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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 10 April 2010

CAT skiing is totally different to spinnin’ laps at your local ski hill,” says backcountry guide Greg McFadden, as we rumble up a narrow forest track towards the legendary bowls and chutes of Jones Pass, Colorado. McFadden works for Powder Addiction, a new company owned by former ski patroller and avalanche expert Jamie Wolter, and he’s right on at least two levels, perhaps even three. First and most obviously, cat skiing is physically different from resort skiing. Instead of waiting in line to catch a chairlift or gondola after each run, you ride back uphill in a cosy cabin on the back of a tracked all-terrain vehicle with no more than 12 fellow snow-seekers. Rather than sharing every descent with swarms of skiers, snowboarders, telemarkers and snow-bikers, you share a huge, empty wilderness with just a handful of others.

Of course, there are limitations. Instead of charging down whichever part of the mountain you like, you must ski or ride only where the guides tell you, and only after they’ve carried out the necessary avalanche safety checks. Often, when the terrain is steep, you will be asked to ski one at a time in order to reduce the risk of a slide. All this makes for an increased ratio of preparation time to skiing or riding time, but it’s oh-so-worth it, because when your turn eventually comes you’re rewarded with a dream-like romp through light, fluffy, unbroken powder – no bumps, no ice, just perfect virgin snow. Then it’s back to the cat to do it all over again. And again. And again.

In addition to these physical differences – or perhaps because of them – cat skiing is psychologically different too. A run down a busy piste is constantly compromised by background noise: people in front of you will do unexpected things, forcing you to deviate from your chosen course. Even when the piste is empty, the ruts and moguls left by those who have gone before will also have an impact on your journey downhill. On a cat skiing expedition, however, all the static is cleared away, leaving just you, your imagination and the slope in front of you. The enforced pause before each run encourages you to plan your route carefully and – once you’re careening downhill – to savour every last turn. Result: a contemplative, meditative experience more akin to walking through a forest than driving along a motorway.

The third difference, lame as it sounds, I can only call behavioural. There’s something about cat-skiing that brings out the caring, sharing community spirited side in people, just as there’s something in resort skiing that brings out the nasty, selfish individualist. In the cat, you know you’re going to be stuck in a confined space with the same folk for much of the day, so everyone makes an effort to get along: food is shared, stories told, even tentative friendships forged. In a ski lift, pleasantries are sometimes exchanged, sometimes not – why waste time talking to someone you’re probably never going to see again?

Also, a cat expedition can only move at the pace of its slowest member, so – whether through genuine altruism or a selfish desire to get as many runs in as possible – the strongest are often to be seen helping out the weakest. Over at the ski hill, by contrast, it’s survival of the fittest: everyone has paid their money for a lift ticket and they’re hell bent on getting their money’s worth. Who cares if that means cutting in front of someone in the lift line or cutting someone up on the piste? Or if it means not skiing with some of your friends because they can’t keep up with you? This is capitalism in action – nature red in tooth and claw: optimise the number of turns per minute, of runs per hour, and you optimise the fun, right?

Well, not necessarily. After a while, racing round and round a resort can feel like eating junk food – all those turns like empty calories: it doesn’t matter how many you cram in, you never feel truly satisfied. It’s not that people who go cat skiing are somehow better than people who ski resorts – that would be ridiculous – but perhaps there is some sort of proof here that we are all products of our environment. Skiers are the new lab rats. Psychologists: head for the hills.

Cat skiing – the use of modified snow cats to access backcountry terrain – is said to have been pioneered in 1975 in Meadow Creek, British Columbia, by Alan and Brenda Drury and in the intervening years similar operations have started popping up all over the world. But could it be that the skiing world has Scotland to thank for this particular innovation? In the Scottish Screen Archives, there’s a film clip from 1951 showing skiers being taken up Ben Lawers in Perthshire by an ex-army Weasel – a tracked personnel carrier not unlike a snow cat. The television, the telephone, penicillin, the sport of cat-skiing… the list of Scottish inventions just keeps on growing.

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