I feel like I'm making my own ski porn. The helicopter has just deposited our group and our gear on a snowy shoulder near the 2096-metre summit of Mount Kenney, a white massif in the Coast Mountains on British Columbia's north coast. I imagine an aerial cutaway shot of the six of us, minuscule amongst countless couloirs, deep snowy bowls and unnamed peaks. The camera keeps pulling back, but there's only white wilderness, until we vanish from sight. Then the movie cuts back to the action. Rotors are woomf-woomfing. I click into my bindings, adjust my goggles and heave on my avalanche-airbag backpack. A square-jawed, uber-fit guide gives the nod, and down we go. Beneath a sharp blue sky sliced by jet contrails, I drop in, chasing my group's hoots and hollers, carving swooshing turns in shin-deep powder. This ski trip is going to be epic.
To get to a spot such as this normally requires serious logistics and travel time. That I could be here on a 90-minute, $300 flight from Vancouver – about the same time as a drive to Whistler – was hard to fathom. Northern Escape Heli-Skiing – located 690 kilometres north of Vancouver, just outside Terrace, B.C. – has a near-perfect location. Close enough to the coast to capture Pacific storms, and far enough north to turn them into reams of powder, it might be the most accessible high-end heli-skiing on the planet. Most years there are six to eight metres of snow on the ground, and fresh dumps are a near-daily occurrence. With ample airline connections into Terrace from Vancouver, you could even come for a weekend, then catch a red-eye and be home in the morning.
By the time I reach the bottom of the 700-metre vertical slope called Line King, the group is beaming, and my legs are burning. We pull off our gear, pile it up and crouch down waiting for the six-seater helicopter to land. We scramble on quickly, and it's another G-force-inducing, roller-coaster ride back up to the top, which is as exciting as the ski down. Looking out the window, I feel as if I'm watching a movie in 3-D Imax. It's got to be the fastest chairlift in the world. And that's something heli-ski operators want more resort skiers to experience.
"Fat skis have made heli-skiing something that anyone can do," Ian Tomm says. He's the executive director of HeliCat Canada, an industry association representing the region's heli-ski and cat-ski operators. As the sport's evolved, it's become more safety oriented, with improved avalanche forecasts, new equipment such as operator-provided ABS backpacks and safer guiding practices. Most runs at Northern Escape are about the equivalent of a black-diamond run out West. A strong resort skier does not require any special training or gear.
"There are options galore," Tomm says, adding that some outfitters now offer trips for families and less experienced skiers.
According to HeliCat Canada, there are more than 20 heli-ski operators in the province generating $135-million in revenue. It also reports that B.C. is the sport's centre, accounting for almost 85 per cent of bookings worldwide. "Nowhere else in the world will you find the variety of operators in remote, wilderness locations like you do in B.C.," Tomm says.
I finish two more long, flowing runs called Wonderland and Cheshire Cat, on a spring-like February afternoon when I notice the helicopter parked, its rotors still. Lunch time. On an alpine ridge with views over the Skeena River, the guides build a snow table with their shovels. Blue tablecloths are laid out; hot homemade soup, sandwiches and fresh-baked cookies are served. It's a surreal experience, but at around $1,500 a day, the service is rock-star level.
Working in an area that's almost one-fifth the size of Switzerland, Northern Escape has one of the largest ski zones in the business. The focus here is on small groups; even though I hung back on most runs, I seldom skied in anyone's tracks. Guests are based in the Yellow Cedar Lodge, a luxe chalet on the Skeena River that sleeps 18 in 11 rooms. Two other lodges are available for private groups, with their own helicopters and chefs.
After skiing, there are two meals, a late afternoon après-ski snack of pizza, barbecue kebabs or ribs at the outdoor bonfire lounge followed by a sit-down dinner with fare such as red wine-braised beef short ribs, duck leg confit or Albacore tuna tataki. The sheer amount of food has given rise to the term "heli-belly," among the guides who tend to pack on extra pounds.
After our alpine lunch, the pace has mellowed, and many in the group have taken flights back to the lodge. We swap guides with another group and are now led by Clair Isrealson, a man with 50 years of guiding under his belt who frequently stops to smoke a pipe.
We ski a run called Welcome to Tijuana, a 1,300-metre descent to the valley bottom where we settle on a frozen river near the toe of a glacier. By day's end, I've skied nearly the height of Everest.
On my last day, as I'm devouring eggs Benedict at breakfast, Isrealson gives us the daily briefing. Conditions and stability are good, he says, and we'll have another sunny, bluebird day in the alpine. The helicopter will be our flying fun factory: "We're going to spend the day turning jet fuel into smiles," he says.
Soon we're off, with an all-male Austrian group that arrived the day before. We're sharing the helicopter, leapfrogging runs with the Austrians following. I'm determined to ski as much as my legs will allow. By the afternoon, most of my group has returned to the lodge and we're down to just three, but the Austrians show no sign of slowing. They're brightly dressed, wearing solid orange, powder blue and yellow one-piece, Euro-style outfits. Serious and seldom smiling, they half-resemble Hollywood spies. They chase me, with fast, flawless turns. My thighs burn with pain. I imagine the camera panning out, the Austrians in fast pursuit.
If you go
Northern Escape Heli-Skiing runs trips from early December through mid-April. Three-day packages start at $4,899, including meals, accommodation, guiding, ski or snowboard rentals and all avalanche safety equipment. neheliskiing.com
Guests first fly into Terrace, B.C., about 690 kilometres north of Vancouver or 1,300 kilometres northwest of Calgary. Both Westjet and Air Canada offer daily flights from Vancouver.
For more information about avalanche safety, courses, training and public service bulletins, visit the website of Avalanche Canada, avalanche.ca.
The writer was a guest of Destination B.C. and Northern Escape Heli-Skiing. Neither reviewed nor approved the story.