Usually these interviews focus on families and resorts that cater to us in outstanding ways. Today’s interview is different. To cat ski at Retallack, you have to be 19. So unless you’ve got college age or grown up children, Retallack is all about the guys, the girls or couples getting a serious powder fix.
Ski schools? Nah. Terrain parks? Fuhgedaboutit. Bottomless pow and a retreat from responsibility? Now we’re talking.
Okay Joel, you live in Colorado and ski Telluride. Why make the effort to go to Retallack?
About 11 years ago, a friend of mine saw Retallack featured in a Warren Miller film. At that moment, watching the pros ski big steeps and trees, he decided he was going there. Every year, he tries to get 12 friends to fill a cat. I started going in 2011 and went again this year.
What makes Retallack unique?
First of all, with a full cat, you’re skiing with the same people for between 3 and 5 days, depending upon the length of the trip. Retallack has 2 cats, so each day only 24 people are skiing in an area that is bigger than Telluride. This means that the guides find the best snow and it’s always fresh tracks.
This year, we met a man from Canada HeliCat who does guide training and avalanche safety inspections. He told us that, in his opinion, there is nowhere like Retallack. Not only is it a very safe operation, but
Retallack has the best terrain.
Let’s talk about logistics. How do you pull off a trip to Retallack?
Retallack is remote. It is near Nelson, BC, but there is no direct way to get there. We fly into Spokane and then load into a rented SUV for the five-hour drive. On the last day we ski until 5:00 and spend the night in Nelson before heading back to Spokane.
Retallack is an all-inclusive, so you pay for a room in the lodge, food, and the cat up front. They loan you a beacon and provide safety equipment. Really, everything is covered except alcohol and optional powder skis. The guides are excellent and I’ve always felt really safe.
As for accommodations, the lodge has double occupancy rooms, with twin beds and a shower. It’s a big lodge, but nothing luxurious. There is satellite TV and internet, but no phones and the internet is very slow. Everyone eats in the big dining room and the food is great.
Any words of wisdom for someone considering Retallack?
To enjoy Retallack, you have to be able to ski trees. You also have to choose your group carefully, because you’re tied to your group. If you have one person who is dragging, they hold everyone back. The guides evaluate each skier and choose the appropriate terrain, but if you can’t keep up, you may get sent to the bar.
The steep terrain is steeper than anything else I’ve ever skied. It’s a challenge, so if you’re on the fence about your skills, it might be better to choose a different cat ski operation that has easier terrain.
Also, you have to be able to follow instructions. You have to stick with your buddy and not just start hucking everything. The guides will show you where to huck, but it will be guided hucking. If you ignore the guides and blow past them, you won’t have as good a time.
Finally, book early. Retallack sells out. We book a year in advance.
Why choose a multi-day cat skiing trip over heliskiing?
I’ve done both and I prefer catskiing for a number of reasons. First, with heliskiing you are often skiing terrain that is fundamentally the same each day: big chutes and wide-open steeps. Cat skiing offers more variety with different aspects and trees.
Second, if you sign up for a five-day catskiing trip, you will ski five days. A helicopter can get grounded. A cat can run in any weather. If it’s snowing really hard at Retallack, you ski the trees.
Third, most heli trips guarantee a certain amount of vertical feet, for example 100,000 in five days. If the weather is good, they’ve got to keep the bird flying. You might end up with a really long day and be trashed at the end. If the weather stays clear, you may have reached 100,000 vertical by the fourth day, at which time, the heliski operation will ask you to pay more to keep skiing.
At Retallack, we ski 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and get in as much as we can ski. Cats aren’t as expensive to run, so there are no additional charges. You never feel nickeled and dimed.
And the snow?
The lodge is at 3,000 feet and the top of the mountain is at around 8,000 feet. There is a big difference between the temperatures at the top and at the lodge. Often, the lower elevations are in a freeze/thaw cycle, so you mostly ski up high for the best snow.
The powder is bottomless. In Colorado, you might ski a foot of fresh powder. In BC, its more like six feet of pow! There is always a risk of rain in BC, except maybe in January. This can really mess up the snow, so the closer you get to spring the more hit and miss the conditions. You might get a killer snowstorm or a wet, warm storm might bring rain.
Because there is so much snow, they don’t really clear the trails and you are actually skiing over big trees and stuff. I’ve heard the guides talk about thin conditions, but never about nonskiable conditions. The issue is generally not lack of snow, but lack of fresh snow.
You go with a group of guys. Do you ever see any women cat skiing or is this predominantly the province of men?
One of our guides this year was a women, but otherwise we’ve only been with men. I’ve heard an estimate that 5-10% of the clientele is female.
So where are the Brave Ski Moms? Why aren’t they at Retallack?
I think men are more willing to spend money than women. This is an expensive trip. With transportation, we each end up spending about $1000 per day. Heliskiing would be 50-100% more, but it’s still a lot of money.
Also, backcountry skiing is more risky than a lot of other sports. The reality is that you could die. Safety is really important at all of the BC operations, but avalanches and accidents happen.
On the first day at Retallack, the guides teach you basic probing and shoveling technique and basic search and rescue. Everyone carries a beacon and three guests carry packs with shovels. When its your turn to carry the pack, you ski at the back.
That being said, the skiing isn’t crazy extreme. Retallack’s clientele is primarily advanced and higher intermediate skiers. These are the people with money to spend and Retallack don’t want to intimidate them and keep them away. Still, a lot of people probably don’t sign up because they don’t think they’re good enough.
Anything else to add?
You know we didn’t have a great year in Colorado. The snow was disappointing and I spent a lot of my time on green runs skiing with my kids. But because I had five great powder days at Retallack, it didn’t matter. When it did snow in Colorado and I was searching for groomed greens with my four year-old, I wasn’t at all disappointed.
I’d had my fix.
The Brave Ski Mom Adds…
For more information on Retallack, please check out their website. And if you can’t wait until winter, they’ve got a full slate of summertime fun, including mountain biking.
What do you think? Is it true that fewer women than men take these kinds of trips? Why or why not? If money were no object, would you ski Retallack?
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