- What do you call a giant pile of kittens?
- A meowntain.
- What’s a cat’s favorite color?
It’s only natural that a few feline jokes would emerge amid a cat-skiing trip. And these are just a couple of many that were shared mid-February in Whitefish, Montana, where I spent a few days tagging along with Fischer Skis on a photoshooting expedition in terrain serviced by Great Northern Powder Guides—the only licensed cat skiing company in Montana. During the course of my stay we enjoyed deep snow, a beautiful landscape, lived it up in a massive ski-lodge, shot guns, did push-ups, chugged entirely too much Smirnoff Ice and shared many laughs along the way.
My trip came to be as Freeskier’s Nicole Birkhold caught up with Fischer’s Matt Berkowitz at the SIA Snow Show in Denver. Berkowitz, Director of Marketing and Product for Fischer USA, had locked the trip down sometime prior and indicated he had space for an additional body. It was just my luck that I happened to be free on the dates in question, and just a few days later, while at the office, Nicole inquired:
“Hey, Hank, want to go cat-skiing in Montana with Fischer?”
Less than a week later I was en route: DEN > SLC > FCA. The latter code, perhaps not as recognizable to some, belongs to Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana (childhood home of Tanner Hall).
Shortly after touching down in the Treasure State, while at the baggage claim, I met 26-year-old Suzanne Graham, one of six Fischer athletes who would be making the trek to Montana. Graham and I shared our excitement for the days to come, and exchanged introductions—the 10-minute summation of our lives to date.
A Salt Lake City native, Graham currently resides in Whistler, BC. She’s a ripping skier, having earned awards including Red Bull Cold Rush gold and the Golden Saucer award at the Pain McSchlonkey Classic. She’s also currently the only female in the world actively involved with ski-BASE jumping.
After collecting our luggage, we were swooped up by one Matt Krant, a NYC-based creative and one of three videographers who would document the action over the course of the week. We made a quick pit stop to fuel up on bevies and boneless buffalo wings, then we set off towards our destination.
From Kalispell, it’s a quick jaunt up Highway 93 to Whitefish. And from downtown Whitefish, it’s another short drive further north until you see the first signage for Great Northern Powder Guides (GNPG); that initial sign marks the entrance to the long driveway which snakes its way up to a hefty sized lodge. This would be our home for the week.
Once inside, we were greeted by Flemming Laursen—a native of Denmark—and Jeffrey Hagerman, the other two filmers. Both reside in NYC. After an exchange of hands, we took a quick lap to familiarize ourselves with the new digs: Nice kitchen, cozy living quarters, too many bedrooms to count (comfortably sleeps 14 according to the owners—although I guesstimated one would be able to accommodate a group of 30+ utilizing some of the couch and floor space), hot tub (thank goodness), arcade games, pool table, big ol’ TV (extremely important, as Taylor Swift was due to perform live on the Grammy’s later that evening), a large outdoor porch complete with grill and more. There is also a vast collection of taxidermied animals scattered about the house, including a full-sized brown bear. All in all, certainly not a bad place to shack up, and plenty of great hiding places for the Smirnoff Ice.
A few hours later, athletes Tim Swartz and Jeff Annetts arrived, having driven from Jackson Hole.
Swartz, 29 years old, hails from Doylestown, PA and now calls Teton Village home. A lover of mountain bikes, golf, hot tubs and Black Forest fruit snacks, Tim is best known as a certified hard-charger who spends his time ripping pow and cliffs at Jackson, and competing on the FWTQ circuit.
Thirty-four-year-old Annetts is a Jackson Hole transplant by way of Morrisville, Vermont. He has starred in films by Warren Miller Entertainment and Nuit De La Glisse, and he too is a self-proclaimed lover of hot tubs. Annetts also enjoys a perfectly paired wine/filet combo.
Also arriving that night was big-mountain ripper Lynsey Dyer—a new addition to the Fischer team this season.
