As we exit the PistenBully snowcat near the summit of Independence Mountain, high above the eastern reaches of Keystone Resort, a view unto itself leaves me speechless. Despite living in Summit and holding a season pass to Keystone for 14 years, I have never been to this point. You can see Breckenridge and its neighboring 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks to the south; Arapahoe Basin and twin 14ers Grays and Torreys to the east; the toothy Gore Range and placid Lower Blue valley to the north; and, of course, the long ridgeline that serves as the Tenmile Range’s spine to the west. In a corner of Colorado known for spectacular views, it only takes a moment to realize this ranks no. 1.
This is just the first unexpected element in a day spent with Keystone’s private snowcat skiing and snowboarding operation—officially known as Keystone Adventure Tours, or KAT. For much of the morning, we have been hunting for powder still lingering from the last storm. The results have surprised us. We started in Bergman Bowl, wiggling down its low-angle slopes in cold, ankle-deep cream cheese before making our way to Erickson Bowl. There, we dropped off a scratchy cornice, traversed south over a moonscape of wind-scoured chalk, then, just as I had given up hope of finding anything plush this run, frolicked down an untouched field of week-old, north-facing bliss. At the bottom, the other 11 guests and I shared a common takeaway: the leftovers had not aged too long, after all.
Ever since then, we have been plumbing the ins and outs of Independence Bowl. We skied a foot of settled powder in Liberty Trees and survived the crusty upper section of Revolution before stumbling upon another fresh stash halfway down.
In retrospect, I should have known. Before we left the lodge that morning, longtime KAT guide James Regan recognized our wary faces, a product of the lackluster conditions elsewhere in Summit at the time. He reassured us by explaining we would not be going out if the snow wasn’t worthy. In fact, he said he often cancels trips—and concedes revenue—due to conditions that fall below a certain bar. “I don’t want to make people sad, I don’t want to not take people skiing,” Regan said. “But I do want to keep this at a very high level.”
No one needs further reassurance by the time we pile out of the cat at the top of Independence. We have just finished inhaling a most savory lunch of soups and sandwiches and hot cocoa inside the private yurt at the bottom of the bowl.
Below our skis and snowboards sit 1,500 vertical feet of smooth, spongy fluff on a 24-degree pitch. The run, called Two If By Sea, is one of the longest cat-accessed runs in Colorado. (Most outfitters around the state offer a diverse menu of terrain, ranging from steeps to trees to bowls, but few runs last longer than 800 or 900 vertical feet.)
Before we begin our descent, Regan gives the go-ahead to ski the run en masse—or “gang ski it,” in cat-skiing parlance. And so, after a few glances around the group, we take off all at once, arcing and bouncing and yelping like we are 20 years younger.
Much of the social fun comes from riding in the cat, but you can also hike to all the runs in KAT’s 1,500-acre tenure, a jaunt that takes anywhere from 30 to 75 minutes. Whether in a cat or on foot, the terrain is both more accessible and more varied than you might expect at Keystone, which is better known as a family resort than an adventure haven.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is: ‘Oh, they don’t have that type of terrain,’ and we do,” Operations Director John Ulbrich says. “People can’t believe they’re at a resort that traditionally was big blue groomers. And I think they’re blown away by the elevation they get with the cat, and the views: the Tenmile, the Gore....”
And the vista atop Independence Mountain. It takes your frosted breath away.
The Details: Trips with KAT are snow-dependent and require expert skills, but the 12-seat cat fills up fast due to the regionally low cost: $285 per person, including lunch and powder ski rentals. You should be able to ski any snow conditions and be comfortable in steeps and trees. Expect to ski about 10,000 vertical feet. If you rent out the whole cat, you pay for 11 seats and get the 12th free, for a total cost of $3,135.
Bonus: Complementing the all-day option, Keystone runs a cat up the Outback ridge from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. that serves steep glades and bowls and is open to the public on a run-by-run basis. Each ride costs $10 in cold cash. keystoneresort.com