Mustang Powder Cat Jan 13-15, 2023

EMSC

Well-known member
I'm stuck at the airport with (crosses fingers) "only" a 6-ish hour flight delay. So I only have my phone which makes long posts a bit painful. So probably will try to assemble this thread in several posts as time permits.

Rough start to decent ending is the gist of the overall storyline. A very warm storm came through dropping heavy wet snow at first then moderate density and eventually almost light and fluffy by day 3. Due to the storm, no upper mtn visibility for 2 days and skunked snow surface below about 1650 meters day one and more like 1725 meters by day 2.

There is also an unusual snowpack for the area making avi danger much higher than usual eliminating anything steep for 2 days. LOTS of avi activity and snow safety team triggered a D3.5 that had a muti-meter tall fracture line and took out some significant mature timber on a run known as rapid transit. We ourselves had a couple very small rollover pitches fracture and release at about 60-70cm deep (hip plus deep) on a Jan 5th hoar layer.

The "sandbox" of non-avalanche pitch, no alpine for visibility and non-skunked snow altitude was very small on day one to say the least. A long time skier there (does 3 trips a year to boot) gave it a 2/10 for his Mustang days and said yes it can be even worse, but not by much. Some of our runs were all of 150 meters of vertical per lap.

Some downed trees at the bottom of the big controlled avi
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The day one conditions are exactly what you never want to see of course, but with a ton of experience and knowledge on the team it was a lot better to be with them than anywhere else in the backcountry. But it was also very instructive as the snow was so reactive it was a very good lesson in understanding the risks and why things are off limits when necessary.
 

Tony Crocker

Administrator
Staff member
This is what I heard some bad vis days in 2015 were like.

Rapid Transit is an often skied first run, relatively short and on the way to the expansive northern alpine sector. I'd never guess that frequently skied location for a big avalanche.

It is educational following knowledgeable guides. That was what I thought on our big powder day in Val d'Isere in 2018.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
Hopefully post #1 provides good context for the rest of my posts about the trip.

Normally they try to helicopter you in and out of Mustang with Bus/cat as backup. With the storm already starting we got the 45 minute bus ride and 45 minute cat ride to get into the lodge.

Big boxes for skis/luggage 'clips' to the blade on the cat
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Also for some context here is a portion of the tenure showing runs taken on all 3 days though I missed the first 5 laps on day one as I could not figure out how to use the tracking app, plus I missed one run each on day 2 and 3 by accident/busy-ness.
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Lots of overlap and 4 different cats all trying to use limited areas of the tenure...

Day one pretty well stunk really. First run was wet powder but 20cm (8") of new overnight. Multiple west bank, multiple Creme Brule, a couple adiamo and very short Samba home. Very first run we found out that it went from wet new to super sticky within a single turn at the 1650meter level. I and multiple others did a nice forward flip at that exact same level. We couldn't even do full length on west bank and had the cat come up to a higher normally never used spur road.

Mustang did by far the most comprehensive avi training I've ever done for a cat operation. Probe training here.
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Heavy snow, but very wintery at the top of runs.
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But pretty different looking trees and snow by the bottom of our short 150-300 vertical meter runs.
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We did go till 4p, but definitely a day to hit the hot tub and do some wine tasting...
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The good news is it gets a fair bit better for days two and especially three.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
Rapid Transit is an often skied first run, relatively short and on the way to the expansive northern alpine sector. I'd never guess that frequently skied location for a big avalanche.
It's not even all that steep really. I believe there was a 4 meter tall crown on it though, from blown in snow part way up the modest cliff face skiers left. So a huge amount of snow went, vs the steepness being the big factor.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
Revised map (learning new things all the time).

Orange- 2nd half-ish of day 1
Yellow- day 2 (minus a porcupine hill)
Green- day 3 (also minus a porcupine hill)

You can easily see the 'sandbox' growing by the day as snow stabilized and avi control and road re-building work was completed.

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I'm finally sitting on a plane 6.5 hours late. So day 2 and 3 will have to wait.
 

flyover

Member
Ugh. I’m sorry to read the storm came in so warm. I’m glad to read that you had some “decent” skiing by the end of your tour. The map of your runs is very telling with respect to both how confined you were relative to the acreage and vertical range of Mustang’s tenure, and how clearly you avoided anything close to steep for the first two days.

On day 3, how many runs was that on Stage Right? It looks like that might have been the steepest terrain conditions allowed you to access.

