How did Big Red Cats grow from the smallest cat operation in the world to one of the biggest - in just 14 years? Even I wonder how this happened. Locals still can't believe that they have the world's biggest cat operation on their doorstep. Here is how it started.
Paula and I met at dance class in Australia before the Olympics (ask for the details of this story!). We lived on a beach in Australia. We thought that it would be great to live in the mountains in BC. We had always heard great things about Rossland BC. We went and checked it out and we fell in love with the place and decided that it would be great to move there.
The ski hill was for sale, so we thought that we would do up a business plan and information memorandum, and find some investors and buy the ski hill. It turned out that Howard Katkov and a group of investors ended up buying the resort (well done guys). As part of the business plan we thought that the resort needed a great cat skiing operation next to it (in the same way that Fernie had Island Lake cat skiing). So when Howard bought Red, we thought that the most interesting part of the business plan, was the powdercat operation. So we put in our 1st application for the land adjacent to the ski hill. There were a lot of local people who did not want the operation on those lands because there were a lot of people ski touring in that area. So we decided to withdraw the application and apply for the area that we are in now.
Little did we know that the area would be one of the most ideal areas for cat skiing in the world. The shape of the mountains turned out to be perfect for cat skiing. With one mellow way up each mountain - but lots of steeps, typically on the east and north aspects. Neither Paula nor Kieren had actually been cat skiing before - but Kieren had a good idea about terrain and skiing having been a national ski team alpine racer. At first we thought that Big Red Cats would be a 1-2 cat operation. We quickly realised that you could not open up enough terrain for guests just running 1-2 cats. To be a great operation you need to run 3-4 cats each day in order to keep enough terrain open - so that you can always be showing new areas to guests.
People thought that we were crazy. Of course we were!. I was a finance guy specialising in leveraged buyouts and treasury work, and Paula was a former captain in Canadian military who had transitioned to management consulting by way of an an MBA at the Ivey business school. What did we know about cat skiing? The answer was nothing - at first. Over the next 14 years we learned a lot of lessons. The biggest and most important of these lessons was the importance of teamwork. Cat skiing is really a team sport. When all of the guests, guides, and drivers all work together, something magic happens out there!
For the last 14 seasons we continued to explore the area. There have been very few days when I (Kieren) have not skied 1-2 new runs for the first time. It takes our guides about 2 years now to ski just the main runs. I have been skiing in the area every year for 14 years - and there are still a few runs that I have not skied. We will continue to explore the Big Red Cats area.
The future: I dream of an operation where guests can have their best imagined and safest day of powder skiing every day. I recognise that this means different things to different guests. Some guests want open gentle runs, others want steep pillows and cliffs. To achieve this we are committed to improving the area and running our different levels - Uber Expert, Expert, Advanced, and Intermediate.
So here is a brief look at whats happened over the last 14 years.
Kieren - April 2017
We started with 1 main mountain - Mt Neptune - and about 70 runs. Great 1st year. We learned a lot and had some great skiing. We had Roddy, Justin Tanguay, and Kieren Gaul as the main guides. Richard Streadwick did most of the driving. We recieved about 1.3 meters of snow on the 5th of November. The first day of operations with guests was December 26th and by the end of the winter we had about 3m on the ground. Our plan was to run just one cat - but the "Ski Vermont" guys said that they would only come if we had 2 cats - so we built a 2nd cabin for our 2nd snowcat. Kauri Howell and I finished cutting the infamous Spruce Forest road just as the big dump came in early November. After chainsawing all day it has snowed about 40cm of fresh powder and on the ATV on the way home we were getting faceshots the whole way - we thought that we were going to get stuck out in the storm....
We built the Big Red Shed, purchased 2 snowcats, cut about 55km of snowcat roads. Most importantly we learned lots.
These are some of the 1st turns of the first day at Big Red Cats.
Added 2 more mountains for a total of 3 main mountains (after a summer of cutting). This added a huge addition of new terrain - about 70 new runs. Purchased a 3rd snowcat. Justin Tanguay, Stu Blennerhasset, Kieren Gaul, Kauri Howell, and Jim Spencer were the main guides. We really enjoyed skiing the bigger open bowls in Plutonic and Neptune bowl for the 1st time. We opened Pluto and much of Mt Crowe. We had a great year of epic powder and good stability with only 1 small drought. Stu was our main supervising guide and did a great job.
The best runs that were opened were Rolloercoaster, Plutonic 6, and Neptune 10.
We added the Mackie zone - about another 75 runs. Some great skiing. We had our worst avalanche year. Snowpack in our area was the most unstable that it had been in about 30 years. Our main guides were Jim, Justin, Kieren, Ken, Mo. In some ways this was our toughest year. We had our most unstable snowpack - and our 1st and only full avalache burial. This was a big wake up call. Our guest was physically unhurt - but really shaken, as we all were. We can't eliminate the risk in what we do - but we made some mistakes on this day that we try to keep learning from! The guide team did not work as well as we had hoped in this year, we had a few mechanical breakdowns, and we were still not using Mackie to its potential. However we still got through the year and had some great skiing and riding. The west face of Mt Mackie was amazing long complex terrain. We skied the avalanche paths on the east face of Mt Mackie, and we discovered the "Shorties" area - short but incredibly steep runs which are always fun.
