A Week at Mistaya Lodge with Cloud Nine Guides Delivers Amazing Back-country Skiing and Much More
We sit down for the first course of breakfast, a delicious assortment of fruit, muesli, oatmeal and yogurt, I wonder what the day will bring. Outside the temps have dropped to a crisp minus 15C, and an even blanket of snow covers the valley and mountainsides as far as I can see.
I look around the lodge’s long wooden dining table and most of the other guests are older than me. That doesn’t give me much comfort because I’ve been hearing snippets of their conversations. These folks are seasoned powder skiers, spent decades in the steep and deep. They know their stuff and they’re stoked to get out there.
I am pretty new to powder skiing. I’ve done enough skiing to be skilled at smoothly getting down the black runs at the ski resorts, will not do here. This is a different kind of skiing and I’m nervous.
I’ve come to Mistaya Lodge with two friends, Paula and Sylvie. We arrived by helicopter, the best way to access the remote lodge. We’re part of a week of guided back-country skiing excursion hosted by Cloud Nine Guides, a guiding company based in Canmore, Alberta, Canada.
The First Ascent
We start skinning behind Mike, one of our two amazing guides from Cloud Nine. The track Mike sets take us around a small frozen lake and through forest. Glancing around I’m struck by the vastness of the landscape. The mountains here show no signs of human activity and the snow is endless. I can’t help but smile, Paula, Sylvie and I chat about how we trained for the trip. Paula and I recently launched a new business, Mountain Fitness Training, which offers online fitness training programs specifically designed for the physical challenges of mountain adventure.
We start with a short run, Mista Vista, and when the snow turns out to be a bit crusty and wind scoured. Mike takes us to the other side of the valley and up a high ridge for a second, longer run. Atop this ridge, we look down into Alberta and on to the Wapta Icefield. Again, no signs of human existence and the peaks go on forever. I stop often on the way down to rest my burning legs and to savour the experience. I make it down without too many wipe outs and we end the day at the lodge with an amazing three course dinner.
After a night in a warm, comfortable bed and another huge breakfast, we once again head out on our skins. This time Simon, another Cloud Nine guide, is in the lead. Mike and Simon have studied the weather, wind patterns and avalanche risk and have chosen to take us up the west side of the valley. This takes us into a huge bowl brimming with loose, powdery snow. We ski a couple of laps and I’m starting to find my rhythm. They’ve set up the day so that folks who are tired or nursing blisters can head back to the lodge after the first lap while those who hunger for more powder can continue.
I find I like the uphill as much as the downhill. The slow steady rhythm of the skis moving forward, one after the other, is almost meditative. My mind slows down and relaxes as my body gets the work done. The downhill is hard work for me, at my ski level, new skills are coming quickly. I try to focus on two or three key things – even pressure on both feet, quiet upper body, face downhill – and put them together. It is my hope that I too will glide smoothly down the hill like the seasoned pros I’m with. I envy their style! Towards the end of the day, just for a few precious turns, it clicks for me and I’m sailing through cloud-like powder in a flow of beautiful, controlled motion.
By the time we get back to the lodge, I’m exhausted. The hard work of the uphill plus the thigh burning work of the downhill convince me to take a day off. Well, that and thoughts of the cosy couch at the lodge, a full day supply of hot tea and my book. Paula is recovering from an injury and Sylvie has developed blisters so they decide to take the day off too. We relax and enjoy the sauna.
Up We Skin Again
On the morning of the fourth day, Mike announces to the room that there will be two options. The first one is quite adventurous. “I’m in,” I think to myself. Sylvie and Paula decide to take the second option, a day of skiing laps on powdery slope lower down.
The adventure turns out to be a long climb across a glacier to summit one of the mountains that rim the valley. I had tried ski mountaineering for the first time a couple weeks before the lodge trip, ascending Mt. Hector. I loved the combination of the long steady ascent, the victory of the summit and then the smooth ski down. There is no knee jarring descents like my summer mountaineering trips.
The skiing is more challenging and I have a moment of terror as we stand above the main tongue of the glacier. The slope disappears in front of me. I can see where it starts to go down and then nothing – drop off – into what feels like nothingness. I encourage some of the other skiers to go first, I see them ski down and then disappear over the edge. They reappear minutes later, skiing across the flatter slope far below. Fighting my panic, I decide to make one turn at a time and not worry about the steep descent.
The fifth day is also a two-option day. I choose the ski mountaineering adventure, despite the likelihood of more terror on the descent. A chance at a summit with mountain guides is just too good to pass up. This time the glacier we ascend has deep crevasses and Mike has us put on harnesses and rope together to travel safely over the glacier. At a col near the top, the wind picks up and blowing snow greatly reduces visibility.
After a quick scouting trip to check conditions at the top, Mike decides it would be best to descend from the col. He hurries us to take off our skins and change over to downhill mode as the clouds move in. I don’t mind not standing on the summit. We’ve climbed most of it and it really does feel like time to go down. We drop down out of the storm and I manage to control my terror as we make the steep descent.
Once we’re safely off the glacier and the harnesses and ropes are back in our backpacks, Mike tells us we could ski a lap at the lower elevation or go back to the lodge. I’m very satisfied with the day and decide to head back. Everyone else wants more skiing.
I set off alone on the well worn track and soon I’m enveloped in the deep silence of a winter forest. There’s no wind, no voices, no birdsong, only the sunshine glittering off the snow-covered trees. I take my time on the short trail back to the lodge, soak in the feeling of being alone and small in such a wild and beautiful place. Being in the mountains fills me with a kind of light and peace that I can’t find anywhere else. I found it in abundance during my stay at Mistaya Lodge.
At the end of the week, the weather finally turned against us and our helicopter ride back to town was delayed as we waited for fog to lift. We took advantage of a few extra hours in the lodge, drinking tea and recounting the adventures of the week.