VAIL PASS — Aaron Tucker is strapping plastic bins atop his rumbling 2009 Prinoth Trooper snowcat
“This is why I started all this,” he says, cinching down the totes packed with tiny snowboard boots, jackets, diapers, blankets and camping supplies. “My wife and I love to backcountry snowmobile. When we had kids, we worried we would have to give it up. And we didn’t want to give it up. And we didn’t want to leave them at home.”
Minutes later Tucker is plowing through neck-high drifts, carving a path for a parade of snowcats behind him. The collection of cartoonish vehicles — orange vintage Tuckers, red Thiokols, yellow Bombardiers, a wood-tracked Frandee and even a rare, submarine-shaped Kristi, all part of the third annual Colorado Snowcat Jamboree — is captained by a small, but growing, wave of wrench-ready owners. They’ve co-opted the industrial tools, turning them into toys that carry them far beyond the boundaries of crowded resorts.
Snowcats, which revolutionized remote winter travel more than a half century ago, are the workhorses of the snow world. The track-mounted cabins have evolved from worker ferries to limos for skiers, enabling groups to amble across frozen landscapes in the upholstered comfort of a mobile living room. They move technicians to snowy locales for work on weather stations, communications towers and electrical lines. They portage skiers, plow roads and groom trails, giving skiing and snowmobiling adventurers a gateway to winter wonderlands.
Today, snowcats are selling as high-end RVs on snow, with an entry-level, four-seat Tucker starting around $125,000. And there’s a growing interest in refurbishing the old machines — some dating back more than 65 years.
Colorado is a hotbed for catters. Up on Vail Pass, there are usually at least five cats prowling around Ptarmigan Ridge every winter weekend. This is because the state has liberal rules for snowcats, essentially allowing them to use any roads where snowmobiling is permitted. In other places, such as Wyoming and some states back East, snowcat traffic is restricted on some routes where other snow machines are allowed.
“In Colorado, we have a big population of personally owned snowcats,” says Tucker, whose Colorado Springs-based Snowcat Inc. sells used snowcats, helps retrieve machines stuck in the snow, ferries workers to remote locations and even trains fire and search-and-rescue departments on snowcat safety. “I’d say there are more than 200, maybe even 300 personally-owned snowcats in Colorado that are not being used commercially. That’s compared to about 1,200 nationwide.”
Snowcats register as snowmobiles under state rules, so it’s hard to track the number of individually owned machines. But anecdotally, they are showing up everywhere.
“I would say it’s rapidly growing, especially with the backcountry skiing guys,” said Scott Jones, the president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association. “You can buy one and put a dozen people in it. Last year we ran into two 1950s-era Tuckers that were just gorgeous. Those things were like show cars.”
Refurbishing old snowcats is not unlike fixing up vintage cars. Except snowcats get used. They are loaded with gear and steered into the wild, delivering the comforts of home in the inhospitable hinterlands.
“It’s a family thing. I bring the grandkids camping every winter,” says Jeff Brooks, who trailered his refurbished 1977 Thiokol Imp — a well-named machine that weighs a mere 2,400 pounds — from Yampa to Vail Pass last week to join the jamboree for his first time. He tested the three-day event with a quick day trip. “I like to get to know folks before I commit. Next year I’ll be spending all three days up here with everyone. Such a great group of people.”
The jamboree draws catters from across the country. They drive each other’s rigs, admire renovation handiwork and test their machines in contests like a hill climb and drag race. They set up a basecamp in the middle of the woods and cook feasts. When avalanche danger is low, they snowboard and ski some of the lines off Ptarmigan Ridge. Some spend the night in their machines. They cut down dead trees and haul them across the snow for a raging bonfire. Kids are everywhere, climbing across the machines and playing in the deep snow. On Saturday, the jamboree in the woods drew more than 200 people in 16 snowcats and a host of other snow machines.
