Peter Shelton

Snowcat Rules

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on January 29, 2011

Heliski warm-up guy on his way to Canada. Gear geek with GPS/altimeter inside his goggles. High-flying former freestyler on a “guys trip” with his son. Eastern “bark-eater” soft-snow fanatic who grants himself at least one trip out West every winter. The snowboarder who knows he needs to get a split board and skins to access the backcountry but just hasn’t gotten around to it.

The crew aboard the San Juan Skiing Co. snowcat last week included many of the usual suspects. No women this day. “I wish we could attract more girls,” said owner/guide Bob Rule as we jumped out atop Graysill Mountain at just over 12,000 feet. (Goggleman checked his Zeal Optics altimeter and told us so; I later confirmed it on the map. With the LCD screen right there on the inside of his lens, I asked him if it wasn’t kind of distracting, like watching the real-time gas mileage on your Prius as you drive?)

Graysill is the middle zone of three regions totaling 35,000 acres in SJSC’s permitted terrain north of Durango Mountain Resort – née Purgatory. “The ones we do get,” Rule said wistfully, referring to the ladies, “are usually really good skiers.”

Everyone in the cat was a really good skier. Or a pretty darn good skier with the help of fat, rockered skis. Goggleman and the other fellow getting tuned up for a week at the Bobby Burns lodge in British Columbia both had on rockered Black Diamonds from Rule’s demo stash.

The former junior national freestyle guy surfed through even the crustiest windslabs on a pair of super-wide boards made by Salt Lake City upstart Bluehouse. His 12-year-old son Mike scooted around like a remote-controlled Jeep on a pair of K2 Pontoons that worked like blue-and-white spoons on his feet. There was another Mike on board, so Mike fils acquired the nickname M2. You get pretty intimate with people on the repeated 15-20-minute rides between downhill runs.

We learned, for example, that Mike’s dad Steve grew up in upstate New York (Greek Peak) – that’s where he became such a fearless skier – but was now a doctor in South Carolina with kids and a Southern wife. Steve looked like a young Bruce Willis with a shaved head and a winking, action-hero demeanor. He wore his Christmas present, a mini-HD movie camera, on his helmet and followed M2 through the trees like a lynx after a snowshoe hare.

They had flown into Denver, rented a car and were cramming as much Colorado skiing as they could into the long Martin Luther King weekend. “How would you go if you were driving from Crested Butte to Steamboat,” Steve asked at one point. Another time in the cat on the ride back up – jackets open, uncovered heads steaming, water bottles flowing – Steve queried his son: “Whaddaya think? Was this a good thing to do today, Mike?” To which M2 responded: “Awesome!”

Lunch was a brown-bag smorgasbord; SJSC decided to forego providing lunch in order to offer lower daily rates. Some guests brought deli sandwiches from the Purg base. There was lots of Gu, and Halloween candy. Steve and M2 shared prime rib from a doggie box they’d saved from dinner the night before. Bob Leopold passed around a Tupperware filled with smoked meats from Rudy’s Country Store in Albuquerque.

Leupold, who this day went by the nickname Rob (rather than B2), had come in from Boston for what is becoming an annual powder trip. He skis lots of powder at Mad River Glen, Vt., his weekend home for the last 30 years. But that is never enough. These are the guys who carry folding saws with them to carve out ever more lines through the tight hardwoods surrounding Mad River’s snow-saving, meditation-inducing single chair. The old-growth tree lines Bob Rule took us to, even the tight ones, felt like cathedral spaces to Leupold. “You call this tight?” he said with a smile as we snaked through groves of 400-year-old Englemann spruce.

The skiing was, of course, what we’d all come for. The softer the better. And there was soft, recrystalized powder in the shady trees. But that’s not all Bob Rule served up.

On his first foray into the Graysill zone this year, he wanted to check it all out. So we skied wind-whipped sastrugi on the exposed ridges and some tough wind-and-sun crusts in a cirque known as Valley of the Dolls. “Bob likes to make sure everybody has an adventure,” his wife Carrie said later.

Bob proved himself a bit of a poet too on that last moonscape Valley of the Dolls run. As we crested a roll and skied up to him, one at a time in proper avalanche-terrain protocol, he said, “That was pretty, with the moon rising up behind you.”


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