were tightly gripping their steering wheels in fear. Somehow, I miraculously pulled onto the private drive, which led to the cabin, with minutes to spare. I was surprised to see smoke billowing from the chimney and cars lined up outside. Two shiny cats were gently idling next to the cabin. I stepped through the front door and was surprised by the entirely different scene that met my gaze.
An official-looking front desk staffed by several gracious employees greeted me, and gone were the dark, dusty furnishings and primitive surroundings. At least 16 high-end clients were lounging on cozy couches and chairs, warming themselves by a roaring fire and sipping on cocoa. Heaters filled the rest of the cabin with unspeakable warmth. Complimentary doughnuts, muffins and fruit were piled high, and warm drinks waited to be consumed.
The new owners, Ron Baldis, Matt Shier and Joe DeVogelaere, had definitely upscaled the company. Driven by the needs of the consumers who could and would pay to play on 42,000 acres of mind-boggling terrain, Park City Powder Cats had reinvented itself.
After the morning safety meeting we were fitted with beacons and ushered into our state-of-the-art cats. The company has three newer, beautiful powder cats to accommodate the increasing number of skiers who trek back into the Uinta’s scenic wilderness. Well-equipped and warm, I settled in to enjoy the varied company of people who surrounded me. A vineyard owner from Napa, a playboy and his “friend” who he’d met two days earlier, a couple from England and our entertaining and knowledgeable guides, Johnny Adolphson and Megan Boyer. As well as Rebekah Stevens, their bubbly photographer, whose job is to ski hard all while making you look like a pro!
The sky was still thick with clouds that had deposited nearly 20 inches overnight. Because of the lack of snow over the last few weeks the terrain was verging on the side of treacherous. I knew avalanche danger would be high that day, and the thought of being swept under the snow with the crushing power of a slide was not how I wanted my life to end. My concerns were justified, but I soon realized I had nothing to worry about. Park City Powder Cat’s guides are some of the best around. They’ve had extensive training and experience all over the world, including Canada and Alaska. They take every precaution to make sure their clients are safe. Because of the snow conditions, some of the 3000 vertical plus of steep terrain, I had skied on my last visit, was off limits. Although my adrenaline junkie of a body wasn’t going to feel the rush of making tight turns down a gnarly shoot, I was elated as billowy plumes of powder encircled me as I carved down perfectly pitched slopes entombed in the white stuff that makes Utah famous. Any anxiety we felt gave way to euphoric joy as each of us made our way down the untouched pristine slopes.
Through a virgin glade of trees we eventually made our way to a picnic table, which was brimming with delicious food. Park City Powder Cats filled our bellies with hot lobster bisque, deli sandwiches and freshly-baked sweets. The sun was beginning to break through the clouds, and as we finished lunch we knew we were in store for a spectacular afternoon.
Crystal skies greeted us as we stepped off the cat and onto a sparkling ridge of untouched snow. From the top of Thousand Peaks Ranch are 360 degree vistas that spread out for miles. The unspoiled Uintas boast several peaks that tower over 13,000 feet. As we stood there surrounded by jagged, snow-capped mountains and tiny valleys tucked away from the world, we were all struck by the infinite beauty that encompassed us. As a faint moon kept watch in the distance we reveled in the glory of the rest of the afternoon, run after perfect run! Cat skiing gives you the opportunity to ski epic lines while hinting at the thrills of a TGR ski flick. There is no hiking, no cold feet, no heavy skis to carry and, best of all, no lift lines to wait in. Other than your crew, the occasional moose and other mountain creatures, you are alone. You are the King (or in my case Queen) of the mountain!
As the light began to dim, the warmth of the quietly purring cat greeted us after our final epic run. The natural high was intoxicating, and as we gently bounced along everyone agreed that we would each return again. Excited by my good fortune, a smile spread across my face as I thought of the incredible skiing I’d found so close to home and away from Utah’s lively resorts. I couldn’t wait to spread the word!
Park City Powder Cats operate from mid-December until April. Starting at $399, you can’t afford not to go up and give it a try. Trust me, it was the best birthday present a girl could give herself! You can reach them at pccats.com or by calling 435-649-6596.