WOLF CREEK SKI AREA - We're rumbling along a remote stretch of the snow-draped Continental Divide, choking on diesel fumes and shouting to hear each other over the roar of the tracked monstrosity that is our chariot.
The southern Colorado ski area had received 23 inches of snow in 24 hours a couple days before, making it the snowiest resort in the U.S. that day. But by Jan. 24, the powder hounds had reaped their harvest, with the only untracked snow left far in the periphery.
That is, of course, why I'm here. And when the machine lumbers to a halt and the driver lowers the gate, we're greeted with a most welcome sight: Horseshoe Bowl, a wide open meadow deep with untracked snow, surrounded by the primeval spruce forest. There's a ski resort out there somewhere, but we're so remote you can't tell.
As for the skiing, well, I'm still smiling 24 hours later.
Backcountry skiers pay around $300 or more for a day of this kind of skiing. But this ride was free (with a season pass or lift ticket.)
Wolf Creek is one of a handful of Colorado resorts that offer free snowcat rides for expert skiers who want to get above the fray and have a wilderness experience without killing themselves on the skin track. Because the top of the chairlift doesn't have to be the end of the climb. Sometimes it's only the beginning.
Horseshoe Bowl Snowcat, Wolf Creek
Just getting to the snowcat pickup point is an adventure all its own, one that will challenge your legs while the scenery dazzles your senses.
Getting there: From the top of the Alberta Chair, it's a short but steep bootpack climb up to the Continental Divide, then a gorgeous walk south along a metal staircase built into the rocks. Strap in on the snow and traverse another 10 minutes on a section of the Divide just a few feet wide, with precipitous drop-offs on either side. Finally slide down past Dog Chutes to the pickup point.
Why you should go: Horseshoe Bowl holds deep, untracked snow days after a storm and is steep enough to let you enjoy it. The forest below is an undeveloped playground of chutes and glades where you can feel miles from anywhere (because you are!)
What you need to know: The snowcat runs only sporadically, usually a day or two after large storms, so be sure to check their website, www.wolfcreekski.com. Access to the Knife Ridge is closed at 3 p.m. daily. There is also a long flat run-out back to the Alberta Chair, meaning the entire trip will take about an hour, so plan accordingly.
Ridge Cat, Loveland Ski Area
Loveland is known for its huge expanse of terrain above timberline, from gentle bowls to steep narrow chutes, all high above the Eisenhower Tunnel. The top of Chair 9 feels like the highest point of the resort, at 12,700 feet on the Divide, but this ride will take you much higher.
Getting there: From the top of Chair 9 turn right and traverse the cat track for about 5 minutes. You may have to unclip and walk the last uphill stretch to the cat pickup area, marked with a sign, at Gate 1 North.
Why you should go: The 360-degree views of the Front Range mountains from the 18-passenger cat are worth the ride itself, but when the snow is good, this terrain will make you feel like a hero in a ski movie. Enjoy single-diamond runs like Challenge, North Star and Marmot or the extreme chutes of Super Nova. Truly adventurous skiers can hike a bit farther to the 13,010-foot summit of Golden Bear. No matter what you choose, combine it with a run to the bottom of Chair 8 for a bucket-list experience.
What you need to know: If you plan to ride the cat pick up a free Ridge Cat Pass and sign a waiver at the ticket office. The snowcat only runs when the snow is deep enough so be sure to check www.skiloveland.com. Hours are Friday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Tucker Mountain Snowcat, Copper Mountain
The back bowls of Copper Mountain are a special place, with few trees, great snow and amazing views of the Tenmile Range. And Tucker Mountain, at the extreme outer limits of the resort, is like a backcountry experience when the snow is right.
Getting there: From the American Flyer lift, hope on the Rendezvous chair and traverse along the groomed track into the back bowls. The cat loads just above the base of the Mountain Chief lift.
Why you should go: This is the kind of terrain powder skiers dream of, 273 acres of bowls, chutes and open meadows, all above 12,000 feet with few trees. Choose your own line through the untracked snow without being drenched in sweat from skinning or hiking up. It just may be the closest thing to a backcountry experience you'll find inside a major resort.
What you need to know: The snowcat does not run until there is enough snow on the exposed terrain, and then Friday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, so be sure to check www.coppercolorado.com. There can be a long line so get there early, and guests with avalanche beacons may get seated first.