This was our best year yet. The only negative was the warm up and dry spell in late Jan and early Feb. We added our 5th mountain - Mt Venus. We also vastly inproved the snow road structure making the snowcat road network that much faster. All the team worked really well together. We were super lucky to have Peter, Rob, Laura, Lee, Ari, Matt, Seb, Kauri, and Pete helping us on the guiding side. Bill, Dana, Rich, and Greg did most of the driving. We had our best mechanical year with only 1 problem that affected guests in the entire season (this was on the last day of operation). Good job Rich! We really used the Mackie Zone to its fullest, and discovered lots of great lines and features in this area.
We found some great skiing on the Northwest aspect of Mt Venus, and with new roads we started to use the Mackie area really well. Also, a faster and newer cat that we purchased made this area more feasable.
This year was better again! 2009/10 was our biggest ever terrain, adding 2 new mountains and about 100 new runs. It was a good year - we started exploring the new areas - but could not yet use them to their full potential. At the end of this year Kieren passed his full ski guide certification. We purchased another snowcat. We also ran our introduction to ski guide course for the 1st time.
We skied the Claw for the 1st time - holy cow that place is steep! (to give you an idea Salomon Freeski TV spent a bunch of time filming in the area in 2011). We skied the north aspect of Venus and the north side of Mt China, but the roads out to these places really sucked. We were determined to fix this for the next year because the skiing is so great out there.
The guides and the team worked really well. It was Julian Anfonsi's 1st year, Stu was back again, and once again made a good contribution to guiding and mentoring the junior guides.
2010/11 This was our best year yet. We bit the bullet in the summer and spent the time and money to speed up all the roads out on the new mountains - Claw and China. We brought in an excavator to build a road up the north side of Claw Mountain. We also cut another 35km of snowcat road, and gladed about 50 runs using up to 6 guys out chainsawing. We purchased a new welcome centre at the base of the Red Robs condo building, which gave us a really professional 1st impression and put the ski rentals in the same place as the check-in.
We also opened a new mountain and area called Candy Mountain (we considered naming it "Mount Uranus" since it was next to Mt Pluto and Neptune, but thought it would sound too funny on the radio, so when the kids suggested "Candy Mountain," we went with it). We puchased 2 new (used) snow cats. With all the new roads out in this area we were finally able to use China and Claw and Venus to their full potential.
The NE bowl on Claw has turned out to have our steepest runs. The open north bowls on China are amazing and Candy Bowl has some incredible steep open skiing! The snow was great all year. The team was also great: Lee Boland, Julian Anfonsi, Stu Blennerhasset, Kauri Howell, Kieren Gaul and Keith Robine were the lead guides. Seb Barlerin, Matt Chessor, Chris Bouchard, and Ari Gore where the main tail guides.
We had Rip Curl out filming boarders and skiers with a new time-slice technology to show off their "GUM" line of outerwear, and Salomon Freeski TV featured us in a part of their season opening episode. It was a great year.
Claw Bowl - one of the areas that became fully operational in year 6.
2 new snowcats, 20 new runs opened, 1 new snowcat cabin built. Music put into the cats and more insulation.
What an amazing start to the winter - by mid December we had over 2.5 meters of snow on the ground. We had built 25km of new snowcat roads and opened about 50 new runs - this was one of our biggest expansions. We built another snowcat cabin and purchased 2 new snowcats. Also by the end of the winter we had purchased 4 new buses. We built many new shortcut roads - this means faster turn-around time. The implications of this have been that even when we travel far out in the terrain we are still able to get 13-14 runs with expert groups. We gained approval from the BC government to change the shape of the area - this meant that we added some new areas - but also deleted some areas that we found that we were not using.
We opened areas like Nancy Bowl.
Before the season we opened about 30 new runs, 2 newer snowcats and about 10km of new snowcat roads. The season had a slow start - we spent an enourmas amount of work digging a bunch of roads in by hand. By mid January the snow was good and we were rolling. We used some of the other staging areas to good effect. We had some great powder days. Carey Austerman and Tyson Rettie in their first year leading did an amazing job.
We did an enoumous amount of work in the pre-season opening up around another 40 runs. We also opened our new restaurant "Fresh" now "Cat-puccino" for our guests. Unfortunately the weather/snow was the worst season - of our 10 years. This meant that we were not able to offer the product that we normally like to show people. As a result we issues a large number of Rain Checks.
This is a work in progress. We have a new snowcat cabin, a new bus, and a new area that will open about 15 new runs. We are saying prayers and hoping for an awesomely great winter! Come and join us....
Lots more work improving the area