Where the skiing is served up family style
WORDS • ERIN SPONG | FEATURED IMAGE • JORDAN MANLEY
Long time Whistler locals and husband and wife, Reg and Kathy Milne, have lived in the mountains their entire lives. In 2005/6, they launched a catskiing operation, Backcountry Snowcats, to share their winter playground and provide an intimate cat-skiing experience for like-minded skiers and riders. Their operation is located in the South Chilcotin Range, just 30 minutes north of Whistler. Heading in to its 14th season, Backcountry Snowcats is seeing more and more returning guests and not only for the bottomless powder, but for the small group experience.
Sitting between two opposing climate zones–the Coastal Mountains and the significantly drier Interior Plateau–Backcountry Snowcats’ tenure spans 15,000 acres. With the same famed storm cycles as Whistler but in a drier snow climate. The adrenaline-inducing alpine and tree skiing terrain is buried in an average of 32 feet of some of the best snow–think light, cold and abundant–in North America. Within Backcountry Snowcats’ expansive acreage there are six different zones with terrain ranging from wide open alpine bowls, steep natural glades and rolling ridges to chutes, pillows and drops for guests to sink their skis into. And because it’s a cat-skiing operation, weather hardly ever slows down the day.
“You can’t compare what you get from Backcountry Snowcats to any kind of resort experience,” says Russ Wallbank, an 11-year return guest at Backcountry Snowcats. “To get that much snow under you for three days is just unbelievable, one year we skied 108,000 vertical feet of powder! The guides take you where they know the skiing is good– they know the tenure so well–and then you ski it up.”
The terrain surrounding Backcountry Snowcats is undoubtedly expansive, but Kathy and Reg have kept the operation intimate. The Hurley Mountain Lodge–which is accessed by an incredible 60-minute snowmobile ride 5,000 feet up the mountain–only accommodates 12 guests at a time. The lodge is a cozy building at the base of the Black Forest zone and has all the mod cons including an outdoor hot tub for a post-send-soak.
“We’re comfortable, basic accommodation, not luxury and for a good reason. We think it’s more important what’s outside than inside.” says Reg Milne. “So we focus all of our attention on our terrain, safe access and guiding.” While many heli- and cat-skiing operations can claim to have great snow and luxury accommodations, the emphasis Reg and his team put on the skiing–the whole reason you’re there–and the camaraderie between staff and skiers sets Backcountry Snowcats apart. It’s why so many guests, like Wallbank, turn into friends and come back season after season.
“You’re treated just so nicely,” says Wallbank as he reminisces on a time when Milne pulled him aside on his annual trip in 2014. The demo locker in the lodge was full and Milne needed to make room for the new demo skis coming in so he asked Wallbank to take a couple pairs of the existing skis home for he and his wife to enjoy as a ‘thank you’ for coming back for so many years. “It’s like we’re gold,” says Wallbank.
Backcountry Snowcats has established itself as a home away from home in the Canadian backcountry. While it’s the virtually endless powder skiing and expansive terrain that entices guests to try Backcountry Snowcats for the first time, it’s really the family-like feeling between the staff and skiers that bring so many back year after year.
Backcountry Snowcats by the numbers
Years Operating: 14 years
Terrain Accessed: 15,000 acres
Annual Snowfall: 384 inches
Guest-to-Guide Ratio: 6:1
Lodging On-Site: Yes
Single Heli Drops: N/A
Cat Types: Pistenbully
Vertical Policy: Unlimited
Closest Airport: Vancouver International (YVR), 2.5 Hours