Powderhounds Review

Powderhounds Review

Tenjindaira Backcountry Tours

Great Northern Powder Guides Review

The Powderhounds had a glimpse at Great Northern Powder Guides back in early 2011 and we reviewed them again in early 2013 to check out the evolution. This cat skiing operation has come a long way, and they continue to put immense work into the development of the outfit.

GNPG are in the process of transformation into a kick-arse cat skiing (and heli skiing) operation. They continue to increase the terrain size, to thin some of the trees via logging, and are even in the preliminary phase of adding a heli skiing component to the company!

As a guide to ratings, a 5/5 equates to absolutely phenomenal, 4/5 is excellent, whilst 3/5 is still a very good score. You can check out our cat and heli ski ratings to see how Great Northern Powder Guides compares to other mechanized backcountry operations (where you’ll note that no operator gets perfect scores). 

Pros

  • GNPG is a family run business and they are incredibly passionate about the operation. The Sandelin family are down-to-earth and genuinely lovely folks, and their pure love for backcountry powder skiing is rather infectious. You can’t help but have a great time.
  • Great Northern Powder Guides has impressive terrain for experts and pro-riders with lots of steeps and interesting terrain to gleefully play amongst. There’s huge potential for drops with plentiful cliff bands and other fun features.
  • The proximity to Whitefish Mountain Resort is a major bonus so that your vacation can combine riding at a great ski hill with cat skiing. Being near the cute town of Whitefish is also a plus.
  • The GNPG log house is a beautiful place to stay. It is the Sandelin’s former house and it’s been decked out with love, so it feels deligtfully homely yet luxurious.
  • GNPG continue to develop and expand the terrain to get up higher and to get to more radness! 

Cons

  • From the base of operations at an elevation of 980 metres, it takes a long time for the snowcat to get up to the top at about 2,100 metres (1:40 hours). Despite using a winch cat to get up the steep “luge” to speed things up, you’ll need to settle in, have a cat nap, or enjoy hanging out with your new friends. Ditto for the trip down. For multi-day trips, one way to counteract this con is to book a whole snowcat with your mates and stay up at the yurt.
  • The travel cuts into skiing time, so the standard package doesn’t include a lot of vertical per day (see below). 
Powder Snow
With an average of 7.8 metres per season, the area doesn’t receive huge amounts of snowfall relative to other USA cat ski companies (10.4 metres is the US average, 12 metres for Canada cat skiing). This results in less potential for super deep powder and less frequent top ups.

The quality of the snow is generally very good and sometimes great, particularly at high elevations (the top elevation at GNPG is only about the same as Whitefish Mountain Resort). On both visits there was significant variability in snow quality at the different elevations. The last time we headed out with GNPG it hadn’t snowed in quite a while. The powder up top was shallow but fluffy, whilst the snow at lower elevations for the warm up and cool down runs was extremely crusty. Not sure what the point of these runs was?

GNPG has large terrain which provides the advantage of lots of run choice if it hasn’t snowed in a while, and about one quarter of the terrain is north facing.
Overall Terrain
The terrain is reasonably large by USA standards (11,350 acres versus the USA cat ski average of about 6,700 acres) and there is huge diversity below the treeline across a variety of aspects. It’s really fun terrain!

The only limitation is that the runs are pretty short. The average length of the runs we did was only 885 feet of vertical (269m) so they seemed like they were over in a nanosecond, and many of the runs had mellow run-outs so the pitch didn’t last long. Many of the other USA cat ski operations also have short runs, especially relative to the typical 1,500 to 2,000 vertical feet runs with BC cat skiing.

The amount of skiing or boarding averages about 8,000 to 10,000 feet per day with a standard package (equivalent of less than 4 top to bottom runs at the Whitefish Ski Resort). This may not be enough to fully satisfy expert riders, but is likely to burn the thighs of strong intermediates. The average for US cat skiing is 11,800 feet per day whereas the average for Canada cat skiing is 13,400 feet (4,084m).
Alpine Terrain
There is no alpine terrain per se, but there are various burns and other areas that are reasonably open and akin to the alpine. We skied one open area that was super fun and had lots of little rock features. We repeated the run a few times and whilst we scored freshies in the upper parts of the run, we were riding really tracked out snow at the bottom and getting déjà vu.
Tree Skiing
Great Northern Powder Guides has an amazing mix of treed terrain. There’s diversity in the pitch of the trees from mellow loveliness to steeps that are holy crap steep and littered with little cliffs. Air is not mandatory and the guides will point out the cliffs so you can decide if you want to leap or not. The terrain also has some pillow sections and little jumps for launching off – it’s a bit like a terrain park.

The trees are generally pretty well spaced so you don’t have to put the brakes on very often. Some of this is natural glading, and a little bit of logging has been done which has helped with thinning the trees.

