Jay Sandelin is good at what he does. In 2010, the former pro ski jumper and speed skier bought and revived the faltering Great Northern Powder Guides cat-skiing company near Whitefish, Mont. He racked up more skier visits in his first year than the previous owner did in five and doubled that number in year two. Now going into his third season with more cats, more guides, an improved base area and a backcountry yurt, Sandelin offers up some sage wisdom to us wannabe cat-ski operators.
Find the right location: close to a ski resort, close to good skiing and close access for the cat ride so you don't spend all day in the cat.
Have a good business plan that you can communicate with the Forest Service and make them have faith in you.
Be confident. I went to the state and told them I could make it over this big hill to cut down on our approach. I walked out of there and the guy I was with looked at me and said, "Can we do it?" I said, "No way in hell!" And that's why we bought a cat with a winch. Because I thought, do or die, we're in it now and I have to figure out how to get that cat over the hill.
Know what kind of cats you're going to get and why. We bought PistenBully cats. They're not easy to get parts for and they're expensive, but they're the best. The Austrians know how to do it.
Get guides with a great sense of humor and a good personality. If you're stuck in a small box with somebody for 10 hours, you want to have fun with them.
Spend time on your roads. I go up really early in the morning and get the roads all built and leveled and packed. We've had a lot of compliments that we have cats that are faster than everybody else's. They're not. It's just that our roads are smooth.
The tail guide actually has more responsibility than the lead guide, so pay them as much or more than your lead guides. The tail guide is the one that's going to be at the accident or the one to shovel someone out because he's the last one down.
Breakdowns are breakdowns and you can't always stop that. But guests need to know that I did 110 percent to make sure that they were able to ski. You wouldn't want to show up and I'm sitting there, sucking on a toothpick, going, "We'll fix it."
If you can put money back into the business, you need to. You can't take money out of it, especially early on.
Be a jack-of-all- trades. We have a background in construction and road building, so we know equipment. We're certified welders and we do our own fabricating and our own metalwork. To outsource that gets really expensive.