At the bottom of the fourth cat-ski run, Billy Rankin of Colorado’s Irwin Guides mashes the talk button on the radio strapped to his chest. “Chickens are fed,” he says. “Come on down.” What sort of code is that, I ask? “If everything is good,” explains Rankin, “we’ll just say stuff to crack each other up.” On this stellar bluebird powder day, there have been a lot of jokes flying over the airwaves.
The joker on the other end of the transmission is Alan Bernholtz, Irwin’s lead guide. He and Rankin are old friends: the duo helped found the Crested Butte Avalanche Center and are the lone holdovers of the famed Irwin Lodge cat-ski operation, which closed in 2002. Irwin re-opened four seasons ago at the same location, but in a higher-end incarnation that includes top-notch snowcats, luxurious facilities, and a quiver of Wagner Custom skis and boards. Instead of three snowcats crawling over the 1,000-acre permit zone each day, the company runs just one machine, preserving the light, deep powder.
Not that it needs much conserving. Through the vagaries of weather, Irwin averages 600 inches of snowfall a season, almost double what Crested Butte gets just 10 miles down the road. At $650 a head, the Irwin Guides operation costs $100 to $200 more than other cat-ski operations. But if you value quality of turns over quantity of runs, this is the place to be.
Irwin Guides picks guests up at Crested Butte in a Tucker Sno-Cat tricked out with leather couches, thermoses filled with coffee, and a 50-inch TV showing a constant reel of ski films. After a 40-minute ride to the Irwin base, the clients move to a faster Bison model, after which the fun begins. The group refuels at the 450-square-foot lodge—complete with impressive ironwork, leather couches, and an ornate fireplace—between descents of the famed steeps. You won’t find any burgers or fries here: snacks are chocolate-dipped pears and fresh-baked cookies. “If someone wants a glass of good bourbon at lunch, we pour it,” says Bernholtz.
We should probably mention the terrain. Matchstick Productions has filmed a few segments at Irwin, which offers an exciting mix of steeps, cliffs, and wide-open bowls. On the day I visited, our group split to descend two narrow couloirs. The run I took with Rankin, through the Dogleg, is one of the best of my life. It’s a good thing Irwin is back in business. This stuff is too good to lie fallow.
Still not convinced or just want more options? Here are three more cat-ski ops we love:
Big Red Cats, Rossland, British Columbia
Big Red Cats is in Canada, but it’s only nine miles from the border and very much worth the border crossing. For its tenth anniversary this season, Big Red is expanding its permit area to nearly 20,000 acres spanning eight peaks. Owner Kieran Gaul says the operation offers guests access to 600 named runs. With four cats running daily, Big Red has the ability to split clients into four skill levels—from intermediate to expert. They’re happy to show expert riders the 20-foot cliff drops and 55-degree pitches, and every skill level will pack in as many runs as daylight allows, up to 15 per day. All that cat time makes Big Red one of the best values in skiing, with prices ranging from $389 to $499 during peak season.
Grand Targhee Snowcat Adventures, Alta, Wyoming
Grand Targhee’s snowcat reserve measures only 602 acres, but because the resort averages 500 inches of snowfall per year, finding fresh tracks isn’t usually a problem. If after one run you aren’t satisfied with the conditions, you can claim a snow check good for a year. The terrain is mostly intermediate—lower-angle slopes through glades and a few cleared runs. For $379, you’ll get a solid 20,000 feet of vert, with lunch and snacks included. You can also rent the whole cat out for $3,790 and get 12 seats for the cost of 10.
Monarch Mountain, Monarch, Colorado
Monarch is known for its fun-loving, hard-charging attitude and its steep terrain. The 50-degree Dog Chutes aren’t the normal fare of most cat operations, which tend to cater to clientele with intermediate skills (think the workaholic city folk who can afford the day rate). You’ll get less of that at Monarch, which is a bargain at $225 per day or $300 in high season. But because Monarch runs just one cat per day, we recommend renting out the whole cat ($3,300) and stocking it with your ski bum friends lest you get stuck waiting around for novice riders to dig themselves out of the snow every run.