On January 5, avalanche.ca posted this: https://www.avalanche.ca/blogs/the-persisting-problem

Here’s the gist in a couple of quotes:

“This year’s snowpack is different from most previous years. Professionals with decades of experience suggest this weak of a snowpack is only seen once every ten to twenty years for much of western Canada. Some professionals are comparing this snowpack to 2003, which was one of the worst years on record for avalanche fatalities. This winter presents a very different set of problems than normal and we need to adjust our mindset to remain safe.”

“There’s uncertainty in how long these layers will persist, but it is likely that it could be a season-long problem in some areas. The weak layers have large grain sizes with poor bonding, and it can take months for them to shrink and start bonding as a cohesive snowpack. The season may not be long enough to experience this slow transition, meaning we could see large avalanches from these layers for months to come and even into early summer in the high alpine.”


Since January 5, the daily avalanche forecasts for the region have not been any more reassuring with respect to these deep buried layers.

Cat operations, of course, can mitigate avi risk compared to true backcountry conditions by regularly skiing runs throughout the winter and through control work. Nonetheless, your report is a clear illustration that there are limits to the extent to which risk can be mitigated when stability is all around really bad.

Like Tony, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a big slide on Rapid Transit. It is so commonly skied as the morning’s warm-up run and it always seems like such a gentle cruiser.

I’m glad to hear Mustang is doing control work. When I asked last year why we had not gone further up the ridge from Super Bon Bon to Showtime and Curtain Call, I was told that needed control work had not been done on Showtime because Mustang did not have anybody at that time with a current explosives ticket as Covid restrictions had made it difficult to renew tickets.
 
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Tony Crocker

Administrator
Staff member
I remember 2003. Craig Kelly was killed in an avalanche on the Durrand Glacier near Revelstoke one week before Adam and I arrived at Island Lake. That storm was all rain to the top of Island Lake and stabilized the snowpack there. The Fernie/Lizard Range region is not circled as a dangerous avalanche zone in the above link, perhaps due to a similar warm storm sometime after the weak layers formed. Liz and I return to Island Lake in a month and hopefully the weather will be more cooperative. Overall the Canadian areas near the border are fairly average on snowfall while those farther north are well below average.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
he Fernie/Lizard Range region is not circled as a dangerous avalanche zone in the above link, perhaps due to a similar warm storm sometime after the weak layers formed.
Not sure I have a definitive answer, but patroller at Revy said that Fernie/South had gotten a fair bit more snowfall and more consistant snowfall than Revy. Perhaps due to that it may have not developed some of the faceted layers like the "Jan 5" layer that was so reactive on day #1 for us.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
Well I had a longer day #2 write up but Chrome crashed, losing it, and it's getting late tonight.

Much better day, the claim from high sample rate folks gave it a ~4/10. Still nothing particularly steep was 'open', but 23cm (9") in 24 hrs, 15cm (6") overnight. That on top of the previous super dense 20cm (8"). Significantly lighter density for the 6" especially. Visibility was not great up higher to start, but eventually got much better and even a few peaks at the yellow orb in the sky. The bottom of runs still was annoying snow quality for the final ~25-50 vertical meters to the cat pickups down toward the 1650 meter level, but was still much better than the Day #1 snow. I hadn't even bothered to pull out my Gopro on day one, but did so for a few of our laps on day 2. I hadn't thought about it, but in general you will never be pulling your phone out to get an action shot mid-run, so I did some frame grabs from video.

Our group had a good vibe and good skiing level compatibility. Definitely a fan of the smaller than packed grouping on this trip.

8:30 Mtn time departure up the cat road (yes they run the BC based lodge on Mtn time).
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Early visibility wasn't the greatest up high...
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No skinning, but we did short-hike cat roads a couple times in the 'steep chutes, small groups' cat.
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About as clear as it ever got
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Gopro frame grabs of some action...
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jamesdeluxe

Administrator
Nice pix.

I had a longer day #2 write up but Chrome crashed, losing it, and it's getting late tonight.
The XenForo interface immediately saves everything in a draft. After Chrome crashes, just reopen the thread, scroll down to the bottom, and there's the draft including any pix that you'd already uploaded. A big upgrade from the old interface.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
After Chrome crashes, just reopen the thread
I agree that that is usually the case, but it was a blank reply box waiting for me last night when I re-opened Chrome. I've had a number of weird crashes on my PC in recent weeks (simple file explorer even).

Lots of stuff I'm catching up on with work so maybe another late night post for day 3 which was the best of the days.
On day 3, how many runs was that on Stage Right? It looks like that might have been the steepest terrain conditions allowed you to access.
3 runs there, and yes.

