The Snowcat and Mouse Game
Each step took more effort than normal. I breathed heavily, not being used to hiking in deep snow. The corridor beneath the T-Bar was quiet: just my heavy breathing and the light clunk of my boots against my heel risers. Five yards behind me, Dane followed the path my skis had packed in the snow. It was just getting light, and the resort would not open for another ninety minutes. Nothing moved, save for snowflakes and two skiers hiking under the T-Bar.
Thick islands of trees wall the T-Bar in on both sides, making it a forest hallway of sorts. Hidden from view in our narrow corridor, we felt safe. We both knew, however, that groomers could be operating in our area. Once we reached the top of the T-Bar, we would still have 600 vertical feet to climb in the open. And as we, like two mice peeping from their hole, broke cover and left the trees, our worst fear was realized: a cat. The snowcat and mouse game was on.
I’ve climbed the mountain regularly for a number of years now, but this was the first time I’d had to worry about groomers. Recently, the resort management’s attitude toward uphill traffic changed from ambivalence to a decidedly less friendly posture. Previously, only common sense was requested of uphill travelers: give the groomers some space. Meeting groomers was no big deal, and snowcat drivers would give a friendly wave as they passed upward bound skiers. Now, however, uphill traffic has to avoid snowcats. A 100 yard safe zone is required around all resort machinery. Thus the cat and mouse game: go up, but don’t be seen.
The snowcat which surprised us atop the T-bar passed quickly. I have reason to believe the snowcat driver was oblivious to our presence. We ducked behind a group of trees until the lumbering beast crawled over a rise and disappeared. Fifteen minutes down the trail, we sensed another predator. Through the fog, we could see a cat, or at least its yellow headlight eyes. And yet again, like two frightened mice, we squeaked and scurried off the trail and into a clump of trees. The cat never caught our scent, but averted its gaze and meandered down a distant trail. The second cat gone, we proceeded with a mixture of caution an celerity, charting a course directly for the top of the mountain. To our relief, no more cats detected our presence.
Supposedly, there was a shortage of snow which required closure of half the mountain. We were on that half, and realized the shortage was imaginary. Ten inches of fresh powder lay atop a slightly crusty base. We took off down a run where cats simply could not fit. Turns were fluid and soft. Powder flew everywhere. I could wax eloquent about snow conditions, but suffice it to say I became quite ecstatic, whooped and hollered with enthusiasm, and got my mouth filled with flying snow.
When skiing, what goes down must come back up. We turned around, following our tracks back up the hill and towards the T-Bar. A quick ski down would bring us to the bus stop just in time to catch a ride to town. But we calculated wrong and watched the back of a bus rumble down the snowy road just as we reached the bus stop. Another bus would arrive… in an hour and a half. Dane was tired and had a blister. I wanted to go back up. It would be better than sitting around, I argued. Since the resort had opened for the day, crowds had arrived. Acting accordingly, we avoided people and followed our previous tracks up the T-Bar. The route started directly in front of a row of hotels and most notably, a building with a glass front. Inside, I could see trail signs and other tacky ski decor. Excited about more skiing, I took off at full speed. Dane decided to take it easy on his blister. We agreed to turn around at 11:00 sharp and meet at the bottom.
A ski patroller appeared near the top of the T-Bar. He steered away from me, disappearing around an island of trees. I skied straight ahead. Based on snow conditions, I assumed the patroller was getting ready to open this part of the mountain. The rest of my journey was uneventful. I successfully evaded all cats. At turnaround time, I removed my skins, and skied down. Dane was waiting for me at the bottom. “We’re in trouble,” he said. I was not particularly inclined to believe him. We hadn’t missed the bus. No one had broken bones. There were no signs of trouble. “It’s the bigwigs, all the resort executives” he continued, “they were all in that restaurant with the glass front. They watched us go up that closed part of the mountain. Did a patroller come talk to you?”
Riding the bus down, we discussed the end of our cat and mouse game in detail. We’d lost. The patroller, sent by the group of executives, had given Dane a pamphlet about uphill traffic at the resort and politely warned him not to deviate from standard routes. Both rather amused by the eventful morning, we had a good laugh at ourselves and agreed to stick with the approved routes.