MONASHEE MOUNTAINS, British Columbia - Midway through our third day of skiing at Mustang Powder, we were standing on a high ridge in the snow-choked Monashee Mountains. We had clicked into our skis and were preparing to dive into fields of beautiful, sparkling, uncut British Columbia fluff.
Nick Holmes-Smith, the proprietor of Mustang Powder, was tail-guiding our group that day, and he had an urgent message.
"OK, everybody, listen up," he barked, smiling but sounding like a military commander. "Don't cross anyone else's damned tracks. Ski the powder. That's what you're paying for."
It sounded like a tongue-lashing, but Nick's message was intended to liberate the clients who weren't taking full advantage of the Promised Land beneath their feet. Because the first and foremost goal of Mustang Powder is to ski powder.
Yes, the food was hearty and delicious. The lodge was warm, comfortable and attractive. The staff, from the guides to the kitchen help, was friendly, attentive and professional. But at Mustang the skiing comes first.
The picture at the top of this page should drive home this point. This sunrise view of some steep crags near Mustang was shot on our fourth ski day, just as we'd stepped out of the snowcat, atop our first run of the day. It should be self-evident that we were skiing at first light, every day. (One cloudy day we waited an extra 15 minutes for the sky to lighten up.)
Each day started with a 7 a.m. knock at the door, where an employee with a rolling cart brought coffee. Everyone was out the door and into the snowcats by 8 a.m. We skied all day every day, returning to the lodge at roughly 5 p.m. Those eight-plus hours were spent either traveling in the snowcat, or skiing. There were no lunch stops; guests prepared lunches from a generous buffet each morning and ate as the cat grinded up, down and around Mustang's 30,000 acres of terrain.
Let's stop on that point for a moment: 30,000 acres.
Vail Mountain has 5,289 acres of lift-served skiing. Snowmass has 3,132. Mustang Powder, with roughly two dozen guests in its remote lodge at any given time, has access to nearly 10 times the terrain of Snowmass and almost six times that of Vail.
Our party - me, my older brother Bill and my stepbrother Alex - benefited directly from this embarrassment of riches. Our vacation came when the Monashees, despite having received more than 10 feet of snow in December and January, hadn't had any new snowfall in about a week. But that made little difference in the quality of the skiing; we simply spent a bit more time in the cat, bumping and grinding our way to the outermost reaches of Mustang's vast acreage.
Out there we found seemingly endless lines of untouched, consistent snow, somewhere between boot-deep and shin-deep (it gets much deeper, but we weren't complaining). Having never skied B.C. before, we were giddy - sometimes blathering like drunk-for-the-first-time teens, sometimes speechless with amazement.
Many writers have sung the praises of untracked powder, so there's no need to describe the face shots, the quiet in the trees with only the whisper of your skis underfoot, or the wide-open bowls above treeline. I'll just pick a few runs that, two months later, still linger in my mind.
• Fifth Dimension: A 4,500 vertical-foot drop down a deeply glaciated canyon, starting well above timberline and ending in a grove of ancient cedars that reminded me of Northern California's towering redwoods. Owing to avalanche danger, Fifth Dimension had only been skied once before by Mustang clients, but we were lucky. "It's gonna be mega," shouted tail guide JP McCarthy before we dropped in. Four pitches and an epic traverse. Top to bottom: 1 hour, 10 minutes.
• Gladiator: We'd just clicked into our skis atop a high, sunny ridge when Nick announced, "If this doesn't make you happy, we cannot make you happy." And then, one by one, we jumped into Gladiator, roughly 1,200 vertical feet of steep, fall-line skiing reminiscent of Highland Bowl's Y Zones in epic condition. Sheer delight.
• Barbaloots: Anyplace that names their ski runs after Dr. Seuss characters has my vote. (Mustang also named runs for Spinal Tap and other classic films.) I remember Barbaloots because we flogged it for several runs - a wide-open entry that got steeper and more thickly treed as we descended. Pick your line carefully and watch for sudden dropoffs!
