Finished with a flourish

Cat skiing at Monarch with the Liberty Skis crew leads to meditations and one mutilated ski jacket

Anton Sponar at Monarch
Photo by Tom Winter

With each turn of my skis, snow sloughs off the steep chute and cascades down toward the basin below. It’s not enough snow to be frightening, certainly, but enough to feel like I really am off the beaten track.

And that, of course, is the point.

I’m cat skiing with Monarch Snowcat Tours in a snowcat packed with a crew (plus a few of us hangers-on) from Liberty Skis, the Avon-based ski company that makes powder-hungry, easy turning skis from bamboo cores. We’re spending the day out beyond that dotted red line on the ski area map, ducking ropes at the invitation of ski patrol and our guides. My first question for the day — can the reporter with the desk job hang with the people who ski for a living and can see the Beavercreek lifts from their office windows? — will be quickly buried by boot-deep powder or shed in some of the windblown crust I’ll skim across on my loaner Liberty skis. What takes over, as we speed down steep chutes, pivot around trees and sink edges into the slough of open bowls, then pop out of our skis and ride up in our cozy cat, comes back to a larger conversation I’d started on the drive up, spending my I-70 time catching up with a friend on the phone.

I was heading toward the exit for Highway 119 and south toward Salida, passing the beacon lights of snowcats on Copper Mountain, as we hit on the topic of the essence of skiing. Backcountry skiing, we agreed, was the true essence — a stripped down experience; a human, a set of skis and a lot of snow; mano-e-mountain; a solitary and human-powered experience of a wilderness and a wild landscape still prone to slide.

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Solo turns through the woods were certainly where skiing started in Colorado. The first reported use of skis was in 1859 and they were used to haul supplies in to a mining camp near what is now Breckenridge, according to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. It took another 60 to 90 years for our now big-name ski resorts to develop — Loveland celebrated 75 years this season, while Vail, Eldora and Steamboat marked 50. Monarch will hit its 75th anniversary in 2014, but those mountains have been getting skied since 1914, according to Monarch Mountain’s website, making next year a clean century of people skiing down that valley.

Ski resorts in Colorado reported more than 12 million skier visits in the 2011-2012 season; 6.1 million at Colorado Ski Country resorts like Copper, Arapahoe Basin and Monarch, and 6.1 million at Vail resorts — down 12 percent from 7 million the previous year after a season that saw 50 percent the usual annual snowfall. Colorado Ski Country resorts saw a similar dip. While those resorts have weathered some leaner seasons lately, it’s tough to say that the sport is suffering. But the industry is also keeping an eye on the increasing attention to backcountry skiing. At the Outdoor Retailers Winter Market in January, some of the centerpiece discussions focused on increasing safety, gear advancements in the backcountry — and increasing interest in using resorts for backcountry access.

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The initial peek over Dogs Run Free, our first run for the day having ridden the Breezeway lift up and taken a short cat ride off the back side of Monarch, looked down at the sobering view of an avalanche that hit the lake below so hard that it moved the ice sheet across the top and spilled water into a neighboring meadow.

Sponar on Monarch Mountain | Photo by Tom Winter

The cat skiing guides are trained in avalanche mitigation and manage those slopes to prevent similar snow activity where we’re skiing, shearing off cornices and shooting for avalanches when necessary. In some ways, the price point of a cat tour — the whole cat reserves for 12 people for $3,000 in the peak season, which ended March 25, or an individual seat goes for $275 — pays for that degree of safety. It’s a sidecountry experience, terrain tough enough to find challenging and fun, while also being crowd-free, avalanche controlled, personally guided, and interspersed with warm-up breaks inside the climate-controlled cat.

Cat skiing may bring all of the glory — 10 to 12 runs and 900 vertical feet in a day, on average — and none of the hard work that “true essence” of backcountry provides, but as we squeeze into the canary yellow snowcat, the rack packed with Liberty skis, the buzz is palpable. It may not be the bare essentials essence of skiing, but we’re tapped into the soul of the sport. At least, that’s how it feels, seven laps later, every bit of my legs consumed with a feel-good burn and the day not even half spent.

A clear morning allows for a view of the surrounding mountain ranges — the Sawatch in either direction, the San Juans and Sangre de Cristos to the south, the solitary Pikes Peak back east and even, just as a dark smudge far out there, the rim of the Black Canyon. Through the course of the day, we’ll lose the views as a storm rolls in from the south and obscures the previously visible peaks, the temperature drops and snow begins to fall.

