Mistaya Lodge Backcountry

Wildcat Creek Basin (BC), Canada – Bang! Crash! etc. plus bouncing around like a small
skiff in tide rips. We tried to look out the nearby window and saw only a wall
of white!!! Gradually I came awake and realized that wife Marilyn and I were ensconced
on a 40″ wide bunk with 3″ of mattress padding in a sleeping car on Amtrak, headed
West near Cleveland in a blinding snow squall. The rough track and noisy couplings
were courtesy of Conrail. During the previous afternoon we had driven from Woodstock,
Vermont over Sherburne Pass to the Amtrak station at Rutland, walked across the
platform and each dragged a backpack, small adventure duffel and skis onto a well-worn
tired Amtrak coach headed for Albany, New York. In Albany we would change for
Chicago and Whitefish, Montana in a search for powder and steeps en route to Mistaya
Lodge, British Columbia.


This was February 12th, and Vermont had yet to have a sizable snow dump. Our
first adventure hit between Grand Forks and Fargo at about 5 a.m. the next morning.
While we were having coffee on a similar bunk suddenly the train ground to a
rather abrupt halt. I slipped on some Sorels and exited onto the snow covered
right of way to discover that the three-unit engine had become detached from
the rest of the train and blithely gone on ahead. The train crew radioed the
engineer and eventually he (or she) backed up, recoupled and we were on our
way….glad this occurred on level terrain!!!

We arrived in Whitefish at about 10:00 p.m. — after two days and two
nights on Amtrak—- and alighted with our gear into a fairyland of l0
foot snow banks and a Swiss style half timbered railroad station. Our plan
was to spend six days climbing and earning our turns at Big Mountain to
acclimate for the B.C. backcountry. We had been training for the trip by
skinning up Killington or Suicide Six at least three times per week all
Winter with a moderate pack…..we were cocky and figured we were in good
shape. We discovered otherwise and were humbled in short order.

Monday 22 February 1999

Today was our first full day at Mistaya Lodge high up in Wildcat Creek Basin,
more than 50 miles Northeast of Golden, British Columbia beside a frozen lake
at 6,700 feet elevation. The Lodge was constructed just a few years ago from insect-infested
timber condemned by the BC government, and owner Ron Blaue and friend Jane Girvan
built their own sawmill to process the timber and construct the Lodge. Just inside
the main entrance there is a heated drying room and a private washroom with hot
and cold running water. The dining and common areas with their mountain and glacier
views are also on the main floor of this 1900 square foot building. Upstairs are
5 bedrooms accommodating up to 12 persons in various bunk configurations. The
Lodge is heated by a 24-hour wood stove and solar gain, and there is also a micro
water powered charging system. Next door is a wood fired sauna bath house.

We had breakfast family style with the usual choice of hot cereal, eggs,
meat, pancakes and strong coffee. Lunch items are laid out onto the table
and each skier made up and packed a trail lunch. At about 9:30 or 10:00
the guides, Jakob Wyss ( Kobi ) and Megan Routley set out across the floor
of the Valley and after a transceiver check, we followed.

Soon we ascended a steep track, switchbacking through the softwoods
and climbing almost at the limits of skin adhesion. Of our 12-person group,
half were on alpine touring equipment rented at the University Store in
Calgary, and the rest of us were on every style, shape and size of tele
ski, binding and boot, although T-3s were the preferred model. The weather
was cloudy, warm and snowing as it had been for our previous 9 days in
Glacier Park and Whitefish Montana.

In about an hour we had gained perhaps 1,000 vertical feet and were
atop Heather Ridge, northeast of the Lodge. The breeze was now at about
20 knots out of the South and our climbing tracks were becoming obliterated.
The ridge was above treeline and whiteout conditions prevailed, so the
10,000 foot peaks and glaciers such as Barbette, Stonebird and Trapper
were obliterated. The snow as wind packed. At this point we divided into
two groups with the AT contingent and Kobi heading to a supposed vista
about 400 verts further, while the rest of us with Megan had a bite to
eat, took off our climbing skins, and prepared to carve our first turns.

Telemarking at Mistaya Lodge (image Mistaya Lodge)The
snow was probably about ten feet deep with the upper two feet consolidated
powder and windpack, so tele tracks were mostly mid-shin or about a foot
deep. Turns were tricky until tree line, then the powder was more pristine
and the grade a consistent 15 to 20 degrees. Skiing was about as good as
it gets and I know we all cut at least 150 turns back to the valley. Some
of the skiing was gladed and other tight in trees.

We did some lesser climbs, carved some more powder, and eventually ended
up back at the Lodge later in the afternoon for drinks, tall stories and
the sauna. Everybody hit the sack early and most suffered from muscle cramps,
blisters and similar items from the day’s adventure. It continued to snow.

