Heli-skiing in Canada conjures up a few images. Vast quantities of deep, dry powder billowing over your head is probably one of them. Fancy, commercial heliski lodges and big groups crammed into fleets of oversized helicopters is perhaps another. If you like the sound of the former but the latter doesn’t strike a chord, then a little known corner of northern British Columbia could be just the place to investigate.
Last winter I was lucky enough to spend the better part of two months working as a heliski guide in one the wildest corners of northern BC. I first visited this part of the world in 1998, driving a beaten up pickup truck – laden with skis, fishing rods and camping gear - some 2,000 miles over potholed, snow-covered roads to Valdez, Alaska - but that’s another story…
To me there is something special about the north. It’s a no B-S kinda place where men cut down trees, drink beer, fight, shoot bears and catch fish. Women do the same. Southern BC, with all its fancy ski resorts and big, commercial heliski operations seems like another country. Up here it’s big, it’s wild and it’s raw. And when it comes to snow there are industrial quantities of the stuff – 25 metres a year on average (at only 1,500 metres above sea level). To put that in perspective, Val d’Isère in France and Verbier in Switzerland average only four or five metres a year. I’m not sure if that includes artificial snow or not but either way it sounds kind of pathetic in comparison.
Somewhere around my 40th day of work, four hundredth run and eight gazillionenth powder turn I still hadn’t made a single turn in anything but truly epic snow conditions. Every one of these runs was the kind that gets a normal ski resort buzzing for weeks - the kind that slots into the ‘best run of my life’ category. Most people would be lucky enough to experience this once or twice in a lifetime and here we were doing it 10-15 times a day, day after day, week after week. Was it all a bit gluttonous? Oh yea. If I’d been eating I would have been on the liposuction long ago.
Without wishing to give our European resorts (which, incidentally I like very much) an inferiority complex, it’s not just the snow that doesn’t compare. The Last Frontier Heliskiingtenure is a staggering 25 times the size of Les Trois Vallées in France but here there are just two small lodges - three helicopters and thirty skiers at one, two helicopters and 15 skiers at the other. By contrast, Les Trois Vallées has 183 ski lifts and is capable of transporting 260,000 skiers per hour up the (often icy) mountain.
For much of the time I was working at Last Frontier Heliskiing I was at their Ripley Creek base in the frontier town of Stewart. Drive through town and in three minutes you cross the border into Hyder Alaska… and here the road ends. Originally the home of the Skam-a-Kounst Indians, the town of Stewart was first explored in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver. With the discovery of gold the town boomed and supported a pre-World War I population of around 12,000. Today it’s down to about 450. Walking down the wooden board walk past the toaster (yup, the things you put bread in) museum to the Ripley Creek Inn, the bustling gold rush history of the not too distant past is almost tangible.
Driving from Meziadin Junction, through the Bear Pass and down to Stewart you pass through some of the most rugged and spectacular scenery in British Columbia. Turquoise-blue icefalls hanging precariously above the road, huge trees snapped like match sticks by class 5 avalanches and snowfalls so intense they can bury a car overnight. Needless to say this is not your regular kind of ski resort. In Courchevel, France you might expect to see a fur-clad Russian stepping from the door of a fancy, raised Lexus that pretends to know how to drive on snow. Here you are more likely to see a dead moose dripping blood from the back of a pickup truck that could eat the Lexus for breakfast.
The best way to describe this type of ski or snowboard experience is ‘no frills’. It’s about the quality of the skiing not the fancy lodge or waiters in bow ties. And when you compare it to other heliski operations in BC this is firmly reflected in the price with an average week being 20% less expensive. ‘No frills’ it may be but I ate like a king during my stay. Looking down the Portland Canal after a day of skiing in the lightest snow imaginable, muscles eased in the hot tub and cold beer in hand is my kind of luxury.
Needless to say I had a pretty good time here but one of the highlights was guiding a private group on a safari trip between Ripley Creek and Last Frontier’s other base at Bell 2 Lodge - a journey of 100 km that takes in some of the most spectacular and seldom skied areas in the 9,500 km2 of exclusive ski terrain. I was pleased to be working with Franz Fux – a fourth generation Swiss mountain guide and one of the founders of Last Frontier Heliskiing. To put it mildly, Franz has a bit of mileage behind him in this part of the world and as the new guy I was relying pretty heavily on him for some orientation.
The group was split into two. Franz took the four ‘older generation’ in the first heli-load and I took the two young rippers in the other. Looking back up the mountain at our tracks it wasn’t hard to tell who was who. On one side was the tightly grouped artistry of the heliski connoisseurs – laid with the precision of an Olympic synchronized swimming team. On the other was a random array of high speed turns and straight lines. In musical terms it was like comparing Mozart and Rage Against the Machine.
Somewhere in the vast wilderness between Stewart and Bell 2 Lodge, I’m flying up with my group when a call from Franz comes in on the radio:
“Hey James you may as well take that one right down to valley bottom – looks good. We’ll be behind you next run. Just keep heading down where our tracks stop”.
“Ok – sounds good Franz – thanks”.
At least someone knows where they are.
The top section of the run was superb. Fast, big turns into a perfect alpine bowl followed by small, sparsely spaced trees and knee-deep, cold powder topped with 3cm of sparkling surface hoar (those beautiful crystals that sparkle in the sun). Within minutes we were standing on a little knoll staring down into the dense forest below. I radioed Franz for a bit of guidance.
“Oh yea James, just head left of my tracks. It’s pretty obvious”
Off we went; down into the towering trees, popping off little pillows, faces blasted with snow. I found myself smiling uncontrollably. As we neared the valley floor I stopped more frequently making the odd traverse to try and figure out where the helicopter might pick us up. Nowhere obvious stood out.
Down on the flats at the bottom, sweating profusely and with Mattias the snowboarder up to his neck in snow - we tramped around under what can only be described as a jungle-like canopy of trees. Not really great helicopter landing terrain. The radio comes to life: “How is it down there James?”
“Can’t really see where we are going to get picked up – any ideas?”
“Ahhh….. well…. not too sure about that James – maybe to the right. Good luck.” Crackle, crackle.
After a bit more sweating and tramping around we found a nice clearing, got picked up and flew straight over the intended pickup – some 50 metres from our tracks and a bit higher up. Throughout the course of the day it became more and more apparent that despite 20 years of guiding in the area Franz had still only scratched the surface. But his many years of experience had definitely taught him one thing - much better to send the new guy down first to test things out.
Trips to Last Frontier Heliskiing’s Ripley Creek start at CA $4,870 for four days heli-skiing, and four nights lodging. Find out more about Ripley Creek.