And the atmosphere in the cat stays charged despite the chill in the weather. I’d thought I’d be the only person present who spends more days at a keyboard than on snow (and my first thought to that is “Oh my God, I hope I’m not the first person to eat it”), but I’m skiing with Adrianna Simpson, a Florida transplant who came to the University of Colorado so she could ski more often and now does the administrative work for Liberty, and Dan Chalfant, who was a fly fishing guide for 18 years before deciding he’d need to get a real job to stay in a ski town.

OK, and a couple guys who pretty much ski for a living. But they can huck the big cliffs while the rest of us carve our way down chutes — and that’s pretty much what we do through Dog Heaven, the Krudski Chutes and Mirkwood Basin off the north edge of Monarch.

The conversation between runs while we pop off goggles and snack on energy bars is the predicted accident and snow reports and YouTube crash videos (which has to be the real reason for wearing a GoPro everywhere you go). And then it’s a surprise — guys comparing the colors in this season’s line versus next season and saying they’re going to wait so they don’t have to glow in this year’s borderline fluorescent color scheme.

I’ve been set up with a pair of Liberty Envy Powder skis, the women’s model powder ski, a generous 105mm at the waist and 135mm at the tip. They float in a way my own skis don’t, to the point that when I’m releasing my uphill edge on those first turns, I actually pick up the ski, it’s so light. When we hit the groomed trail headed in for lunch, that’s when their incredible ability to slalom shows itself. I’m tipping like a ski racer and it’s virtually flat, but they’re so light and easy — they go right to my head, let me put it that way.

A chair lift conversation with Anton Sponer, whose father, Toni Sponer, founded a cat skiing company in Chile where Anton now guides tours, circles back to that topic of increasing interest in the backcountry — and how skis like these, which float over windblown crusts and stay on top of the powder — are fueling the interest in the backcountry skiing. They just make it so damn easy.

One thing’s for sure: the skis were more shred-ready than my jacket, which started spitting its 800-fill down well before lunch time.

Adrianna and I pair up with a smile for tree runs and it’s only when I smack into a pine bough hard enough to shred my new GoLite jacket that she has to turn back and call “Liz?” I’m not lost. Just hung up momentarily.

At close to 4 p.m., we’re still whipping through the trees. My companions are audible more often than they’re visible. The sounds of them whooping and hollering to one another just barely cuts through the dense trees that allow for a choose-your-own-adventure feel: Stay right, and it’ll be more mellow, open trees and less steep terrain; go skier’s left, and you’ll find the steeper, tighter trees and a few drops. It never closes down to the half-expected thickets. There’s always a route, and it’s often got a heap of powder over the top. The toughest part is not smiling so much you catch pine needles in your teeth.

We’ll ski until after the lifts have shut down, finally coasting in to the lodge and heading directly to the Sidewinder Saloon.

Dan Chalfant, Liberty’s CEO, gets me caught up on the company’s history as we’re rehydrating Austrian-style over beers.

CEO of Liberty Skis Dan Chalfant | Photo by Tom Winter

“Nobody’s going to make $1 million in the ski industry. We love it because it’s what we do, it’s who we are,” he says. “You have that point in your life where you’re going to decide either you’re going to have a real job in a mountain town or you’re going to move on.”

After 18 years as a fly fishing guide, Dan was hitting that point.

A good idea and a lot of luck helped make staying in a mountain town with a real job — a company he co-founded with Jim Satloff — possible. The way he tells the story over a kolsch now, the right things came together at the right time.

After fishing on split cane bamboo rods, which have a desired bend and give but can still reel in enormous fish, they had the idea of bamboo for a ski core as a lightweight but less noodle-y option for skis meant for powder days. Then, in 2003, they went to the Snowsports Industry trade show at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Satloff went up to a craps table and won $20,000. They won enough money over two days to start their first production run.

“Most of what I remember about that is yelling, ‘Winna winna chicken dinner,’” Dan says.

They put together the idea with some money and the right people — a production group in China near the groves where the bamboo that goes into their skis is made.

The company has grown over the years, now with a staff of six, three of whom were hired in the last year and a half. He picked people who were looking for what he was looking for — a real job that meant making a real life in a mountain town. They now all live and work out of Avon and can see Beavercreek ski resort from their office windows.

Not a bad setup, really. And cat skiing Monarch is every bit the prize for them as it is for me. It’s both a late season reward for all the ice and crud and rocks I’ve skied or tried to ski over this season, and the spark that’ll fuel the chase for some slushy spring skiing runs into closing days everywhere.