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Cat skiers dive into untouched powder at Anthony Lakes

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort has been called a ''ski area time forgot,'' and it proudly lives up to the billing.

It is a rustic, cheerful place where lift lines are short, people are friendly, and prices are like reliving fond memories.

''We're trying to stay that small, affordable ski area,'' general manager Rick Pignone said.

It's also probably the only place in the Northwest where you can go cat skiing for less than $100.

A half-day cat ski trip costs $75 per person. Compared with Sun Valley, where a lift ticket alone will cost you $63, cat skiing at Anthony Lakes is a bargain hunter's score.

Anthony Lakes is located in Northeast Oregon in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest and tucked among several 9,000 to 10,000-foot peaks known as the ''Little Alps.''

Snow cats can access 2,000 acres of powder slopes all located within a couple miles of the ski area's lift-served terrain, which means no time-consuming rides into the backcountry.

A cat ski trip starts near the terminus of the Rock Garden chairlift at 8,000-feet elevation.

After a short ride up a ridge, skiers unload and a guide leads them down the back side of the mountain. Another guide follows to make sure the group gets down safely, and everyone is equipped with avalanche transceivers supplied by the resort.

Anthony Lake's backcountry bears no resemblance to the cleared and groomed slopes of the inbounds area.

There are thick forests, rocks, stumps and other natural obstacles dotting the steep slopes. Depending on conditions, the snow can vary between powder light, buttery smooth and heavy mush.

The backcountry is best tackled by advanced and expert skiers and snowboarders, according to lead guide Wayne Williams.

Anthony Lakes typically has light, dry snow, but like many other ski areas, snow storms have been sporadic this year.

A recent spell of warm weather made the snow heavier than normal, but if snow isn't good, trips are postponed until it improves.

''If conditions go sour, we're going to call you, say it isn't worth it and reschedule,'' Pignone said.

Cat skiing has a long history at Anthony Lakes. The resort has been doing it since the 1960s, when people skied down the back side of the mountain and a cat went down a couple times a day to retrieve them.

''It was more of a free-for-all,'' Pignone said. ''You paid a couple bucks and everyone dove off the back side. We pulled them back up the hill in an open-air sled.''

Williams, who has skied the area for 30 years, remembers those days fondly.

On powder days, people would use the chairlift and ski the front side of the mountain until the powder waned, then ski the back side.

''It was a locals' thing,'' Williams said. ''It wasn't a money maker.''

It wasn't a luxury trip, either. The ride back uphill included a short slope too steep for the cat to climb, so everyone would pile out and walk behind the cat, then climb back on the sled when the terrain flattened out.

''If you lived through the diesel fumes and the snow spraying up, you had some pretty good skiing,'' Williams said.

In 1999, the resort bought a covered, heated coach from Aspen resort and started offering more formal cat skiing.

For $150, you can get a guided full-day cat trip with hot meals, beverages and snacks.

The trips have done well and interest is growing, but the cat was idle too often for Pignone's taste.

So in keeping with the Anthony Lakes tradition of keeping things affordable, he made a change.

''We decided to do a half day and do away with the bells and whistles and price it at a reasonable 75 bucks,'' Pignone said.

That price also includes a $28 lift ticket at the resort for that same day, so a skier can get a few warm-up runs in bounds before heading into the backcountry for runs up to 1,700 vertical feet.

Skiers typically get four runs on a half-day trip and then a bonus run down the steeps above the chairlift, which takes them back into the ski area boundaries.

Anthony Lakes gets an average of 300 inches of snow annually, and it has a reputation for lots of powder.

''We have super dry climate here,'' Pignone said.

The combination of good snow, challenging terrain and laid-back atmosphere has recently attracted national attention.

Couloir, a magazine devoted to backcountry skiing, featured the area in its November issue. It described the resort as ''the ultimate locals' area, yet also a destination for backcountry skiers.''

''If you ask the right questions, the small world of Anthony Lakes transforms itself into an expansive vertical playground,'' Couloir writer Susan Schnier said in her article.

In its December issue, Ski magazine described Anthony Lakes as ''a gem that lives happily in the past.''

Pignone sees the recent attention paid by the national press as a yen for skiing's past before posh, expensive megaresorts took over.

''We're kind of still like the old ski area,'' Pignone said. ''I think the magazines are coming here because they want to see their roots again. They are looking for these little areas that time forgot.''

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