A Final Farewell To Cat Skiing

It’s official. The final season of cat skiing at Grand Targhee Resort has come to a close.

For the past 33 years, cat skiing at Grand Targhee has been the product of a world-class operation delivering memorable days to skiers and riders from across the globe. If you were lucky enough to experience a day on the cat, you know how special a day on Peaked Mountain is.

You also know how hard it is to summarize what it was all about. The great days are understandably hard to capture with words, and a day cat skiing at GTR was always a great day.

A day on the cat starts early. You leave the base area just as the resort begins to wake up. The patrol is finishing up their morning routes, the lifties are setting up the skier maze at Dreamcatcher, and you head down the Mill Creek Traverse to start the day.

It’s not long before you are unloading at the top of Sacajawea, climbing into the back of the cat before heading to the top of Peaked Mountain. It’s here where the day really gets going.

You are finally clicking into your skis and boards while salivating over the untracked paradise that awaits below you. As you begin your first descent, it seems prudent to get on the tail of one of the Targhee cat ski guides and enjoy as they lead you to the goods.

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It sounds so simple. Ski powder to the bottom, ride the cat back to the top and repeat. The reason that Targhee is a prized powder destination is the same reason that Peaked Mountain is so appealing for a cat ski operation. Targhee’s own Beach Huntsman attested to this allure. 

“I’m kind of spoiled having been here at Targhee. It’s a combination of our crew of course, but also our terrain and the quality of snow. We only get four days of skiing, maybe 5, out of a storm,” said Huntsman.

“We just get these cold little 4-inch, 6-inch, 7-inch refreshers all the time. Typically it stays cold and foggy, and while some people don’t like the fog, it’s the perfect conditions for keeping that snow fresh and dry. As long as we farm it, we can make it last. We love it when Ullr hooks us up with free refills,” Huntsman continued.

It’s rare for a cat ski operation to be associated with a ski area. While the average person might not appreciate or realize it, the guides certainly know how lucky and unique the Grand Targhee cat ski experience is. It’s a gem that, once discovered, is hard to forget.

“For me, I just loved it. It’s a great product that we have here. With cat skiing being associated with Grand Targhee, the operation has amazing and wonderful benefits that people don’t think about. Part of it is we have food and beverage here. Every other Cat Ski operation around the world is scrambling around trying to take care of food right. We have a beautiful base lodge; we start our mornings off with snorkels and burritos and when we come back there’s the Trap Bar,” said guide Paul Forester.

Guests have enjoyed fresh brownies, tasty soups, and hot chocolate for years in the comfort of the lunch tent. Shouts to Nacho for the countless meals that fueled hungry powder skiers. Forester elaborated on the amenities that the base area afforded the cat ski program.

“Not everyone has a base of operations like this. When we’ve got mechanical issues, well we have a shop with diesel mechanics right down there to put the damn thing back together and get ready for the next day. It’s a huge benefit for us as an operation to have all the infrastructure to begin with, and for the guests to come into a resort with the whole Grand Targhee vibe. They pop out for their private experience, and they know it’s wonderful,” said Forester. 

There’s so much more to it than the consistent snowfall and the convenience of the resort. It’s never really been about chasing powder or doing something rad. Cat skiing has always embodied what people really love about skiing at its core. Forester has grasped what it is that people love about the experience.

“You ski the whole run together and you ski it grouped up, farming the snow slow because the cats are the slowest part of the whole thing. It’s no use rushing down the hill and waiting at the bottom. So, you ski, and you socialize on the way down. On the way up, you’re sitting in the open air. You’re with your family or your friends the entire day. And it’s at a pace that you can enjoy and relax,” said Forester.

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“You’re out there for 9 hours, relaxed, spending quality time with your people. I believe people just crave connection, with animals, with people, with themselves, and our world is getting so much fractured and virtual. They’re starved for it and during that time out on the cat spent sharing the experience with each other bonds get created. Even if the skiing is marginally wonderful, the experience is fantastic,” he continued.

It’s easy to feel comfortable on the cat even if it’s your first time. It has a welcoming, down-to-earth feel and is low-key. No one cares about how you ski or what you wear as long as you’re stoked to be on the mountain. Cat skiing has always been the quintessential Targhee experience.

The most integral part of that experience has been the men and women who have shared it with us over the years. It’s a close-knit group of folks who love each other and love what they do. They’re family, and when you step into their world you become part of that family. Robert Carlson, better known as Scoop, has been part of the cat ski family for the past 12 years.

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“All the people that we’ve worked with through the years, sure you see some come and go, they stick with this job a long time. We’ve had an outstanding group of drivers and guides that work so well together. We hang out with each other when we’re not at work. A lot of these folks will end up being lifelong friends.”

When the rookie of the crew has been on the job for four years, you know you’ve got something special. Forester knows that even though he’s the new guy, he’s still had it pretty good.

“I consider myself a newbie. All ski resorts have their issues with turnover, but we’ve got a fantastic and amazing cat ski crew that stays pretty solid, and we are super fortunate to have people who stick around. We have a ton of tenure and experience on the crew, as I’ve been here four years and I’m still kind of the newbie. But we like working with each other. We like what we do, and the guests feel it. We’re so proud of the resort, of the view of the Tetons, which is second to none. It’s easy to share our stoke and the experience,” said Forester.