At 30 years of age, Dyer is among the most recognized female freeskiers in the world. A Sun Valley native currently residing in Jackson Hole, Dyer has appeared in films by TGR and Warren Miller Entertainment. She’s a Freeskier cover girl and was voted 2011 Skier of the Year by Powder. When she’s not attacking big lines, Dyer enjoys sleeping in and chowing eggs and bacon for breakfast.
As we all tucked in for the night, we anticipated meeting the rest of the crew the next day, and crossed our fingers that we’d be able to get up in the cat for some skiing. Without Berkowitz on site (Berko was delayed on account of Nemo, the storm that wreaked havoc along the Eastern seaboard), we weren’t 100% sure about how things would play out.
“Should we keep going? Maybe we should turn around? Can we ask someone? It’s supposed to be right off the road…”
Piled into Annetts’ pick-up truck on Monday morning, we raced northbound along Highway 93, eyes peeled for GNPG’s base of operations. We pulled off into a small town by the name of Olney (a place which we were later told was probably not the best spot to stop. The Hills Have Eyes came to mind…) and questioned some locals about directions to the cat-op. Twice we were misdirected—both times circling back to a hole-in-the-wall snowmobile rental shop. Where’s the damn cell service when you need it? And where’s Berkowitz to keep this mötley crüe in check?
Three times a charm! A postal worker told us to carry on down the highway, and sure enough, a few miles later, we found it—right off the road, just like we’d been told. Already a bit behind schedule, Annetts dropped us off and headed back to the house to grab the rest of the gang. The shuttle service necessary on account of the rental car—a plush Suburban—suffering a flat tire in the driveway outside the lodge. Of course.
While awaiting Annetts’ return, Kyler Cooley and Dylan Natale arrived at the GNPG base after having driven from Salt Lake City, with an overnight in Missoula along the way.
Cooley is 30 years old, though he wouldn’t have wanted me to put that in writing. Seemingly embarrassed by his old age, Cooley will tell you straight-faced that he is, in fact, 18. A Missoula, MT native, he now spends his time in SLC and skiing in its surrounding hills—more often than not, with Dylan.
Natale is 29, and has no qualms with his age. Growing up in Hartford, CT, he too has found a home in SLC. A lover of ping pong and snowmobiles, he and Cooley are best known among ski industry folk for their webisode series titled BC Boys.
Annetts soon returned. After a quick meet-and-greet with the cat-op owners, Jay Sandelin and wife Ky, and a beacon test and safety briefing with our trusty guides, it was off to the races.
Up and up we went, happily packed into the cat-cabin, fit for 17. The snow was sparse at the lower elevations, but as we snaked our way up into the hills our spirits were lifted as colors of green and brown outside the fogged-up windows gave way to white.
Eventually we reached our first unloading point, and one by one hopped from the exit of the cabin down into the soft snow. Personally, I imagined myself jumping out in 400 frames per second, as if the star of one or another Travis Rice film. The joys of skiing via large machines…
Dense fog limited our visibility. The guides, wary of the conditions, selected a handful of tree runs for us that morning. The snow wasn’t spectacular, but it certainly wasn’t bad. It had been a number of days since the last snowfall. The terrain was good, with plenty of pillows, logs and natural lips and rollers for us to play with.
Our trio of videographers made some attempts—perhaps futile—to record the morning’s activity. While Flemming and Jeffrey were ultra talented behind the lens (they utilized a RED Epic while on the trip, among other fancy cameras) they were novice skiers—unbeknownst to Berkowitz who hired them for the mission. Evidently Krant, a longtime friend of Berko, had indicated something along the lines of, “I’ve got some guys who might be good for the job.” And, “Sure, they can ski!”
Picture it: A couple of beginners equipped with heavy camera packs dropped in the middle of the Montana backcountry.
Truth be told, the boys managed just fine. Flemming barked orders through his humorous accent, and Jeffrey, a rather large fellow, moved about stalkily like a giant, his movements shielded somewhat by an oversized goose-down jacket. All things considered, the duo’s lively spirits and passion for film will be remembered far beyond the unusualness of the shooting experience.
