A multi-tonal wash of brilliant color reflects off the clouds as the sun rises over Snowbird's Mineral Basin. A fresh foot of snow blankets the slopes, and spirits soar with the thought of the day's activities. The resort has not opened to the public yet, but we are standing atop the tram ready to get after it.
Lead guides Spencer Storm and Jono Greene brief the group on backcountry safety and check everyone's avalanche beacons before heading out into the field. A few lift-accessed warm-up laps to get the blood pumping ensue and the velvety powder beneath our skis billows up with each turn. Next, the group gathers atop the Sunday Saddle on the southern boundary of Snowbird for a final tutorial and brief history of the terrain we are about to ski.
Over a century ago, intrepid Little Cottonwood and American Fork miners ventured into the hills in search of deposits of gold, silver and copper. Many struck it rich, and claims like the Yankee and Pacific mines produced millions for those with the pioneering spirit to endure the hardships of mountain life. Today, we stood atop our run, ready to mine some of Utah's famous white gold.
The guides informed us of our route and spaced us out one at a time. Dropping in on the seemingly bottomless pow was surreal and the sound of snow and wind whistling over head completed this visceral experience. Regrouping on the road below, we marveled at our turns and approached a small blue snowcat that would whisk us to the top of our next run. Our driver, Andy, steps out onto the tracks and ushers us in. He assures us the skiing will be great and our stoke levels climb another notch.
At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Snowbird announced that it would begin offering something new. Deemed "Snowcat Skiing for Nature" the program is aimed at delivering accessible skiing while raising money for two organizations.
"We are using the proceeds from the cat skiing program to fund the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation and the Wasatch Water Legacy Partnership," says V.P. of Resort Operations and Marketing Director Dave Fields. During Fields' 12 years at Snowbird, he has worked closely with the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation to support their initiatives within the National Forest. He has also recently helped with the development of the Wasatch Water Legacy Partnership, which focuses on maintaining water quality and watershed conservation across the Wasatch front.
The program is aimed at exploring the areas beyond the current boundary. Goals for future expansion are being set out and utilizing the snowcat operation as a way of advancing the knowledge of the ski patrol and mountain operations staff has proved very beneficial. "I feel privileged to be a part of the exploration and be in this beautiful terrain," says Greene.
This is Storm's 11th season as a Snowbird patroller. He has found the challenges of developing the program to be exciting. "I like the combo of working in a dynamic environment and guiding people through the backcountry,” he says. “It is educational for the guests to learn about the area and how to travel safely in avalanche terrain.”
According to Fields, Snowbird's plans for the future are evolving. "This (operation) gives us the opportunity to see how we could expand,” says Fields. “Being there and seeing how to ski the terrain and how weather affects the area is valuable for planning.” Shaping the next step for the resort's master development plan comes out of this skis-on research and will help Snowbird make the most out of its potential investments in the area.
For more information on Snowcat Skiing for Nature, check out snowbird.com