Of Wild Snow Cats and Snow Guns

Of Wild Snow Cats and Snow Guns

The language of the mountains can sometimes fool you. For example, the terms “snow cats” and “snow guns” can conjure up images of all sorts of crazy combinations of machinery or hairy beasts with powers like Elsa’s from “Frozen.” The questions can loom large about these things like just how big are those cats? What kind of bullets does a snow gun fire exactly?

Growing up skiing on the east coast meant that snow guns were a staple to my winter world. As soon as temps dipped below freezing, our local ski hill fired up the guns all over the place. Fighting against fickle temps meant that this mountain near the Mason Dixon Line would blow snow whenever it was possible. If it was 32 degrees or colder at noon on a Saturday, the guns were blazing. Fake snow is pretty tough stuff. It can even put natural rime ice to shame. I remember being all of 8 years old and finding it hilarious to see how close I could ski to the snow guns, testing the limits of my pre-Gortex ski apparel. There was a weird unspoken one-up-man ship that seemed to take over my buddies and me in ski school… just who would be brave enough to completely ice over their goggles, then try and ski the aptly named “Vertigo Park” and beat the instructor back to the lift?

If the mid-Atlantic fake snow wasn’t enough to toughen me up, fear was another great motivator. I remember riding on the lift one day and seeing traces of red hydraulic fluid that leaked from a snow cat thinking it was blood all over the ski run below me. The rumor amongst us in the aforementioned ski school group was that a vicious “snow cat” had killed again. Our young brains could only imagine the size of those teeth and the roar they must make before they strike.

When my family started skiing out west, I was amazed to know that ‘snow cats’ were indigenous to that region as well and my oldest sister had nightmares about running into these dreaded creatures while out on the slopes. The resort had signs, written in bold, crisp letters on an unmissable red background, “SNOW CATS MAY BE ENCOUNTERED ON ANY TRAIL AT ANY TIME.” That cinched it for us. Didn’t matter if it was a groomed run or a rollercoaster path through scary dark trees, it was better to blow through those as fast as possible so we didn’t get eaten or left for dead.

Overtime and thanks to experiencing “snow from Heaven, not hoses,” I’ve learned to really appreciate what snow guns and snow cats do for us winter enthusiasts. Snow guns actually make snow by mixing the right amount of cold air and water to make a fine artificial snow that withstands changing temperatures and conditions better than natural snow. And as for the snow cats, those beautiful mechanical creatures help move and smooth out both natural and artificial snow, creating a perfect tapestry for turns on the mountain.

These days, the roar of a snow cat tends to greet me most mornings as I get to work and I’ll admit to being super giddy when I can carve fresh corduroy from the top of Kaniksu all the way to Stella. Thanks to them, I’ve learned that fast is fine but slow, rhythmic turns are amazing as well.

As for snow guns, well here in North Idaho, they are fantastic at helping us get the season going early and keeping some of our high impact ski runs covered. We’re lucky that our need for fake snow tends to be limited but when we are aching to ski and ride in November, that fake snow helps us do just that.

Watch the temps, my friends. It might soon be time. 

This article was first published in the Bonner County Daily Bee's "Neighbors" supplement.