Strong Intermediate Terrain


There are some open meadow areas that are perfect for strong intermediates, but much of the terrain is more challenging. If grouped with together with others of a similar ability, the cat skiing could cater reasonably well to intermediate riders.
Advanced Terrain
Advanced skiers and snowboarders should adore the tree skiing amongst well spaced trees, the diversity in pitch, and the open areas where they can let it fang!
Expert & Extreme Terrain
There are many pitchy slopes and an abundance of objects to huck off, and the guides are all too happy to point out perfect drops and scope landings. The terrain features are more than enough to keep experts and pro riders very entertained. The only limitation is the short runs and the limited vertical each day.
Guiding
We had two guides, and the photographer also acted like an assistant guide. The photographer and tail guide were fantastic, lots of fun, really knowledgeable and really personable. The lead guide was very good at providing succinct instructions for route finding, but she was a little curt at times and not always confidence inspiring.
Snowcat
The Sandelin’s just loooove their snowcats; actually they love any sort of heavy machinery or earth moving equipment! They live and breathe it and are adept at any required maintenance, so it’s no great surprise that they have fantastic snowcats. They have two snowcats with cabins for guests that are turbo charged to fly up the hill, a road building winch cat, and an emergency cat.

The layout of the snowcat cabins has been really well thought out. Most of the seats faced forwards, and with a couple of seats positioned in the middle, low back seats, and good insulation, this was one sociable cabin. The storage for drinks and other things was really good, and the steps out the back made entry and egress really easy.

The only minor limitation of this cabin was that it was a bit claustrophobic and there weren’t really any windows that opened, so there was the potential for feeling a bit cat sick. Apparently the new snowcat cabin has opening windows, which should alleviate this problem.
Avalanche Mitigation Strategies
The lead guides at GNPG are well qualified and experienced, however out in the field any avalanche mitigation strategies were not particularly apparent. Only on one run did we ski one at a time, re-grouping didn’t generally occur in “safe zones”, and nothing was mentioned regarding avalanche safety. We asked the guides about this, and they explained they don’t need to make strategies evident to guests because avo risk is generally always very low. They don’t get avalanches in their terrain, potentially because its below the treeline, has lots of undergrowth to aid stability, and because they don’t tend to get big dumps of snow. This may be the case but it wasn’t completely reassuring.
Safety Briefing
The safety briefing conducted by the lead guide was super quick and pretty much just covered a quick avalanche beacon search. The guide also quickly demonstrated how the probe should be assembled. Very little was covered regarding other backcountry skiing safety aspects, nothing on what to do if caught in an avalanche, or safety around the snowcat. It was a very long trip up the mountain, and some of this time could have been spent providing a comprehensive safety briefing.
Frills
They pulled out all the stops when it came to the frills. The days started with coffee and breakfast snack items such as freshly baked muffins and other yummies. There was a range of hot drinks available in the snowcat, and we stopped at the yurt for a hot lunch. BBQ hamburgers, chilli dogs, and hot soup sure beat the soggy sandwiches that you get with some cat skiing operations. They even have a bathroom at the yurt (which is a rare luxury in the backcountry!).

The day ended with a beer and après gathering back at the base lodge to play with the dogs and the bobcat (for game folks and those for an affinity for wild animals), the unusual mascot. Another great frill was the photography service and getting to check out some of the footage at the end of the day.

Overall the vibe and experience was phenomenal, and we were made to feel like part of the family rather than just being part of a production line.
Accommodation
We stayed at the superb GNPG vacation home. This log house has so much Montana mountain culture and it feels incredibly homely. It’s huge, been decked out with amazingly eclectic décor (including lots of taxidermy animals from hunts locally and abroad). This house has it all including a hot tub, laundry, full kitchen and a games room. You can cook meals at the house or drive into Whitefish to check out one of the many restaurants. The house has a variety of bedroom configurations. We stayed in the huge master bedroom which was just divine, and it had an equally huge bathroom ensuite with spa bath. The spaciousness was enhanced because it was on a mezzanine but considering the openness, our sleep times had to be in sync with the other guests in the lodge.
Value for Money
The cost of the cat skiing is a little higher than the average for US cat skiing, but much less than the cost of Canada cat skiing. And with GNPG you not only get plenty of value with regards to superb fun, there’s lots of frills included in the package (although rental skis are an additional charge). The value would be enhanced if there was more skiing/boarding per day.

Notes Regarding Review The review is largely based on our experience, but also on discussions with staff, former guests, and information available on their website. Our review has some limitations as it’s not possible to ski every run and in all possible snow and weather conditions. Every guide is somewhat different and we acknowledge that everyone’s experience will be slightly different. The ratings are from our perspective only.
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