Black cats to cross paths on ski areas

Steve Benson

Look out for the black cats.

Fourteen new snowcats will be crawling the slopes of all four mountains this winter, and at Snowmass and Buttermilk, they’ll be painted black.

“We decided to have a little fun with it,” said Mike Kaplan, senior vice president of mountain operations for the Aspen Skiing Co. “We’re seeing cats show up in photo shoots, and we thought black would look pretty cool.”

He said the black cats will fit in with the area’s image as a “new school” hub and will complement the Skico’s black-on-white Aspen/Snowmass logo, which will be plastered to the sides of the machines.

At Aspen Mountain and Highlands, the cats will remain the traditional yellow, but that’s about all that will stay the same.

The new cats are Bombardier 350s, which are more powerful, faster machines. Each one goes for about $200,000. The four mountains have a total of 28 grooming cats.

“They’re state-of-the-art snowcats,” Kaplan said. “They groom more [terrain] and faster. They’ve got a wider tiller and they cover more ground and move faster with more horse power.”

And inside, they’re a cat driver’s dream.

The seats are shock absorbent to provide what Kaplan described as “an incredibly smooth ride,” and the cabin’s temperature is computerized.

As for the tunes: “They all have killer stereo systems,” he said.

Four years ago, the Skico embarked on a two-year cat leasing program, meaning none of the machines are older than two years.

Joining the new fleet of 14 is a new winch cat for Aspen Mountain. The old one will be sent to Buttermilk, where it will be used for cutting pipe on a nightly basis and grooming steeper terrain.

Snowmass is receiving a new Zaugg pipe cutter, which is the same machine Buttermilk has been using to cut its superpipe.

“It will allow us to cut a bigger pipe at Snowmass and really [provide] a perfect pipe,” he said.

Furthermore, an intermediate and beginner pipe will be availabl at Snowmass in addition to the superpipe.

Snowmass placed second in the nation in grooming in the annual Ski Magazine resort rankings released in September. Aspen Mountain was ranked 20th with Highlands following at 29th.

As soon as enough snow falls, the cats will begin running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Kaplan said.

“They’ll be out there doing what it takes,” he said.

Once the season gets under way, the drivers ” about 80 percent to 90 percent are veterans ” will begin their regular schedule. Shifts are 4 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m.

As for who gets to drive the new cats: “They’ll battle that out every night,” Kaplan said. “But the vets will drive what they want.”

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