Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Times - The cat that got the dream of ski thrills

The cat that got the dream of ski thrills
Tom Chesshyre signs a disclaimer to go cat skiing, the poor man’s answer to the thrills of heli-skiing

CAT skiing is not for the faint-hearted. It doesn’t take us long to work that out.
“Avalanches occur frequently in the alpine terrain . . . staff may fail to predict whether the alpine terrain is safe for skiing. Hazards include ice and snow cornices, trees, tree wells, tree stumps, creeks, rocks, boulders, deadfalls . . .” says the yellow waiver-release form we’re handed after we clamber into our Snow Cat, a giant, tank-like contraption usually used to groom the pistes. We look at the forms, and then at each other. “What’s a deadfall?” asks one of our group, a little nervously.

“A deadfall is basically a tree trunk that’s fallen down and is hidden under the snow — can be nine inches high round here. Let me tell you, you’ll know about it if you come across one of those,” says Glenn Noel, owner of Blomidon Cat Skiing. His company has been offering trips in Snow Cats on the Blow Me Down mountain range in Newfoundland, on the Atlantic coast of Canada, for a decade.

“But don’t worry! We won’t be going into any! Just follow me, you’ll all be fine!” We look at each other again. We look at Glenn. Glenn, 50, exudes mountain-man Canadian calm, with his goatee beard and mirror shades. He assures us that accidents are “extremely rare” and that he’ll take us to “gentle bits”. We sign on the dotted line. And then we have one of the most exciting, varied, and downright different day’s skiing most of us can remember.

For those who haven’t heard of it — I hadn’t before staying there last March — Humber Valley Resort is a swanky (but good value) new chalet resort on the west of Newfoundland. And “cat skiing” is a form of skiing in which you are taken to the top of an isolated mountain using a Snow Cat and then ski down again and again, using the Snow Cat as a taxi to take you to the top each time.

The great thing is that you get to explore unusual terrain, often with untouched powder snow (unfortunately, not on our visit as it was a bit icy), just like you do when you go heli-skiing — except that it costs about a third as much.

While you might expect to pay about £50 a run on heli-skiing trips, the cost of cat skiing comes to about £140 for ten runs, plus a nice picnic lunch with fresh sandwiches, salads and hot chocolate thrown in.

We chug up the mountain, which is a 40-minute drive from Marble Mountain, the main ski resort in Newfoundland, with 175 acres of “skiable terrain”; rather limited for ad- vanced and good intermediate skiers, even though there are a couple of cracking black runs. That’s one of the reasons cat skiing has taken off — skiers round here are desperately in need of some kicks.
We soon get them. After 20 minutes we’re at the top, staring out across fantastic snow-covered peaks, with gullies and steep bits and pretty sections through small pine trees.

It feels like our own private mountain. The sense of peace and isolation is like nothing I’ve ever experienced on a ski trip. The sky is a startling cobalt blue. There’s not another soul, nor any sign of human activity, in sight.

In the distance is the grey-blue shimmer of the Bay of Islands, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean; Captain James Cook passed through these parts in 1764 on an early charting expedition.
We pause to take pictures and then we’re following Glenn down a beautiful, nice-and-easy section that takes us through a gulley and on through pine trees to where the Snow Cat is gleaming in the sun. It only takes a few minutes — and we have to be careful on the icy parts — but it’s exhilarating skiing: a wonderful feeling of taking on a mountain as the mountain actually is, not how a ski resort management team has designed it.

We go down a few more runs, the Snow Cat dutifully taxiing us upwards, chugging powerfully up incredibly steep slopes — you have to wear a seat-belt in the back cab or else you’d fly off your seat.

For lunch we stop by some pines and crash out on the snow, munching crayfish sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate. Keith, the second guide (who takes up the rear to make sure everyone is OK), tells us that “it’s pretty much impossible to get helicopters up here” because of wind from the ocean on the peaks. He’s also wearing cool mirror-shades — proper sunglasses or goggles are essential in the bright light. “When we started there were six people doing this in North America, now there are 36,” says Glenn. “But we’re the only people east of the Mississippi doing this. You can be lower intermediate to expert — we’ll set up trips to suit you. We had one of the best extreme skiers in the world here the other day: he had a ball.”

So do we. After an afternoon of what seems like fantasy skiing, on slopes you normally only see in flashy ski videos, we drive back to our flashy chalets at the Humber Valley Resort, just round the corner from Marble Mountain, feeling like Very Satisfied Skiers.

Newfoundland is a strange place to go skiing as there’s not a massive amount to try at its main resort. But if you do go — and it’s only a five-and-a-half-hour transatlantic flight from Gatwick — you’ve got to try cat skiing.
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