Powder Steering: Learning to drive a snowcat

Forget carving the slopes on skis, try sculpting the snow with a snowcat.

The power and the speed made my heart race, 10 miles per hour never felt so fast. I pulled the two control leavers to slowly bring the Bison X down in speed, it wasn’t graceful of course but in a rather jerking and choking kinda way. It was my first lesson on how to drive a snowcat in Crested Butte, Colorado and for some reason I thought it was going to be easy.

Things to do in Crested Butte Colorado: Learn to drive a snowcat. Seriously, it’s one heck of a way to carve up the snow. Click over for other ideas on things to do in Crested Butte.

I had always wondered about the snowcats I would see in the evenings making their way up the ski slopes to smooth out the ruts and bumps made by the skiers and boarders each day. Gracefully gliding up and down the slopes with lights flickering throughout the night. Their meticulous grooming is rarely appreciated, if but only by the few who get out early enough to catch the first runs of the day. Still, they always peeked my curiosity. So, when I was invited to learn how to drive a snowcat on my recent visit to Crested Butte I jumped.

Crested Butte is one of the few, if not only places you can learn how to drive a snowcat. Not, just ride in one but actually get into the drivers seat and be in control. I was going to learn the basics of driving a snowcat, grooming and the pushing snow on a closed course by one of Crested Butte’s snowcat operators. I figured driving would be a breeze, after all I’ve been driving a car now for more than half of my life. The mechanics of operating the 14ft blade and the tiller in the back were what I thought would be difficult but I figured I’d be able to conquer it all in the allotted two-hour timeframe. I was wrong.

Things to do in Crested Butte Colorado Besides Skiing: Learn to drive a snowcat. Seriously, it’s one heck of a way to carve up the snow. Click over for other ideas on things to do in Crested Butte.

The lesson began with the instructor, Allan Gruber, giving me the nitty-gritty details about the Bison X, the snowcat I would be learning to operate. Allan has been in the business since the 1970’s and has more than 20,000 hours of drive time under his belt, which equates to a lot of stories and knowledge, some learned the hard. Take for instance, sliding sideways down the mountain at about 30mph. Or, the time his snowcat had to be towed (by another snowcat) after sliding down the mountain and getting stuck in the trees. (All I could think was, thank God they had me learning on a closed course!)

Things to do in Crested Butte: Learn to drive a snowcat in Crested Butte Colorado
The tracks of a snowcat are outfitted with “caulks” to help prevent the sliding. But, it still happens.

According to Allan, driving a snowcat used to be more difficult to drive, the technology in the machines today have made the process simpler and much easier for operators. When he told me this, I nodded my head in agreement as I looked up at the Bison X not realizing until later that his idea of simple and mine were much different.

snowcat

When I was telling my kids about the lesson I was going to do during our trip The Husband teased that I was learning how to drive a snowcat so we could move to the mountains. He told the kids it was going to be my new job. They both moaned and complained about not wanting to move…he let the complaining go on just a bit before telling them it was a joke. However, in the back of my mind I did think it might be something I could do if we ever did want to move to the high country. That is until I drove the snowcat. If there was a grade for the course, I would have failed. And, there is no way I would ever get a job driving a snowcat, at least not without a TON of practice.

“This is a love it or hate it kinda job. Driving snowcats is repetitive and each day you have to be meticulous. And, most operators don’t get ‘good’ until two to three years into it.”

There is no steering wheel or break pad in a snowcat but rather levers, joy sticks and a slew of buttons. As Allan powered up the snowcat to take me around the course a few times, he explained the essential controls I needed to know to drive the snowcat, power the blade and the tiller. Not too much to  really get, I thought. Move the two leavers to go left or right, bring them center to slow down and push them down to go faster. Check. The joystick and buttons will move the blade up, down, right, left. Check. The buttons on the joystick, well…I’m not ready for them yet. Check.

Holy heck! The two leavers my left hand was controlling were about as sensitive as a feather in a breeze. When I moved the right leaver ever so slightly we ended up doing doughnuts on the course! With me cussing a little (ok, a lot), Allan smiled, reached over and brought the Bison X to a stop. That was just my first loop on the course. I had broken into a little stress sweat and could have called it day right then and there… I had no idea the level of multitasking it took to drive one of these beasts. There is some serious hand-eye coordination going on when you’re driving a snowcat.

It did get easier and when I finally felt comfortable going faster then 3mph Allan reintroduced the snow sculpting controls, aka the joystick. It was time to move snow.

Things to do in Crested Butte: Learn to drive a snowcat in Crested Butte Colorado

Again, the controls are as sensitive as a feather in a breeze so guess what happened when I brought the blade down to move snow? Well, I made a new feature in the park. At least, that was the joke we had as I dropped the snow and drove over it. To be honest, the tillers behind the machine – the tools that leave the nice, perfect groomed lines in the snow – hide a multitude of sins from snowcat drivers. Including my new feature to the park.

Within two-hours I can officially say I have a new respect and appreciation for those perfect corduroy ski runs, and the snowcat drivers who meticulously sculpt them every night. I can also officially say I know how to drive a snowcat – not that I’m good at it – but I know how! Can you same the same? This was truly one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in Colorado. Who knew sculpting snow would be so cool.

Learn how to drive a snowcat the next time you visit Crested Butte. It's one of the most unique experiences you'll find.
Thanks to Allan for teaching me and for being cool, calm and collected when I wasn’t.

Learn to Drive a Snowcat in Crested Butte, Colorado

  • Classes run twice daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday during the ski season. Reservations must be made ahead of time, and group bookings are available by request.
  • The experience is $199 and includes transportation from the Lodge at Mountaineer Square.
  • Family and friends are welcome to observe from our on-site tent (mention at time of booking so they plan to transport them too).
  • Drivers must have a valid drivers’ license and be over 18 years old.
  • To book your Snowcat Driving Experience call or visit the Adventure Center in Mountaineer Square at 970-349-4554. More details on the snowcat driving experience.

Want to learn how to drive a snowcat? Have you taken a snowcat driving lesson before? What did you think?

Want to see more? Take a look at this news clip to get more of a feel for what a unique experience driving snowcat is. (This is one of those experiences I wish I had a GoPro. I gotta get one!!)

Mount Crested Butte hosted my participation in the snowcat experience. All thoughts and views are my own, and I am ever so thankful I didn’t break the Bison X.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge