When guided cat skiing started at Monarch Mountain in the late 1980s, not a lot of people knew what Monarch was or where it was, according to long-time guide Gail Bindner.
One of the oldest resorts in Colorado, established in 1939, Monarch straddles a remote portion of the Continental Divide with long views to Pikes Peak in the East and the 14ers of the San Juans to the West.
The closest town is Salida, with a population of just over 5,000. And while Salida today is a bustling outdoor destination, famous for gold-medal fly fishing, rafting on the Arkansas River, mountain biking and skiing, in the late 1980s, it was a railroad town without a railroad and too many boarded up windows to count.
“Cat skiing really changed Monarch,” shares Bindner. A former ski patroller, she recalls the days when no one knew where she worked. “We had a strong junior ski racing team, but that was the only way people had heard of Monarch. Then we started cat skiing and suddenly everyone wanted to come.”
Count me among them. For three seasons, I’d been yearning to take a day trip with Monarch Cat Skiing. This year it finally happened and on a clear late January day, a group of two guides, five skiers and one snowboarder hopped into a shiny new, luxurious, 15-person cat and ventured into Monarch’s most remote and extreme territory.
Timing Isn’t Everything
In most people’s imagination, cat skiing involves perfect turns in untracked powder, high in the mountains, away from the crowds. While we had a beautiful day, fresh snow was sparse in late January. An inch or two had fallen the day before, however, and the wind whipping along the top of Colorado’s highest peaks provided plenty of blown-in snow, or “transport.”
So while the snow wasn’t fresh, it was soft. We had no complaints as we skied wide, open bowls, short chutes and untracked glades.
Booking a cat trip is kind of a dice roll — you pick your dates and you take your chances. Still, the guides at Monarch Cat Skiing pride themselves on “never taking guests on a bad tour.”
“While we obviously can’t guarantee fresh powder,” laughs Bindner, “we mine as much snow as we can.”
The day after our tour, snow began to fall and within 24 hours, Monarch had 26 inches of fresh powder. The people who booked just two days later than we did, had thigh-deep powder.
We didn’t. But we still lived the cat skiing dream: plenty of fresh, untracked snow in the trees and plenty of soft turns in the bowls.
Straight from the guides, here are their tips for making the most of your first, second or 20th cat skiing trip.
- Be on top of your game. Eat well, sleep well and don’t drink too much the night before.
- Bring your fat skis. Bindner recommends at least 96 mm underfoot.
- Bring water and a snack to eat when you’re in the cat. While you’ll stop for a filling lunch, you’ll be skiing hard at high altitude.
- Safety matters. Pay attention to the pre-trip safety video. Transponders are provided for all guests, but only the guides are required to carry a probe and shovel. BCA float packs are optional and provided by Monarch Cat Skiing.
- Listen to the guides and follow their instructions. One guide will set a track and report the conditions back to the group. The guides will also set right and left boundaries and explain the terrain to you. Ask for their recommendations. They’ll happily point out the best lines.
- Pace yourself. Tours run from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Lunch takes about an hour, so you’re looking at 6 hours of hard, sometimes extreme, skiing. On average you’ll ski 10-12 runs at about 900 vertical feet per run.
- Have fun, ski hard, smile a lot.
When You Go…
Cat skiing at Monarch, or anywhere, is not cheap. Trips during the heart of the season, mid-January through March, are $300 per person, while early and late season are $225 per person.
In addition to paying for the guides, the cat, safety equipment and lunch, you’re paying for safety. Monarch ski patrol and Monarch Cat Skiing work their backcountry terrain to mitigate avalanche risk throughout the entire season.
On the day we went, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a “moderate” avalanche rating for terrain above tree line. Because we were skiing in a controlled, monitored backcountry area, the safety rating for the 1,000 acres managed by Monarch was much less.
Cat trips are open to anyone ages 14 and up. And while the guides will work to accommodate everyone’s desires and skill level, you need advanced skills, experience in powder and comfort on steep, sometimes exposed, terrain.
And, even if you don’t want to cat ski, go ski Monarch!
Just an hour and a half from Pueblo, about two hours from Colorado Springs and just a bit further than that from Denver, Monarch is a fun, uncrowded mountain. The resort has grown in recent years, with a new expanded lodge, more dining options, and a new rental and ski school facility.
The inbounds terrain runs the gamut from gentle green, to steep extreme in Mirkwood Basin. A ripping terrain park, as well as lots of moguls, glades and groomers, give this smaller, relaxed resort a big mountain feel.
- Heli Skiing…Falling Down…And Getting Up Again, January 15, 2014.
- Multi-Mountain Ski Passes Offer Value (and Cry Out “Road Trip”) , September 12, 2012.
- Colorado’s Gems: Bigger Isn’t Always Better, January 25, 2011.