Snowcat tours take riders to pristine powder
Veering off Kirkwood Mountain Resort’s Whiskey Slide run and past a bright orange “Closed: Ski Area Boundary” sign, a snowcat carrying 10 skiers – and one snowboarder – arrived at the top of Red Cliffs.
The area, just above a day lodge and parking lot of the same name, is a series of rocky outcroppings above snow fields peppered with widely spaced fir trees.
Shown the way by guide Bill Jaskar, the skiers took turns cutting tracks, meeting the snow cat near the bottom, riding back to the top, and doing it all over again.
The snowcat tours are part of Expedition: Kirkwood, a multifaceted program at the resort that includes private guiding services, on-mountain clinics and avalanche-awareness courses.
Much of the snow underneath Red Cliffs on Wednesday was topped with a thin, breakable crust, but some of the more northward facing aspects in the area retained a healthy layer of soft snow from last weekend’s storms.
Finding out where to look for these pockets of powder exposed one of the major themes of the Expedition: Kirkwood programs: education.
If ski school can be thought of as K-12, Expedition: Kirkwood is post-secondary education.
There are options for beginners, but most of the programs are designed to push the limits of strong intermediate and advanced skiers, Jaskar said.
While the snowcat tours provide an easy way to experience backcountry snow without the legwork, the guide clearly was excited about the potential of leading trips farther into the backcountry surrounding Kirkwood, without the convenience of a snowcat.
Resort officials have their sights set on guiding customers into some of the Mokelumne Wilderness, including California Chute, a harrowing chute visible to the east of the resort’s Chair 4.
“We are awaiting approval by the U.S. Forest Service of a proposal to offer a guided education program in the terrain above the Emigrant Lakes area,” Kirkwood spokesman Daniel Pisterosi wrote in an e-mail.
As far as the snowcat tours go, nearly effortless powder runs don’t come for free.
Four snowcat trips to the top of the Red Cliffs area cost $150 per person, while the same number of runs on Martin Point, near the western edge of the resort, cost $200 each.
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