Back in the cat, topics of discussion shifted from season plans, to warming climate, to Kai, a homeless YouTube celebrity revered for allegedly saving a woman’s life from a vicious attacker. “Call Me Maybe” blared from a set of speakers in the ceiling. It had been quite some time since my last cat-skiing experience, and I quickly remembered how much I enjoyed the time sitting among friends in the cabin, jostling around, shouting over the cat’s rumble and sharing smiles.
We paused midday to fill our stomachs at one of GNPG’s backcountry yurts. On the menu: Chili and hot dogs.
We ripped a few more laps in the afternoon, shooting a bit here and there, and scoping potential zones for another day. Suz and Lyns were dropping off pillows this way and that, Annetts charged pow, Swartz sent some big airs, Dylan aired through trees like a boss and Kyler 360’d off everything in sight. Late in the afternoon, some of the gang had a go at a sizable cliff band.
As we made our way back down to base camp, this time discussing a shared likeness of Geico’s latest television ads, our guide surprised us with a cooler full of local craft beer. Nice touch, indeed.
And awaiting us back at the GNPG headquarters was another surprise: Ky’s pet bobcat, Sway. It was news to me that a bobcat could be owned as a house pet. Turns out Montana is one of a few states to allow it. Sway behaved much like a playful house cat, with one major difference: Get too close, and she’ll let out a deep growl that says, “Don’t f&ck with me, pal.” Once everyone had exhausted their iPhone’s memory with photos and videos of the exotic creature, we ventured back to the lodge. There, Berkowitz awaited; his travel day from hell had come to a close.
Tuesday morning we headed over to base, only to discover we were a no-go on cat-skiing. Weather was marginal, and we opted to save our hours for another day. The forecast called for snow overnight, so we set our sights on Wednesday.
After a brainstorming session, all anyone could agree upon was that we wanted to shoot guns—this was the wild west, after all! Conveniently, Cooley’s father lives near downtown Whitefish and is the proud owner of a few firearms. Over the phone, he offered to purchase an ample amount of ammunition and agreed to meet us at the lodge.
In the meantime, I marched up the hill located behind our cabin with Berkowitz, Swartz and Annetts. Together, we proceeded to build a small jib course in the woods. We stumbled upon what appeared to be remnants of a jump erected for mountain bikers, constructed of logs and a few pieces of plywood—this served as feature number one in the lineup. We then crafted a left-hand berm, which transitioned into a right-hand berm, into a chute through two trees, and culminating with a jump-to-stump-bonk feature. Despite the low snow totals and a fair amount of exposed rock and underbrush, we had faith in our ability to create something worthwhile. Others opted for beers on couch inside.
We’d only managed to session our course a few times (successfully, I might add) before Mr. Cooley arrived, equipped to supply a small army.
Just a few miles to the north was State Forest land. It was there we’d been instructed to carry out our mission. We parked our cars by the side of the highway and trekked up an access road until we felt we were clear of the main road, enough to blast a few rounds without attracting too much attention. And for the next hour or so, we proceeded to fire away. I’d say the highlight of the experience was the look on Lynsey Dyer’s face after firing a shotgun for the very first time.
Later that evening, we opted for an outing in downtown Whitefish. It was Fat Tuesday and one of the local watering holes had advertised a dance party for the ages.
Evidently, the dance party memo hadn’t gone out. The joint was rather empty. We downed a few Jell-o shots (they were cheap, why not?) and tried our best to get the party started. A short time later, we threw in the towel and opted to bring the party home. We cruised to the local market to stock up on PBR, and another sixer of Smirnoff Ice for good measure.
I awoke Wednesday morning to the rattling of an ibuprofen bottle. I quickly fell back asleep but was reawaken by Annetts who made the rounds, sounding off: “Fifteen minutes to get ready!” Once I’d dragged myself out of bed, I discovered many of our taxidermied friends had received Mardi Gras bead-necklaces sometime in the night. I wondered who’d stayed awake the longest—the suspected culprits.