• Outer Limits: A short hike/traverse through some woods to a steep, crescent-shaped drop into a long, narrow chute edged with rocks and trees. Our lead guide, Garret Boyd, jumped in first and calmly ripped his way to the bottom. I felt jittery as I dropped in and took my first turn, but the snow was creamy and deep. All I could say at the bottom was, "Thank you, Garret. Thank you, God."
• Love you Longtime: A 3,500-foot descent through a vast canyon with multiple tributaries that dovetail in a huge boulder field. We skied this twice and had completely distinct experiences. Everybody found their own lines, from low-angle cruisers to mandatory airs. Better than sex.
Not every run at Mustang was epic. Our first day began on a wind-affected ridge that skied like a turbulent ocean made of ice. There were occasional dead ends and fallen logs in the dark timber. I fell into a hole in a boulder field and had to extricate myself. But these are all to be expected in a search for the best snow, and our guides found great lines in a vast and varied backcountry.
They also tried hard to accommodate skiers of varying abilities, as well as groups comprised of both skiers and snowboarders. There were runs that challenged the intermediates, but whenever possible our guides pointed out easier lines and "sportier" lines for different guests. Certain long traverses were hard for the snowboarders, but the guides routinely suggested alternate routes for the ascension-challenged.
If you're looking for nightlife and entertainment, then Mustang is not for you. To reach Mustang Powder, we parked our car at a truck stop on the Trans-Canada Highway, hopped in a school bus with huge tire chains and climbed a logging road for roughly an hour. The bus dropped us off in a clearing where we hopped in a snowcat and climbed for yet another hour. There is wireless Internet at Mustang, but no cellular service. It's way the hell out there.
Nonetheless, Mustang is extremely civilized. I would call the lodge, the common area, the dining room and the bedrooms clean and comfortable, but not extravagant. The building is a mountain lodge, and although massages were offered each night (the signup sheet was always full), Mustang does not run a spa. There's a large hot tub just a few steps from the lodge, but there is no heated walkway leading to it. Most guests don boots for the walk across the snow.
Every business has its own culture, and Mustang's is that of a family devoted to skiing. Nick and Ali Holmes-Smith are the "mom and pop" of this shop, and they live on the lodge's upper floor with their HOW MANY daughters.
"It's a challenging business but a fun business if you enjoy skiing," says Nick. "It's a lifestyle."
Nick and Ali are partners in every sense of the word; when I first called to inquire about a ski vacation, Nick answered the phone and spoke with me, but he wanted to consult Ali before responding to my questions. At the lodge, Nick adjusted ski bindings and drove the cat on certain days; Ali handled the bookkeeping and closed each guest's account on departure day, meeting with everyone personally. Their daughters are part of the scene at the lodge - they might sit with you at dinner, and for a nominal fee they will wax your skis.
The employees are part of the family too. There is an unmistakable camaraderie among the guides, mechanics, housekeepers and other employees, and nearly everyone seems to wear multiple hats. It's clear to this guest that Nick and Ali surround themselves with like-minded employees who enjoy working hard, working as a team and having fun. As often as not, the fellow who uncorks your wine is the same guy who led you down an unnamed couloir that morning. He also may have told a crude but hilarious joke (in the snowcat, not at dinner).
"We try to hire the best guiding help we can, the best kitchen staff we can, and we don't micro-manage," says Ali. "We don't interfere with them, but we do set the philosophy."
In keeping with Mustang's down-to-earth style, the food is tasty, filling and healthy. Breakfast is served buffet-style, with a wide choice of hot and cold foods. The four-course dinners were sophisticated but simple, beginning with crisp salads and creamy soups (the butternut squash with goat cheese was mind-blowing), then moving to entrees and desserts. I remember the lamb shanks with wild rice and, on another night, the wild salmon. The wine list was B.C.-forward, with the emphasis on hearty reds from the nearby Okanagan Valley.
Mustang Powder was simply a great vacation. I left the place relishing an experience utterly outside my normal routine with interesting, competent and thoroughly likable people. The place was top-notch but never pretentious. And perhaps most important, the snow was plentiful and unforgettable.
As Nick says, "ski the powder. That's what you're paying for."