Like Tony, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a big slide on Rapid Transit.
Hard to discern, but see where the fracture line is at the red arrow. Not sure if they actually measured it or estimated it somehow (who wants to hang out under that hangfire), but supposedly ~4 meters tall (~13feet tall). That's a LOT of snow coming off the cliff face.
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EMSC

Well-known member
Day 3 - the pretty good one.

For day three there was no new snow overnight and the previous snow seemed to have dried out a bit. Not exactly fluff, but it just felt better. We started with the run just north of Rapid Transit, then silver lining, by the time we hit cloud nine it started to snow a bit again. I'd guess we got ~6-8cm (2-3") of light snow as we skied several porcupine hills (3), before hitting the 'steepest' terrain of the trip on Stage Right for 3 laps with a final trip up cloud nine to end as we were running too late to do a final drop back near the lodge.

Much more like the skiing we had hoped to do the whole trip, but you get what you get. We did Heli out back to the parking base which was great as I got on the road ASAP and drove all the way back to Banff that night over ~4hours.

Of note no injuries in my group. At least one woman hurt her knee and didn't ski the final day from another group. I guess knee and other injuries are more common than the operators would like you to know based on a few comments from frequent guests. Not sure if it is full charge skiing or if it is not very good skiers or just unlucky. But be safe everyone, I'd rather ski steeper stuff next year than trigger a big avi because I paid up for a trip this year.

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We did have brief visibility first thing
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Low snow year...
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Stage Right is very efficient: wait one minute as the cat road crosses and wait 1-2 minutes at the bottom...
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I was on flight 5
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Tony Crocker

Administrator
Staff member
Of note no injuries in my group. At least one woman hurt her knee and didn't ski the final day from another group. I guess knee and other injuries are more common than the operators would like you to know based on a few comments from frequent guests.
I can be oblivious, but I do not recall any injuries at Mustang, almost for sure none in any of my cats in 10 tours. The red flag at cat/heli operators is what I call the "death spiral." Someone overmatched gets tired, falls, the getting up from powder crashes makes them more tired, so more frequent falls, etc. In 2002 at CMH Kootenay I saw this situation on day one. The guy was a gamer, kept going all day, but couldn't get out of bed the next day so he was done for the 3 day trip.

Occasionally the Toronto people brought someone new who was slower. But I didn't see excessive crashes or injuries, just a few runs sat out to avoid that situation. I think Mustang's guides try to be proactive in that regard. I recall at Island Lake in 2004 someone in another cat got injured and I was invited on the last day to take that spot in a faster group.

I have had two minor injuries myself while cat skiing. In 1999 I had a back spasm landing about 4 feet of air at CAT Powder Skiing (where Revelstoke ski area is now). It didn't bother me for the remaining skiing, but the cat rides were a bit uncomfortable and the drive back to Kelowna at the end of the day much more so. I was flying home the next day and soon visited my mother's chiropractor. In 2010 I strained a calf muscle skiing into a blind gully but not hard enough to eject. This was on the first of 4 days at Chatter Creek. The ski boot protected it while skiing but walking, paritucularly up and down stairs, was painful for the rest of that trip.
 
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flyover

Member
Hard to discern, but see where the fracture line is at the red arrow. Not sure if they actually measured it or estimated it somehow (who wants to hang out under that hangfire), but supposedly ~4 meters tall (~13feet tall). That's a LOT of snow coming off the cliff face.
View attachment 33377
Thanks. As is often the case, a picture is worth a thousand words.

I'm glad you at least had a good day 3.
 

Tony Crocker

Administrator
Staff member
How much do those airbags cost?
In the ballpark of $1K I think. Definitely that much for the electric fan ones. The compressed air ones are less but the airlines REALLY don't like people flying with those, even as checked luggage. If they allow an air tank, it needs to be empty so you need to find a scuba shop to fill it. When James gets a place in Europe and is commuting by car to all of his skiing, maybe he should consider it then.
 
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jamesdeluxe

Administrator
Another dummy question from someone who's only done three catski days -- the neon/fluorescent orange on the airbag reminds me of powder cords that I bought in the mid-00s after a couple lost-ski incidents at Grand Targhee (found 'em both times after searching for 20+ minutes = no fun). I took so much abuse from skier friends in UT that they were put into long-term storage. Do people still use them?

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Skieric

New member
Good question. I rarely seem to find myself in that deep of powder and I find the “newer” wide skis are more likely to stay on top of the snow than the narrow skis of decades ago. Therefore my powder cords have not been out in a long time.
 

EMSC

Well-known member
I don't and don't know anyone who does, and never saw a single one at Mustang either...

That said, I just did a quick search and they are still for sale online, so someone must be buying them.
 
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