“Call Me Maybe” blared through the speakers as we made our way back to the GNPG HQ. It had snowed overnight at high elevation, motivating tired souls.
After another quick safety briefing, we loaded up the cat and set off. Our destination: the Bus Outlook zone. Once again, the scenery was bleak for the first leg of the ride. We were less preoccupied with our environment that day, though, knowing the goods awaited up top.
But we were all taken by surprise when we peeked out the windows some time later, and ultimately, as we were dropped off on one of the tallest peaks in the area. The scenery was breathtaking. Snow ghosts abound. Shifting focus to the distance, patches of the surrounding Stillwater State Forest would illuminate in a brilliance of sunlight, sink into the dark blue shadows cast by passing clouds, then light up again. There were open faces, ravaged by fire, hosting charred remnants of once happy trees. There were glades, pillows, chutes and cliffs. Where we stood, the snow was deep—fresh. The air clean—cold.
One could revel in the serenity of the time and the place. One could also snap a quick shot for Instagram. Most opted for the latter.
With the goal of collecting photographs and video clips in mind, we set off for the “Bus Outlook.” The cat and our guides actually headed off in another direction with two Canadian clients. We arranged to make contact via radio once we were ready for pick-up. And thus, for the moment, we were on our own.
As we made our way along a lengthy ridge, evidence of a small slide alerted us to the potentially unstable snowpack of the face we intended to ski. We dug a pit, and after a few tests deemed the zone suitable.
For the next few hours, one after another would drop, with cameras at the ready. We saw cliff hucks, pillow taps, tree-bonks and plain ol’ pow slashes. The gang brought their A-game, logging shot after great shot. And after each drop, the athletes hiked up to the top of the ridge, scoped a new line and got ‘er done all over again. Productivity is the name of the game. I myself made a few great laps rocking the Big Stix 122, and was thankful Berko managed to catch a snap of me in action.
Before and after each drop, a shouting match would commence. Athletes up top questioned the photogs stationed down below about the intricacies of the lines they were about to ski.
“What’s on the other side of that tree down there to the right?!”
“That tree, right there! The one that’s slumping over!” [motioning wildly with ski poles]
“Did you say you’re jumping over a tree?!”
As is the case with many photoshoots of this nature, there’s a bit of stress added into the equation. Time is of the essence. The pressure to produce solid content in the allotted time generally weighs heavy on the minds of both the skiers and those behind the various lenses. On days like this, it doesn’t feel so much like skiing as it does work. On the upside, it certainly beats sitting in an office.
By the time we had our fill, and skied out to the cat track below, our day was nearly done. We radioed to the GNPG guides and requested a pick-up.
After munching sandwiches in the cat, we made one last attempt to bag some shots. The clock was ticking, so we gave up before long, and settled for another cold beer en route back down the hill, away from our powdery paradise. (Plus a cold Smirnoff for both Kooley and Annetts.)
Come Thursday, it was time for me to head back to Colorado. The others remained. My trip had been a success, measured in terms of relationship building and exploration of a new ski destination. For Berkowitz and his athletes the adventure had also been worthwhile; a team building experience, the Fischer crew also walked away with a slew of photos for use in 2013/14 print advertisements, brand catalogs and other collateral, plus a video to show for their efforts.
While I wasn’t around to enjoy the final few days in Montana, I was sure to make my presence felt even after I’d gone: I received confirmation that at least two Smirnoff Ice bottles had been discovered on the Friday following my departure: One in the shower of the master bathroom and another in the microwave. As for the remaining bottle—which I presume was never uncovered—well, perhaps one of the next guests will be so lucky.
- Why did the cat put the letter “m” into the fridge?
- Because it turns into mice.
- What do you call the cat that was caught by the police?
- The puuurrrpetrator.