Today we went cat-boarding, with Fernie Wilderness Adventures. It was an exceptional experience, but not everything was quite what I expected. Read on…

An early-ish start, we were collected at 7:45 outside of the Cornerstone Lodge and driven by bus to the Fernie Wilderness Adventures lodge. Talk about being lucky with the weather this holiday? Not only was there untouched, mega deep fresh waiting for us, we also hit a blue bird. Bingo! There was coffee and breakfast waiting for us at the lodge, then we had an introduction to the days events, people who didn’t have beepers were given them, and then we all signed a waiver. After a quick safety lesson on being around the cat, getting in and out etc, we loaded up and set out with a fully loaded cat of 12.

We drove for around 30 minutes and then stopped for some brief guidance on how to use transceivers. To be honest, the info given on how to use them was pretty thin – but the most important thing for the guides was that everyone had them on, so they could be found if needed. I don’t think there was any intention of taking us into dangerous terrain: these guys know the weather, they know the lay of the land and they don’t need to take risks. But of course, we all still need beepers, and a brief introduction is better than nothing. Note: when the guide hid his beacon, my bca tracker found it first, that beach practice paid off 🙂

And then it was off for the first run of the day; run one of of 8. Rather than describe each run, hopefully the photos should help with that, I’ll just unload my thoughts of how it went down…

First off, I sucked. I’ve ridden some deep powder before, but nothing like this. It was constant. Every part of every run was deep. Like thigh/waist deep. The guides were saying that it’s difficult for them to pick runs as with the depth of snow they really need to have steep pitches – but anything too steep is too dangerous. The shallower pitches are safe, but way too slow…

I’m not a bad snowboarder, I’m quite good at some stuff, but in some ways this was a humbling experience. I’m not going to blame it on my board, at least not fully. But I did waste the first two runs rocking my wide, twin stance on a 155cm board with a short nose profile. On the widest stance setting the back foot is already as far back as it can go, so I just figured I’d blag it.

So wrong. I was falling a lot, and each time into deep powder, sometimes on flat bits, I was covered, frustrated, tired and quite simply looking like a complete novice. After the second run I brought the front binding back as far as possible. After the third run, I turned both my base plates 90 degrees so that I could move both bindings an extra 6/7mm backwards. Boy did it make a difference. My nose diving plank of wood suddenly became half passable as a freeride board. Now I could start to enjoy the runs.

It’s worth noting that it wasn’t just me that was struggling, although I think I was hit the worst. Even the guides were taking some falls, and the lead guide was often beating a trail out at the start of a run, where we leave the track, rather than just skiing off. Although I was taking my time over the first two/three runs, I was at least pleased that I wasn’t holding things up. The group is only as fast as the cat, which can take a while to get to the bottom…

The next thing that made things difficult was the number of trees. Just about every run at some point led us between big trees with not much space between them. With the snow being so deep, in these tight areas it was just about a necessity to follow the guides tracks. And you still had to be going fast. For example, you head down a open face keeping as much speed as possible, head into a dense set of trees, go around a few blind turns, again keeping your speed to avoid sinking and then bam – someone has stopped on the trail.

In this situation, which happened a lot, we found there’s no room to go around them so you had to stop. Tree wells and deep deposits of snow don’t make for a good stopping point on a snowboard. You sink and it’s hard to get going again. It was a trade off between leaving a big space between you and the guy in front, but not too much that you’d get left behind, or miss your partner getting into trouble. Skiers definitely had an easier time of this. The dense trees were frustrating for all the riders.

Was there too much snow? Maybe. The guide seemed to think so. He commented that the riding was much better when there was slightly less…

But some of it was epic. Truly epic. The second from last run, everything came together. The whole day was worth it just for that run. The face opened up and I was purely surfing on waist deep powder. With my new stance I had much better control of the board and it didn’t take all my energy just to keep the nose above the snow. I was bubbling around, dodging trees, taking a little air and making some sweet turns. Mart was my partner for the day and he was right behind me on The Fish – just ripping it up. That was the only time during the day that the two of us opened it up together on a face and cut deep, fresh tracks. It was awesome – truly awesome.

The run ended by heading into some small, dense trees, just before the pickup point. We both found our way straight into a tree well 🙂 Nothing dangerous as we were both together, the trees were small and they were also in shouting distance of the guide waiting at the bottom. We were fairly stuck mind. But that’s not the point. For me, that run was the best. I rode it properly. The speed I took and the stance on my board let me ride the pow. Sick!

All in all the day was a fantastic experience. Not just the riding: the terrain, the snow, the guides, being in the cat – it was great. Also an eye opener. Without doubt, for Mart and I, this we the first real backcountry powder that we’ve ridden. The tour last season in Lenzerheide was not even close with regards to the depth of the snow – and that was all open faces, no trees. For sure we’ve ridden deep stuff inbounds here at Fernie, but not the sustained depth and freshness that we experienced today.

For this type of terrain I need a different board. Like I said above, I’m not blaming it all on the board. Half of the problem is that I’m simply not that good at riding deep powder.

I think I would have preffered it had there been more open faces. Some of the riding through the dense trees was great, but a lot of the time it felt like we were negotiating half of the run. A more competent rider probably wouldn’t have been troubled by this.

After the last run the beers were handed out. They went down so well on the 30/40 minute drive back to the lodge. There was a quick debriefing and we watched a slide show of photos taken by the photographer who followed the two groups around during the day. There were some nice shots in there but I wasn’t that impressed. I didn’t pay the $50 for a CD!

I’ll definitely go cat-boarding again. It’s fresh powder all day long. Maybe not as much as a trip to Hokkaido – but the next best thing. Who can argue with that? It is fairly expensive though, we paid $367, and when the snow in resort is amazing, I don’t think there’s a need to go again anytime soon. The day isn’t really set up for taking photos and video, but I did manage to get some clips – mainly just to show what the terrain is like. Here’s a quick compilation of the days events…

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