With anywhere up to 120 plus centimetres of snow being reported in the Kootenays over the past couple of weeks. skis, snowboards, and sleds of all variety have been coming out of attics and basements. Last Saturday alone saw a three quarters full upper parking lot at Red Mountain Resort, with loads of smiling happy people skinning, snowshoeing, building jumps and crazy carpeting down the slopes around the lodge. The backcountry ski season has officially kicked off, and the lifted ski season won’t be far behind. Red Mountain is planning a December 18th opening day. Whitewater will be opening early this weekend.
Just up the road and anxiously waiting to get started this season, is Big Red Cats. Of all the ski operations in our immediate area, Big Red has made the biggest changes during the off season and will be bringing more than a hundred new trails online for this year’s cat-skiing operation.
Spending the bulk of the summer tromping around their tenure, which spreads throughout the mountains near the junction of Highway 3 and 3b, owner Kieran Gaul and an occasional crew of up to six guys cut, gladed and cleared the new runs on three new mountains. This newly-added terrain brings the operation's total skiable area up to just around 19,000 acres. The extra size, along with the three cats they run in the tenure, makes Big Red Cats, as they put it, the “equal largest” cat skiing operation around.
Run by now local couple Paula and Kieran Gaul the business was originally named for an old cat named “Big Red” that came included in their purchase of the Red Shutter Inn. The operation is now going strong into its fifth winter. Looking at the size of their skiable acreage and the kilometres of cat roads they’ve punched through the terrain, one might think they've been around a lot longer.
“Our biggest challenge every year is just trying to keep making it better and to improve,” explained Gaul. “I’m pretty sure no cat operation has ever grown this fast and opened up this much terrain or had this many people out there. The challenges have mostly been dealing with the growth and understanding what it takes to run a top notch operation.”
Between hours and days alone in the woods cutting and glading runs and being stalked by the occasional cougar here and there, the available skiable terrain has increased rapidly. While there are still a few ridges and areas that could have expanded cat roads, the skiable terrain--thanks to a monstrous effort by Gaul this summer--is now largely built out.
“It’s just this huge, huge area,” enthused Gaul. “It’s eight or nine times the size of Granite now and two and a half times the skiable area of Whistler.”
With the addition of the new terrain for this winter, blips in the weather like last years late January thaw will have less of an impact on the operation. That warm up 'pooched' most of the south-facing terrain for great skiing. Through that period, the north facing slopes remained in great shape so this year’s addition of 50 to 60 new north-facing runs helps ensure great conditions throughout the winter season.
Of the new terrain, there’s one run in particular that Kieran is looking forward to showing off this winter.
“There’s a run we call Absurd that’s going to be my new favourite, I think. You ski down this couloir about two ski lengths wide down a 40 degree entrance. Then you ski onto this nice bench. Unless you go far skiers left you pretty much have to jump off a 10 to 20 foot cliff. Then you fly through this nice open bowl making some turns in there and flow into an old growth forest that is a nice 25 degrees and bounce through the forest. That’ll be a really fun run for people, I think.”
In addition to new runs, Big Red has made a couple of other additions and improvements for this winter. Having bought a unit in Slalom Creek at the base of Red, the young Gaul family will live out of that new condo and will rent out their big beautiful home, just across the road from Red Rob's, for guest accommodations. There had been some early stage plans to build a permanent lodge up in their tenure, but that plan has since been put on the back burner and is off their radar.
The cat skiing couple's dream for the operation as they go forward is a rather simple one: perfection.
“I want to have every single run perfectly gladed,” said Gaul. “I’d love every single run to be designed so that it flows just perfectly. Perfection, that’s my long term dream (laughs). This year I gladed about 30 or 40 runs and last year did about 15 or 20 so we’re getting there. Just another 370 runs to go (laughs).”
As a kid, Gaul had dreamt about building and opening a backcountry cabin in the Bugaboos somewhere. Along the way he got into the banking industry. Then, several years back, he realized he was now in a position to be a guide and get into the backcountry business.
Running three cats a day with up to 36 clients, Big Red Cats now serves over 1,000 skier visits a winter. Getting to that point and how they got there was a little different than they originally expected, however.
“Initially, we thought we’d have people going to Red Mountain and then adding on a day of cat skiing,” explained Gaul. “What we’re really seeing most is people coming for three or four days cat skiing and then maybe tacking on a warm up day at Red.”
Five years on, after some initial difficulties in getting started and some clashes with locals, the couple now feels that they have grown into the community and have been welcomed by many. The operation currently runs with as many as 22 employees at peak times and has built a solid core of local employees. Four of the operation's most experienced guides are native Rosslanders.
Loving life in Rossland and the surrounding mountains, the couple seems to have fallen into a nice groove of operating a business they are truly passionate about.
“It’s really busy but I really love it,” beamed Gaul. “The cat skiing is so nice because you really get to know your customers and build lasting relationships with people. We have lots of groups that are coming back for the fifth year in a row this year. That’s what tells me that I’m doing a good job.
Spirits buoyed by the early snowfalls this year, the couple is anxious to get started on another season of providing deep turns, good times and wide smiles. As part of their appreciation of local support, they are offering some discounts as deep as the snow pack for early season powder hounds. All winter they’ll run a $199 locals standby price, but for those hoping for some early season backcountry lines they’ve also got a pre-season no-deposit, weather dependant discount for those who just can’t wait to get out there.
“Every season out there is a great season, but this year, based on the snowfall so far, I think we’re really in line for something special,” concluded Gaul. “It’s a lot of work but it’s really a fun business to be in. Where else would I rather be on a powder day then stepping out of a cat to show off runs that I gladed myself to smiling, happy guests?”