To my left, a precipitous drop, icy crags and wind-scoured chutes. A misstep would be perilous. To my right, big, north-facing alpine bowls beckon. I'm climbing a steep, snowy ridge in north-central British Columbia with my skis strapped to my backpack as I try to keep up with a group of fit locals. After 30 minutes on this snowy stairclimber, and two hours after setting out, we reach the 1,700-metre summit of Hut Ridge. Under a gauzy blue sky I take in the sweeping views. The Bulkley Valley and the 2,589-metre Hudson Bay Mountain dominate the south, the serrated peaks of the Babine Range rise to the east, and in every direction I see more skiable terrain.
But there's a problem. The slope that the group plans to ski has a cornice above it, a huge overhanging snow slab that could break off and cause an avalanche.
"We're going to remove it," says Brian Hall, a broad-shouldered, 61-year-old, who is leading our group of six, as he pulls out a coil of wire. It seems like a difficult and risky task but for Hall, it's just another obstacle.
Since 2008, he's been overcoming hurdles to help create the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Ski Area, a 3,770-hectare reserve. Found 20 kilometres northwest of Smithers, the community-driven project has set aside and developed an area for non-motorized winter use. In the past four years more than $900,000 has been raised from government grants and local businesses to cut runs out of the forest, plow roads, erect signs and build trails for backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers. There are 10 ski runs, two huts and over a dozen alpine bowls. Last year, nearly 4,000 people visited.
"We wanted to build something that would encourage everyone, of all abilities, to come out. There's bowls beyond bowls. It's endless for people who have the energy and skills," says Hall, who owns the Stork Nest Inn in Smithers, a town of 5,200.
One of the benefits for skiers is that the Hankin-Evelyn reserve is off-limits to snowmobilers, unlike some backcountry areas. "It's reduced a fair amount of conflict and potential conflict in the backcountry between skiers and sleds," says Kevin Eskelin, a land manager with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, who worked on the project. The success of Hankin-Evelyn has drawn the attention of other mountain communities, which have contacted him to learn more about the model.
Up on Hut Ridge, the wire saw is looped around the cornice from above and we take turns sawing like old-time lumberjacks until the car-size slab tumbles down the slope. "We're good to go," says Hall. I remove my climbing skins, lock my bindings and point my tips downward. I carve S-turns in light powder, drop into a gladed run of pine and hemlock, and arrive back at the car, an 800-metre vertical descent, with rubber legs and a beaming smile.
After a few days skiing Hankin-Evelyn, I set off to see an even more remote region of Smithers. I was eager to explore the area since most of B.C.'s backcountry ski lodges are in the well-trod Powder Triangle in the southeast corner of the province. The less-skied north, however, offers high-quality snowpack and a chance to truly ski off the grid.
I board a helicopter beside the Telkwa River and fly over a vast landscape of rock, snow and ice to Burnie Glacier Chalet at 1,030-metres elevation. Flanked by Mount Howson to the west, and a half-dozen sprawling ice fields, it's a stunning alpine backdrop a snowball's throw from the toe of the Burnie Glacier.
Since 2002, Christoph Dietzfelbinger, a 55-year-old mountain guide from Germany, who cut his teeth on the big routes of the Alps, has used this as his base to lead guests on self-propelled, backcountry adventures. Dietzfelbinger is one of the biggest proponents of the north. "This is big mountain terrain. I'm still finding new lines out here."
Over the next several days, I fall into the groove of the place: a hearty breakfast at 7 a.m., climb as the sun warms my face, skirt the jumbled columns of ice of the Polemic and Loft Glaciers, ski open slopes in the alpine or the powder-filled gullies, then return to the lodge for a sauna and supper. Unlike heli-skiing, you earn your turns with ascents of up to 1,800 meters, so a fair amount of fitness is required. But coming to a place like Burnie is about more than the downhill runs, it's also about enjoying the quiet, steady climbs and the majesty of the mountains.
On the fifth day, the group sets out early. A storm is moving in from the south as we climb high on the Outer Solitaire Glacier. Minutes later, visibility is nil and snow is sticking to my face. The last pitch to the 2,200-metre summit of Solitaire Ski Peak is a rocky scramble. As the clouds and snow swirl around me, so do breaks in the weather. I see brief glimpses of barren black crags and cornices through the white. It's a harsh, but hauntingly beautiful place. I scarf down a sandwich and prepare for the descent. The sky clears, revealing a sunlit slope of fresh, ankle-deep powder.
I offer to ski ahead and take photos of the group, my oft-used excuse to steal first tracks. Soon I'll be back at the lodge, but for now it's just me and the glaciers.
IF YOU GO
Air Canada and Hawk Air have direct, daily flights to Smithers from Vancouver.
Where to stay
The Stork Nest Inn is a comfortable, inexpensive lodge near downtown Smithers. Owner Brian Hall can provide information on the Hankin-Evelyn area. Rooms from $85 a night, including breakfast. 1485 Main St.; storknestinn.com
Logpile Lodge is a frontier-style hotel in a wilderness setting 10 kilometres north of Smithers. Its European kitchen is well rated. Rates start at $98 a night. 3105 McCabe Rd.; logpilelodge.com
Burnie Glacier Chalet A comfortably rustic lodge with four rooms. A seven-day guided trip costs $2,150 a person, including all meals and helicopter flights. Guests should have a good level of fitness and be intermediate resort skiers. Avalanche safety equipment and training are available. 250-847-3351; bearmountaineering.ca
Where to ski
There is no cost to use the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Ski Area and visitors can choose from two access points (the furthest is a 40-minute drive from Smithers). Users should have backcountry experience and avalanche safety gear. Maps and directions are available at bbss.ca/hankin.
Where to eat
Alpenhorn Bistro & Bar offers standard pub fare that satisfies after a long calorie burning day in the backcountry. 1261 Main St.; alpenhornbistro.com
For more details on the area visit tourismsmithers.com.
Darryl Leniuk specializes in adventure travel. He visited as a guest of Tourism BC and Tourism Smithers. The tourism agencies did not review or approve this story.