Snowcats near Whistler give more powder to the people

December 2, 2017

Text CR Jack Christie

Photo CR Louise Christie

Imagine discovering a dream you never knew you had.

That’s how Ken Achenbach describes owning a backcountry snowcat operation near Whistler.

A pioneer at heart, Achenbach—who helped invent the twin-tip snowboard, which revolutionized the fledgling sport in the mid 1980s—bought into Powder Mountain Catskiing and Catboarding over ten years ago and  took centre stage with the company in 2008.

Not that running a business in Whistler is anything new to the forward-thinking entrepreneur, who opened the resort’s first snowboard shop in 1988 and still runs the original snowboard summer camp, the Camp of Champs, on Blackcomb Glacier.

On the phone from Powder Mountain’s day lodge, Achenbach said that the opportunity to run a snowcat business was too good to resist.

“How can you say no to an area 15 minutes from your home that gets twice as much snow as Whistler Blackcomb?”

In fact, on Achenbach’s  location on the ideal slopes of five adjacent peaks—including Tricouni Peak, Mount Brew, and Cypress Peak—storms blasting in off the Pacific drop significantly more precipitation than further inland.

Moving through that much white stuff requires legs of steel or a whole lot of horsepower.

Winter travel has spawned innovations from dogsleds to snowmobiles, and nowhere more than in the True North.

It started in the 1940s with Joseph-Armand Bombardier’s first B12s; Allan Drury took things further in 1975 when he brought Caterpillars to the Selkirk Wilderness Skiing lodge in the West Kootenays, the world’s first snowcat-skiing operation.

Drury’s larger-than-life persona is reflected in the passion Achenbach and his operations partner, snowboard maestro Don Schwartz, have brought to their venture.

It didn’t take long for the partners to spread the powder stoke among old friends, such as Jake Burton and Tony Hawk.

In January, 2008, with an elite international roster of snowboarders, skateboarders, and surfers, Burton and Hawk met up to shoot backcountry scenes with Powder Mountain for the action-sports feature film, Life as a Movie, directed by Taylor Steele.

As Achenbach explained, “Taylor changed the face of surf movies. His idea this time was to gather top riders from the three different board worlds and shoot them experiencing life from the other side of the mirror. I had big-wave surfers from Hawaii trying to manage armpit-deep powder asking me, ‘How do you ride this?’ ”

One of the charms of exploring the backcountry by snowcat rather than helicopter is the sense of camaraderie fostered by riding with a dozen other powder hounds in a heated cab mounted atop a PistenBully snow groomer.

The experience is less like the aerial assault of a mountain and more like catching your breath on a chair lift with friends while comparing notes on the previous run.

Just over the Pemberton Icefield north of Whistler lies the Hurley Pass, far enough inland for the powder snow that falls there on the South Chilcotin peaks to be freeze-dried by arctic outflow winds.

Those gusts may rattle a few windows of Backcountry Snowcats’ 10-person lodge at the top of the pass.

Still, that’s a small price to pay for the powder that mounds up in deep drifts and the clear skies that invariably follow winter storm systems.

Half of the fun of getting to the lodge is the snowmobile ride from owners Reg and Kathy Milne’s base in Pemberton Meadows.

Reg cut his teeth grooming snowmobile trails, servicing microwave transmitter towers, and coordinating snowcat operations for film crews.

The Milnes started their business in 2006 after working for almost two decades on obtaining a backcountry tenure permit from the provincial government.

“There were many years when we thought it would never come,” Reg said when reached by phone in Pemberton. “But we knew that with the rising demand in the marketplace for untracked powder terrain we’d succeed, especially with snowboarders who are looking for a surf experience.”

Snowcats offer a mid-range option for backcountry exploration, positioned between lift-serviced resorts and pricier helicopter adventures.

A typical snowcat day is $549, whether you head off on a day trip with Powder Mountain (1-877-793-73491-877-793-7349; ) or overnight with Backcountry Snowcats (1-604-932-21661-604-932-2166 or 1-888-246-11111-888-246-1111; ).

Some of the best conditions of the season occur between now and the end of April.

For a comprehensive listing of snowcat and helicopter ski and snowboard companies in B.C., visit