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Beginner's Guide to Cat Skiing in BC

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Northern BC Tourism/Andrew Strain

For skiers and snowboarders, British Columbia is home to vast and inviting mountain landscapes (and over a dozen cat ski operations), but for the uninitiated, cat skiing itself can seem intimidating at first. At Skeena Cat Skiing near Smithers in Northern BC, the experience is welcoming for anyone who can make a turn in powder. Veteran ski journalist Mike Berard returns to Skeena Cat nearly a decade after his first visit to see just how far this family-run operation has come.

Loading the cat | Northern BC Tourism/Andrew Strain

What is Cat Skiing?

After arriving at the Smithers airport off a direct flight from Vancouver, I’m ushered to a nearby helicopter and whisked from a lakeside tarmac westward towards the Skeena Mountains.

Below me, I watch rivers wiggle through a diverse landscape as frosty wetlands turn to evergreen forest. The mountains are shrouded in fog and clouds, hinting at the snow that hides within. The pilot deftly winds his way through gentle valleys to find his way up. As the clouds become thick and snow begins to fly, I turn and smile at my friend beside me. We are going cat skiing. It doesn’t get much better.

Cat skiing is powered by big, strong, tractor-like machines called cats, with heated cabins fitted on their backs to carry skiers and snowboarders to powdery peaks. Think of it like a chunky shuttle bus capable of fulfilling your deepest powder-filled ski dreams.

Compared to more known heli-skiing experiences, cat skiing tends to be slower and a bit more relaxed and social. Guests can converse openly in the cabin, crank the tunes, shed layers of outerwear freely and snack away while being shuttled to the next drop off point. The ability to access day packs while inside the heated cabin can be a major plus for many. It’s also considerably more affordable.

Sure, you may not get back to the top as quickly as in a helicopter, but this more relaxed pace allows for more connection with the land, as well as family and friends or the new ski pals you’ll bond with over this intimate experience in the mountains.

FAQs - Skeena Cat Skiing
Fresh tracks | Northern BC Tourism/Abby Cooper

What to Expect on the Slopes

We wake to a bluebird day and the peaks and ridges glowing pastel in the early morning light. After a safety briefing that includes how to move around and inside a cat, and how to use avalanche safety equipment, I put on merino wool layers and three-ply GORE-TEX to take on the day. All day comfort is key as temperature changes will happen. So will sweating. Cat skiing is not a passive affair.

The two ACMG certified mountain guides from and cat driver load the cat with our skis and snowboards on the outside. Some have brought their own gear. Others have rented powder-specific gear from the Skeena team or Local Supply Co. in Smithers. Either way, wider boards and skis are better when it comes to skiing the deep powder snow we are headed to.

As we look north into the endless mountain ranges, talk with the guides turns to Skeena Cat’s plan to expand its already massive tenure, and of an additional lodge/basecamp. Located 80 km (50 miles) directly north of Smithers, and 200 km (125 miles) from Alaska, the larger tenure clocks in at over 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres). Think big, open, powder-choked bowls, truly steep-but-manageable slopes, and more-than-enough gladed tree skiing. 

After some initial turns, the guides assess everyone’s capabilities and customize the day of skiing accordingly. Today we will average 15 runs or 15,000 vertical feet (4,500 m). Tomorrow will be the same. Legs will be tired from turning. Faces will be sore from smiling.

 

Another beautiful day in the mountains | Northern BC Tourism/Abby Cooper

The Basecamp Experience

I’ve come to Skeena Cat Skiing almost 10 years after I first visited. Back then, it was a plywood shack and a communal chili pot for dinner, but the skiing hinted at something greater. Nearly a decade later, the same down-to-earth, mom ‘n’ pop vibe lives on, but when it comes to professionalism and safety (not to mention terrain), Skeena Cat punches well above its weight.

Skeena Cat’s truly unique basecamp has evolved into a series of insulated yurts buried in metres of snow, with doorways hollowed out to allow access to comfortable sleeping quarters. It’s an experience that feels intimately tied to the wilderness of Northern BC, but the biggest benefit is the camp’s quick and easy access to the alpine—there’s no time wasted getting above the treeline. 

More about the basecamp

A modest main lodge houses a roaring fire and long family-style table. Here, we meet the family that runs the place. Jevon Zyp and his partner Jennifer Loring-Zyp have all three of their daughters running around helping to prepare the table, alongside a handful of friendly, hard-working staff. The food is fantastic. The company is good. In the high alpine air, the fire—and excitement for tomorrow—crackles.

Skeena Cat Skiing

Length -

Over three days, my friends and I ski some of the deepest snow of the season in between cat rides punctuated with tales of the last run: tumbles, airtime, and face shots. Part of the excitement of cat skiing is not only the experience, but sharing it with each other in the cat or at the end of the day back in the lodge, or in this case Quonset, in the mountains.

Many who gravitate to this very British Columbian style of skiing return again and again, not only for the skiing, but by the camaraderie and the incredible scenery. By the time the helicopter returns to ferry us back to real life, we’re all but best friends, tied together by the shared experience of shredding what might be BC’s best kept secret.

More about the terrain
Northern BC Tourism/Abby Cooper

Getting Here

Smithers is a two hours from Vancouver via daily commercial flights. From the Smithers airport, you’ll board a helicopter for a short flight to Skeena Cat Basecamp. Flying into Terrace (200 km from Smithers) and driving to the Smithers airport to meet the helicopter is another option. Multiple skiing and snowboarding destinations, like Shames Mountain, Hudson Bay Mountain, and the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area can be accessed from both these cities.

More Northern BC Ski Vacation Ideas

While in Northern BC, why not extend your stay and explore these wonderful winter experiences?

Hudson Bay Mountain
A little-known grassroots ski resort gem with three lifts and endless fun. hudsonbaymountain.ca

Shames Mountain
Deep powder. No lineups. Two hours and 15 minutes away from Smithers. Shames is a legendary location in the world of ski resorts. mymountaincoop.ca 

Northern Escape Heli Skiing
Located near Terrace, in the Skeena Range, this big mountain heliskiing and snowboarding destination also features snowcats for when the weather keeps the helicopters grounded. A new mountain lodge was opened in 2020, and Northern Escape is one of the few heli operators to be certified carbon neutral. neheliskiing.com

Skeena Heliskiing
Like cat skiing, heliskiing is an unforgettable experience. At this operation based at the luxurious Bear Claw Lodge—located an hour and 40 minutes outside Smithers—the terrain clocks in at 2.35 million acres and they only take 12 guests per week. skeenaheliskiing.com

Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area
Backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing on a mountain positively choked with snow and altruistic volunteering. bbss.ca/hankinevelyn

 

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