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s I was driving on U.S. 550 in mid-February toward Durango, Colo., I spotted the majestic San Juan Mountains and their impressive subrange, the

La Plata Mountains, from some 80 miles away. As I got closer, I could see plumes of snow driven by the wind off the highest La Plata peaks, including 13,232-foot-high Hesperus. Though there was a good to excellent snowpack, and the peaks glistened in the sun, the wind did not bode well for backcountry snowcat skiing.

I was headed to a ski day organized by Purgatory Snowcat Adventures. With access to over 35,000 acres of terrain in the San Juan Mountains, the operation is Colorado’s largest backcountry skiing and snowboarding operation, encompassing a fantastic array of terrain, from above-timberline chutes and vast bowls to endless glades and old-growth forests. It operates from Purgatory Resort.

Our lead guide, Grady James, grew up at the foot of the ski area and has been with the snowcat operation for many years. He and assistant guide Jeremy Daken led our group to deep and soft run after run among the trees, where the snow was protected from wind and sun.

First was a lowish-angled slope filling in with small evergreens. I had to snake around to find the slots between, but it was plump as a down pillow and the lanes kept opening up before we popped out onto the snowcat path cut across the fall line. It was a nice, short warmup.

The afternoon was spent on steeper north-facing slopes of Cascade Valley in a largely old-growth pine forest, with some 4- to 5-foot pillows and nice rollovers amid a fairly open understory. One lap on this terrain included a second leg, less steep and with glades of largely young trees, where I could really relax and glide along.

Then it was a 30-minute or so rumble back to the ski area, where some beers and hot tubs waited.

Details

Purgatory Snowcat Adventures is owned and led by the same company that directs Purgatory ski area. A seat on the cat for the day is $399. This includes powder skis/snowboards, avalanche gear, lunch and water. Runs range from 500 to 1,500 feet through trees, glades and open bowls of varying pitch. It averages eight to 10 runs and 10,000 feet of vertical climbing, depending on skier ability and terrain conditions. Skiers and snowboarders must be comfortable skiing black diamond runs consisting of deep powder, tight trees, steep pitches and unmarked hazards. For more information, call 970-385-2115, email

Ski team wins

Last week, the soon-to-be-defunct University of New Mexico ski team won events at the NCAA National Championships in Stowe, Vt.

Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier was crowned the national champion in the men’s Nordic classical field. He is the third UNM male skier to win a national Nordic championship and the first ever in the classical discipline. Kornelius Groev finished second in Nordic freestyle. The men’s Alpine team won third, while the combined men/women and Alpine/Nordic teams secured a sixth place finish.

CONDITIONS

The storm that hovered for four days has delivered. Conditions are as good as they have been in years.

Ski Santa Fe has a 94-inch base, with the best skiing conditions in memory. It picked up 15 inches Wednesday night and 4 inches Thursday. Ski Santa Fe has switched to a spring schedule, with lifts operating from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Taos has a 103-inch base, receiving

33 inches of new snow over three days.

Pajarito reported a 42-inch base and will host its 71st annual Skiesta celebration Saturday with music, costume contests, a beer festival and more.

Sipapu has a 57-inch base and has added an hour to its daily lift schedule, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It will be open daily through March 24; beginning March 30 on Saturdays and Sundays through April 7.

Angel Fire reports a 53–inch base; Red River 55 inches; and Ski Apache

44 inches. Sandia Peak has 30 inches but plans to close for the season on Sunday.

Purgatory has a 106-inch base and received 37 inches this week. It will extend daily operations through April 7 and will be open on weekends thereafter for as long as possible.

Wolf Creek has a regional best 170-inch base. Crested Butte has

100 inches, Monarch 103 inches and Telluride 110 inches.

Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff has been a big recipient of the El Niño flow this winter with a base of 98 inches.