On the surface, it may seem obvious why people have stayed with the cat ski operation for so long. It’s a dream job to ski powder all day. Scoop understands it’s an enviable occupation but certainly not the cakewalk people make it out to be.

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“Nobody has any sympathy for a cat ski guide, but we work hard and put our hearts and soul into it. Everybody thinks it’s all fun and games, but we try very hard to make a great experience for people in all kinds of different conditions,” said Forester.

Huntsman has been a guide for the past 14 years and spent two years as a driver on the operation before that. His reasons for sticking around are shared by many of his peers.

“You’re not doing it because of the pay. You’ve got to be doing it because you love being out there and not even because you love skiing,” said Huntsman. “Obviously, that’s a huge part of it, but it’s not about being the best skier or skiing the most laps. It’s about showing these people an experience. People always ask me for stats like how much vertical are we doing, how many runs are we going to take? I don’t know. I don’t keep track. We are going to ski all day, and I guarantee you’ll be tired, hopefully with a smile on your face. We are just going to ski until it’s 4 o’clock. That’s what we do.”

You heard the man! That is what they do and what they have been doing since the late 80s. Officially cat skiing started at Grand Targhee in 1989. However, before the inaugural season in 89′ the operation existed unofficially, in typical Targhee fashion. Targhee’s most dedicated cat skiing guest, better known as the Penguin, has been making turns on Peaked Mountain since the operation was in its infancy.

“Cat skiing officially started at Targhee in 1989. But that was only when a guy named Paul Marsh wrote the protocol on how cat skiing would be conducted,” said the Penguin. “Cat skiing existed prior to that but on a much different basis. Prior to that, it was no reservations, half-day only. You meet the cat at the Waterfall, and it was $49 for a half-day. No reservations, first come first serve. There was only one guide, who was a young woman who skied on pin bindings. There was no lunch, no water, and you kept up with her as best you could, and after half a day, you were wiped out.”

A lot has changed since those early years. This season you had to have a reservation to get out on the cat as those final days were in high demand. Half-days on the cat haven’t existed for years as the experience has become an all-day immersion.

Fat skis have also made skiing powder much easier for skiers of all ages and abilities. If you’ve never skied on straight skis, you don’t know how good you have it or appreciate just how good previous generations were on the slopes. According to the Penguin, those deep days on skinny skis prompted Targhee to give each cat ski guest a gift to help them catch their breath.

“They used to have snorkels. Remember, they didn’t have real fat skis in the early deep days. Each guest got their own snorkel,” said the Penguin.

Change will continue to happen. This summer, the lunch tent is being replaced by the bottom terminal of the new Colter Lift.

While this change marks the end of cat skiing at Targhee, the operation has remained true to its humble beginnings in its final season. It’s one of the reasons that folks like the Penguin have been coming back for decades. While I promised that I wouldn’t disclose the number of days that the Penguin has spent on Peaked Mountain, it’s safe to say that it is a number that most mortals would only dream of. Why the nickname Penguin? According to Forester and many others, it’s simple.

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“We call him the Penguin because he always wears mittens, and his hands get cold. He also skis so smooth that I’ve never seen him fall. He’s got this style with his hands, he’s got his poles down there, he barely uses them, and he looks like a penguin as he goes down the hill like that. We love him and he loves us,” said Forester.

There’s no doubt that the Penguin is a legend. The number of days on the cat and his nickname make him unique from other guests. But that love that Paul talks about is not only felt by returning veterans.

 Days on the cat are filled with hugs, toasts, laughs, and always an abundance of smiles. Fresh pow is always hard to beat, but according to Huntsman, sharing those experiences is arguably better.

“I can’t tell you how many people have said that is the best day of skiing they have ever had, or that it is the best day of their life. This is coming from people that have been skiing their whole lives, not just random tourists but people who are skiers, that know about skiing and have skied all over the world. Hearing that not just once in a while but fairly often, people are lit up about it. We are out there with them while they have their best day ever. That’s pretty cool to be a part of.”

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Summing up what this operation has been all about is a thankless job. When you speak with the folks who have dedicated their winters to it, their love pours out. You can hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes. These guys love it and will miss it dearly. Forester is no exception as these past few years have impacted him significantly.

“Typically, we get people who are here with people they love, husbands and wives with one of their kids, a dad with his two daughters, family units come together to share an experience that they’ll all talk about and remember for the rest of their lives. Ninety-nine percent of people leave here in love with Targhee, very emotionally connected to our resort, and Targhee will miss that. It’d be untruthful if I told you I wasn’t sad to see it go away,” said Forester.

If you were lucky enough to have spent a day cat skiing at Grand Targhee, then there is probably a part of you that will miss it as well. Next year when you are riding the new Colter Lift, exploring the terrain on Peaked and shredding pow, remember what made cat skiing so special. Remember that it’s not about being recognized for how good a skier you are or what you’re wearing. Remember that it’s about spending quality time with quality people in the mountains.

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