NORTHERN ESCAPES HELI – ALL QUIET ON THE NORTHERN FRONT
NORTHERN ESCAPES HELI – ALL QUIET ON THE NORTHERN FRONT
IF NORTHERN ESCAPE HELI CAN’T MAKE YOU STOP TALKING, THEN NOTHING CAN
Words by JESLIE ANTHONY
Potos by PAUL MORRISON
We arrive in the rough and tumble Northern British Columbia community of Terrace on a rare, clear evening. High pressure along the Pacific Coast during the two-ish-hour flight from Vancouver afforded views of an enormous, silent sea of rock and ice in every direction: Jagged, snow-covered peaks; precipitous, fluted faces; planar ice caps and glacial tongues; deep, steep-walled valleys. Marcus and Christian, a pair of chattering Germans for whom even the prospect of heli-skiing in the Canadian wilderness already makes this the trip of a lifetime, are beyond impressed. “It’s like a hundred Alps,” states Christian as we debark. Mike, a Houston-based geophysicist and self-professed terrain geek, flashes the wide eyes of a child as he crosses the tarmac. “Nothing but mountains…the entire way,” he offers to no one in particular. “I mean—wow.”
He will return to that thought. As well as this one: at Northern Escape Heli-Skiing (NEH), you are escaping to something quite extraordinary.
Our destination, the Yellow Cedar Lodge, a peeled-log bed and breakfast occupied by salmon fishermen in the summer, sits a shockingly convenient 20 minutes away from the airport on the banks of the Skeena River. The watercourse dominates everything here including the frequent snow clouds blanketing the Skeena Mountains, which draw their enormous moisture from it. The lodge boasts comfortable rooms, a small gym, portable sauna, hot tubs, dining hall, lounge, billiard room, indoor and outdoor bars, and a fire pit. A cell-booster aids phone reception and satellite WiFi permeates the grounds. In other words, all the comforts of the wilderness home you wish you had—though this litany plays second fiddle to a spread of afternoon appetizers and a fridge stocked with B.C. microbrews.
Next morning, operations manager Clair Israelson—a certified Canadian mountain guide (ACMG) and former executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Association—interrupts our five-star breakfast and introduces himself by way of this startling pronouncement: “We need to talk about expectations,” he says in a tone I recognizeq as “bad news.” “The avalanche conditions are awful. We seldom see it like this, so last night we went out and threw a bunch of bombs. They didn’t loosen anything spectacular but confirmed our suspicions about a persistent weak layer. We’ll be able to do plenty of skiing; there will be powder, but it will be low angle, and there may be some tracks.”
“We dropped almost 2,000 pounds of explosives,” guide and manager/co-owner John Forrest lobs into the ensuing silence. “So, it might not be the steep and deep product we’re known for, but safety is more important.”
With such provisos and a lengthier-than-usual avie orientation, it’s with some shock that our first run under bluebird-colored skies, Donkey, delivers 2,300 untracked vertical feet of sweet. True, we’re on the mellower side of a large bowl while the steep, convoluted terrain our party expected to ski looms above, constellated with gray pockmarks of bomb holes and run outs clogged with Class 2 avalanche debris; but it’s beautiful, sunny and, despite previously deflated expectations, we’re skiing the kind of powder skiers dream of. The run rocks and rolls its way through a massive basin, into stunted trees and along a traverse to the pick-up. Magic.
Three, four-person groups are cycling this run, and on the next drop, just as the AStar helicopter pulls away, guide Yvan Sabourin receives a radio call from the group ahead.
“Yvan, there’s a wolverine running up the west face toward you.”
Oh, that’s cool.” “No, it’s running up the west face directly at you.” “Oh…not cool.”
Instructed to leave quickly, we’re not even close to being fast enough when the animal suddenly pops out from behind a bulge of rime. It’s the largest wolverine Yvan and I—the only two familiar with the species—have ever seen; the size of an Alsatian dog, with the same colors in darker hues and a reversed pattern, and much longer fur. It stands broadside, head turned toward our direction, its penetrating coal-black eyes trying to sort out the meaning of five colorful creatures brandishing sticks but with no apparent weakest member to attack. It lingers but seconds, then disappears over the peak only to reappear in a cleft between rime bulges for another head-shaking look before vanishing for good. The Germans, their GoPro cameras trained on the entire episode, can barely contain themselves.
The day progresses: Two laps each on 1,500-foot Seven Dwarfs and its vertical equal, Simba, before lunch on a knoll facing a grand, glaciated panorama. The guides dig a rectangular trench in the snow and throw a tablecloth over the center rise, then lay out a smorgasbord of sandwiches, soup, cheese, meats, pickles, and olives plus abundant home baked sweets for those who crave it. We eat like we’ve done a lot of skiing and, when added up, we actually have. In the quest to rack up vertical while you can—a universal heli-ski ethos—the newbies are discovering how a good heli-skiing day delivers a relentless pace.
After lunch it’s Drink Me and a couple shots down Back Door, all 1,500 vertical-foot drops, then Miss Robinson (2,300 ft.), Chocolate Factory HPU (1,700 ft.), Kermit (1,500 ft.) and an encore on Donkey to complete a long, looping circle encompassing 22,000 vertical feet of cruisy glaciers, undulating ridges, steep rollers, and virtually none of the predicted track-crossing doom-and-gloom. All were universally ecstatic with both scenery and skiing from the first drop. “If this is what not-so-great conditions are like, then what’s considered good?” ponders ever-loquacious Mike.
He has a point. But in a province with a glut of heli-operations, each with its own set of superlatives, what sets NEH apart is having it all: A monstrous tenure (at 1.7 million acres it’s among the top-five in the province); varied, hardcore terrain; unparalleled ease of access; exceptional lodging; and, straddling the soggy north coast and dry interior, an abundance of powder that often represents the deepest snowpack in British Columbia. After a 12-year stint with heli- super-purveyor Canadian Mountain Holidays, Sabourin was looking for a boutique operation when he heard about the epic snows of Terrace. He got in as one of the founding guides along with John Forrest. “We developed every aspect of safety and named runs during our first few seasons. The first year we were really lucky with weather—which can be challenging here. But even in bad weather, we have good escape routes.” One “route” in particular stands out. For several seasons now, NEH has offered snowcat skiing to keep folks pointing down hill on their ski holiday. The highest drop using the cats is currently 4,300 feet—tree line and low-ish, but yielding 2,000-foot runs. “I’ve seen more and better powder days here than other places I’ve worked because it’s refreshed so often. And after nine years, I’m still learning how to use the more distant terrain effectively.”
Back at the ranch it’s time for a mini-sauna and beer, then dinner in an intimate dining room that offers views of the mountains on one side, and the open kitchen on the other, where chefs prepare coastal fare to make a Vancouver gastronome’s eyes light up.
Next day, the weather signals the inevitable regress. You can still see peaks, but they lie below an obdurate, slate-gray sheet pulled taut at the horizon. A 20-minute scouting flight to our first drop reveals the scope and extent of the Skeena Mountains—magnificent rock and ice mounds grace ourQ entire view. When we arrive at a massive, glacier-cradling bowl known as 7th Heaven we fly around to inspect its many facets before deciding which of several flagged landings to start at. The pitch we choose is good and the snow even better; when the slope breaks onto glaciated terrain below it’s so deep and delicious that it merits the same reaction from both the Germans and Mike: total, reverent silence. The kind of quiet that only a sea of mountains can deliver.