High above B.C.’s Robson Valley, Cariboo Cat Skiing is celebrating 15 years of serving up fresh turns—not to mention hot pizza—to the powder-hungry public
Ever since Terry Cinnamon was a young boy, the first snowflakes of the winter have been a reason to get excited.
“Even now, if the first snowfall is in the middle of the night I’ll wake the kids up [and say] ‘Kids! Look what it’s doing outside!’”
Perhaps it was only natural, then, that one day Cinnamon would build a business around sharing his love for snow with others. A passionate skier, AC-DC fan and the son of an entrepreneurial family, while in his early 30s Cinnamon doubled down on the idea that skiers would come from across Alberta and B.C. to surf the Robson Valley storms. He knew, from growing up in the area that the snow was stellar. He also knew, from the fact that two heli-ski companies operated near by, that the terrain was world-class. As such, he and his cousin, Jason, obtained the permits to access Mica Mountain, a prominent, if under-appreciated peak 15 minutes north of Valemount, on the southern edge of the Cariboo Mountains. He bought a snowcat from Canada Olympic Park, in Calgary, and with the help of former-colleagues from Marmot Basin (Cinnamon worked as both a ski patroller and as a liftie), learned how to drive it. Finally, in 2001, he and Jason brought their first paying guests up the mountain, a father and son from Boston. To fill the cat and build up hype, he asked some ski buddies from Jasper to tag along. “We made two runs,” Cinnamon recalled. “But those two runs opened my eyes.”
What he saw was that their chosen mountain had huge cat skiing potential. The grade on Mica’s summit ridge was perfect for what a snowcat could efficiently climb; the runs back down to the road followed a diving fall-line; and an old burn on the mountain meant the glade skiing was outstanding—an important feature which would become the bread and butter of Cariboo Cat Skiing. After that first day above treeline with the cat, Cinnamon’s instincts had been confirmed.
“It’s almost like the mountain is designed for cat skiing,” Cinnamon said.
Fifteen years later, the mountain is more skiable than ever. Each summer, Cariboo hires a trail crew to continue the glading work, and since those early days Cinnamon has extended the road access, giving guides options on the south-facing slopes as well as the north. Importantly, the terrain expansion allows Cariboo to operate four days per week and hardly ever worry about crossing tracks from the previous days’ guests. Not that that’s usually an issue; the Robson Valley receives on average twice as much snow than Jasper. The difference is typical this winter: as of March 26, Marmot Basin had a settled snowpack of 110 cm. Mica Mountain, by contrast, had more than two metres.
“We see a lot more powder than in the Rockies,” says Cariboo’s head guide, Matt Reynolds. “It’s more consistent snow, and it’s still dry, for the most part.”
On March 18, a 25 cm-deep frosting was sitting on top of that delicious powder cake, much to the delight of a group of reunited college buddies. Most of the guests were from Alberta, having chosen Cariboo Cat Skiing as the spot for their annual ski-cation. After two days and 20,000 vertical feet of powder skiing, their legs were shot, but their grins were permanent. More people sold on Mica Mountain.
“Exceptional…we are re-booked for next year at the same time,” said Keith Wensel, from Edmonton.
Cariboo Cat Skiing doesn’t offer all of the frills that many cat ski operations feature. There’s no on-site luxury accommodations, no beef wellingtons or salmon soufflés and no masseurs at your beck and call. Instead, what you pay for is pure skiing, with a healthy dollop of Robson Valley charm. The clubhouse, where the group meets at the beginning of the day to sign waivers and receive their safety briefing, is the former mobile home of alpine legend Willi Pfisterer (it’s fitting that the shovelling techniques which Pfisterer helped cement into avalanche safety literature are now practiced steps away from where he used to take his coffee). The 20 minute commute to the cat is a four-wheel-drive mud bog up an active logging road. And the lunch break at mid-mountain includes ooey, gooey, mouth-watering pizza, served directly out of the pan. Guests think he’s kidding when Cinnamon tells them he’s got a pizza shack at 1,800 metres. But what else would a raft guiding, ski patrolling, headbanging father of three want to chow down on when shredding the gnar?
It’s the Cariboo style—that unpretentious, DIY, mountain-hippy charisma—which resonates with so many of Cinnamon’s guests. Like Cinnamon himself, the operation is honest, friendly and functional. You won’t find fluffy hand towels in the bathroom, but the outhouse is clean and in case you didn’t realize, there’s a metre of snow on its roof. You can’t buy a $700 Arcteryx jacket with the company’s logo emblazoned on the sleeve, but if you want, you can get a Cariboo Cat Skiing t-shirt to remember your epic day. You won’t be offered a glass of bubbly at the top, but there’s a good chance you’ll get champagne powder all the way down.
For Jasperites, perhaps the coolest part—besides the incredible riding—is the fact that by going with Cariboo Cat Skiing, you get the feeling that you’re part of the team. Each time a group fills the cat, Cinnamon has an opportunity to give a budding ski guide a chance to build their skills. Each successful winter Cariboo Cat Skiing gets under its belt, they get a bit more leverage to expand their terrain. Cinnamon is the first to admit cat skiing does not exactly make a dependable business model. Unlike rafting, where the overhead is fairly minimal and the river is a constant, the ski business is expensive and requires constant cooperation from Mother Nature. Warming winters have made her particularly fickle in recent years.
“This industry is a bit like farming,” he laughed.
But even though, like a farmer, he depends on the weather to yield a good crop, Cinnamon wouldn’t trade the ski business. He loves working in the mountains, and with the passionate people who surround him. He sure as heck loves to drive his tractors.
And just like watching those first flakes of the winter fall, for Cinnamon, seeing his guests’ smiles radiate long after they get down the mountain never gets old.
“If people leave here saying they can’t wait to come back, then we’ve done our job,” he says.
Every guest I talked to agreed: mission accomplished.