They all know each other from social media and an online forum where they share detailed stories of renovations and excursions. The jamboree — with similar annual events in Washington and Oregon — marks a chance for a real-life rally.
“That forum, it’s a lot of people with a lot of knowledge and so many resources,” says Ryan Duffy, who hauled his completely rebuilt 1989 Tucker 2000 Sno-Cat to the jamboree from Midland Park, New Jersey. “There are people on that forum who have been wrenching on these machines since they were brand new.”
Duffy, a welder and fabricator, cut off the back of his mid-engine Tucker and added two passenger seats. He cut off the back of his camper-converted 2005 school bus too, creating a flatbed for the Tucker over the rear wheels.
The trip up to Ptarmigan Ridge is his inaugural voyage. He spends the day spinning “hot laps” around the camp for hours, testing the Tucker he plans to use to haul his family to their remote cabin in upstate New York.
“Drives just like a truck,” he says, sipping a Yuengling lager as he steers the four-track Tucker down a snowy ravine. “Except you are just always overcorrecting.”
The Tucker Corp. has been building its patented four-track Sno-Cats since the 1940s. From its headquarters in Medford, Ore., the company remains a pioneer in the world of snowcats. Four Tuckers led the crossing of Antarctica in 1958. That mission yielded one of the most famous snowcat photographs ever, with the custom-built machine tentatively sprawled across a gaping crevasse, one of its pontoon tracks dangling above the abyss.
The Tucker family that still runs the company — no relation to Aaron, but a convenient coincidence — recently created a wing that buys and restores vintage Sno-Cats, an idea gleaned from a trip to a jamboree-type rally that drew dozens of meticulously restored machines.
Aaron Tucker is one of those collectors. He has a 1953 Tucker 743, the same model that crossed Antarctica. It’s one of four the company made that year for the U.S. Air Force and the only one operating. He’s refurbished every inch of the machine, which can fit as many as 15 passengers. He leases the Sno-Cat to Tincup Whiskey for marketing.
The Tucker Corp. recently found two ramshackle remnants of the very rare 1953 model 743s and is assembling them into a single machine, which could sell for more than $200,000. So the market for rusting, rare snowcats is exploding.
“Well I certainly drank the Kool-Aid,” says Travis Nottingham, who has three orange Tuckers he regularly hauls up to Vail Pass from his home in Eagle. His grandparents — pioneers of the Vail Valley — bought his 1980 Tucker 1643 brand new and used it to plow snow around their small airport in Avon, a former sheep ranch that is now home to a Walmart and Home Depot.
“I’ve been driving my grandparents cat since I could reach the pedals,” Nottingham says, cradling his 7-month-old daughter under a flapping awning as his wife Tory plows throw head-high drifts in their four-door, 1974 Tucker 1544. They acquired the machine a few years ago from scientists at the University of California. “Buying a cat is buying history.”
Nottingham was 3 in 1987 when his dad and uncle were killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling off Shrine Ridge near Vail Pass.
“My family always made it clear we were not allowed to come up here snowmobiling, but when I got into cats, I said (screw) that,” he says. “I’ve been catting for 15 years and really into it for the last five or so.”
Nottingham and Tucker are, in many ways, the cat kings of Vail Pass. They plow the parking lot early on weekend mornings, making it easier for the snowmobilers to park their trailers. After a big snow, they beat in a road so snowmobilers can get deeper into the snowy terrain. It’s a rare day they don’t help yank a buried machine from the snow.
“We tend to be the first responders in a lot of different situations,” Tucker says.
“Yeah it definitely takes a certain type of person to come back here and do this,” says Tucker’s wife Ashley, cradling their infant daughter in the backseat of the Prinoth as it roars through untracked snow along a road Tucker knows so well that he doesn’t need to see. “This can be scary for some people. This far out in the backcountry. It’s not for everybody, but we love it. Every lap we ski, it’s a fresh line, you know? And we get to bring our daughters along.”