By Dan Rabin
Dan Rabin is a Boulder-based freelance writer and author of the guidebook, Colorado Breweries.
Standing atop the Continental Divide at over 12,700 feet above sea level, the view in all directions is inspiring, to say the least. However, on this pristine morning, its the view looking down thats most enticing.
Far below my vantage point, the trails of the Loveland Ski Area weave a white web through dark stands of evergreen forest. In the foreground, high above timberline, acres of wide open terrain are blanketed by an ankle-deep layer of fresh powder the snow gods have kindly deposited overnight.
Ive come to Loveland to check out the Snowcat skiing program that provides visitors with the opportunity to ski 400 acres of gorgeous high altitude terrain inaccessible by lift. The program was first offered during the 2012/2013 season, which was Lovelands 75 anniversary.
Located a mere 53 miles from Denver, Loveland has built a reputation as a locals favorite for its accessibility, affordability, manageable crowds, and an average of 400 inches of annual snowfall. The resort is always among Colorados first to open each season and generally stays open into May. Through the years, Loveland has remained refreshingly low-key and unpretentious bereft of the high-end shopping and slopeside condos now common throughout Ski Country. For the resorts many regular visitors, thats just fine.
Each year, Snowcat skiing commences as soon conditions allow. For the current 2015/2016 season, it began in late January, which has been typical since the programs inception. Cat skiing is offered Wednesday through Sunday, whenever conditions are favorable. Best of all, its free.
Heres how it works. When you arrive at the base area in the morning, head to the Basin ticket office. Purchase a ski pass if you dont already have one and request a Ridge Cat pass. After filling out some brief paperwork, youll receive your pass and youre ready to head out to meet the Cat near the top of Lift 9.
On the day of my visit, I warmed up my legs with a run down South Chutes as I made my way to Lift 9, which boards mid-mountain. The lift tops out on the Continental Divide. After admiring the view for a few moments, I traveled the short traverse along the ridge to the Snowcat pickup area.
The Ridge Cat, as the transport vehicle is called, makes regular runs throughout the day between the pickup spot and drop-off point, located just below 13,010-foot Golden Bear Peak. Arriving at the loading area at mid-morning, the cat was barely visible far up the ridge. By the time it arrived, a capacity crowd of 15 had gathered. Because of the cats limited capacity, there was plenty of untouched terrain available when I arrived at the drop-off.
The routes off the ridge carry ratings ranging from single black diamond to double black to extreme. While most of the people I had shared my ride with headed further up the ridge to access the more challenging terrain, I was content to begin my descent on a moderate black diamond route called Field of Dreams, which took off close to where we unloaded.
Despite my less-than-expert abilities, I found the incline quite manageable and the fresh powder soft and forgiving. Skiing through untouched powder requires a somewhat different technique than navigating the groomers I was accustomed to. But after a few turns, I fell into a comfortable rhythm. The experience of carving turns in the fluffy pow was both exhilarating and relaxing. With Lovelands free Snowcat program, its an experience now accessible to all.