Tuesday, 23 February 1999

During the night the Lodge shook from 50-knot wind gusts, and it was hard in the
early morning light to estimate the new snow accumulation. Our best guess was
around a foot. We all were fortified by multiple cups of strong coffee that maternal
cook and Banff native Helen Barry prepared, and soon after breakfast everyone
was anxious to get out and ski. Kobi and Megan headed us West and then Northwest
through the valley, past Red Cliff and onto a slope named Mohawk. The slope climbed
through gladed forest for almost a 1,000 verts, ending up on an exposed ridge
of the same name. Our climbing track was about two feet deep. Marilyn and I had
our skins off and were ready to go before the others and figured we would poach
first tracks… .which we did. There was no avi danger on this slope which was
similar in grade to Nose Dive at Stowe or Bittersweet/Skyelark at Killington..
. .those turns were sweet. Guide Kobi was not pleased, however, because with his
heli-ski guide background, no one every skis ahead of the guide!!! We just let
Kobi blow off steam and eventually he cooled off but I think the relationship
with him was a bit strained after that. Megan could have cared less.

So, another 150 turns or so in paradise, a bite of lunch, another skin
up and more cuts through the two feet of pristine powder. We wondered what
the wealthy people were doing today.

Back to the Lodge, we reglued Marilyn’s skins in the workshop, followed
by a repeat of sauna, drinks and dinner.

By now all 12 guests were beginning to open up a bit. There was Nancy
Brett, widowed, from Seattle: an advanced telemarker, rather quiet, but
with many backcountry adventures under her belt. Her friend Marilyn Thader
Dexter from Salt Spring Island, B.C. was perhaps the most interesting guest
– while still in her late teens she had entered a Catholic order, been
posted to India and worked with Mother Theresa in remote hospitals for
a number of years before about age 36 when she left the order and eventually
married. Now at age 65 she was the best teleskier in the group. Colleen
Anson and her friend Dan Robisch from Spokane and Cour d’Alene skied at
about our level and were sort of our skiing buddies. Jo Winfield from Calgary
was a single girl of about 30 who had lots of backcountry experience and
spent most of her non-working time in the mountains around Kananaskis,
Lake Louise, Banff and Golden. Finally, there was a family of five named
Chessex: he was a Canadian physician with family in Switzerland and a great
deal of experience in the Alps. The entire family used AT equipment – their
climbing was a lot more work since they used Alpine Trekker inserts in
their bindings, but their tracks and figure 8’s on the steeper runs were
perfect. Marilyn and I were from Pomfret and Woodstock, Vermont with our
Asolo Extremes and Garmont Liberos.

After dinner we would sit around and not only tell tall tales, but run
the gamut of rowdy jokes as well. Much fun was had by all.

Wednesday 24 February 1999

More snow and another whiteout day. Marilyn took the day off and stayed Lodge-bound,
while I climbed in dense whiteout and ground blizzard conditions towards the tongue
of Grind Glacier with Kobi. The others did more Mohawk runs with Megan.

The skiing was tough with no visibility above treeline, with a windpacked
variable snow surface. After a couple of hours fighting the weather, Kobi
suggested we head over to Red Cliff…..which is just that, a cliff band
of red stone with chutes, trees and rocks. In the chutes and trees the
visibility was better and the more than two feet of powder almost pristine.
The terrain was steep and the cliffs intimidating but after one run we
opted for another climb and the second run went better.

Thursday 25 February 1999

Alpine above Mistaya Lodge (image Hugh Hermann)An
easier day. We experienced broken clouds for a while, better visuals, more contrast
for skiing and a modest climb up to Leprechaun Lake. The distant glaciers were
fully visible and the icefalls glistened in the sun. Normally all of us would
have climbed onto the glaciers for more vertical and longer runs albeit with a
shallow angle, but the crevasse situation was rather deadly according to Kobi
and Megan. Beyond the terminal moraines, the glaciers were off limits for everyone
-guides included.

Once again we enjoyed untracked powder, wind packed on the upper slopes
and pristine in the trees with floating teles, unlimited turns and many
smiles. As most days we likely climbed 1,500 to 2,000 verts and did quite
a bit of traversing from the Lodge to the ski sites and then back again
through the valley.

I should mention at this point that whereas most back country outhouses
have cold wooden seats all the facilities at Mistaya had seats of urethane
foam and were pure luxury.

Friday 26 February 1999

Guides led us through more whiteout and ground blizzard conditions to an area
called Boulder Meadows. It was potentially avalanche terrain but all went well.
The skiing was the worst of trip, picking or way down through irregular slopes,
rocks, wind, horizontal snow and fog. You can’t win all of the time!

Saturday 27 February 1999

On our last full day at Mistaya, with another two feet of snow over the past days
it was off to Mohawk Ridge again. This time we skied a few variations with even
deeper snow, and our powder cuts were knee deep in a variant called Gully. Some
of the group did a run called Tin Pan Alley and I watched Marilyn Thader Dexter
ski that one like a guide. She cut powder on her teles that left tracks as perfect
as the Chessex’s did on their AT’s. We all skied at least two Mohawk Ridge runs
and then opted for extra verts at Red Cliff and down toward Wildcat Falls.

We knew by now that most groups don’t have a solid week of snowfall
and reasonably warm weather with good powder. We celebrated with a banquet
and more tall stories before breaking ranks to pack for the early-morning
chopper lift back down to Golden.

Would certainly recommend Mistaya Lodge to anyone who wishes to experience
remote terrain, far from snow machines and mechanized transport. The skiing
can be tough but the rewards are sweet. More information may be found at http://www.mistayalodge.com,
and their phone number is (250) 344-6689.

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