Bella Coola Heli Ski – No Joke

“what do you call a ski guide without a girlfriend?” “Homeless.” We chuckle at this oldie, coming as it does from the mouth of Bella Coola Heli Sports lead guide Jia Condon. And while what lies below our jutting ski tips also brings a smile, it’s no laughing matter: 4,000 vertical-feet of unimaginably good powder, on a stable snowpack during the deepest season ever in one of the deepest places going, only days after widespread warming and a risky avalanche cycle had made skiing anywhere along British  Columbia’s coast an exercise in tiptoeing over eggshells. Add in dizzying vistas of monolithic peaks and lolling glacial tongues, and it indeed seems things are about to get serious for photographer Paul  Morrison, his pro freeskiing son Ian, fellow pro freeskier Tatum Monod, and  myself. Or perhaps not.

“How can you tell if someone is a ski guide?” asks Condon over his  shoulder, yanking down his goggles. Before we can answer: “Don’t worry — he’ll tell you,” as he disappears into a detonation of snow.

Bella Coola’s terrain runs from dreamily lazy powder runs to aggressive steep and deeps, and there might be a fi rst descent with your name on it soon

Only an hour flight from Vancouver, the Bella Coola Valley lies at the head of a tortured network of inlets on the British Columbia central coast. Rising directly from the sea to 10,000 feet, the mountains here are steep and heavily glaciated. A hybrid coast/interior weather pattern offers deeper, drier snow than areas closer to the Pacific, and higher stability than inland. Deceptively chiseled peaks drop 8,000 feet to valley floors — much like Europe and not at all like the rest of North America. It adds up to Alaska-style riding on much larger peaks, down massive aprons, convoluted descents, and inviting couloirs. These are the longest commercial heli-ski descents in the world.

The Tweedmuir Lodge has been warming guests since 1929, but guests rest their weary legs in luxury cabins

Upon its opening in 2003, Bella Coola was painted by a dozen snow-sport films as heli-skiing’s new  Shangri-La — apt, given that this was the term (in various translations) used both by Nuxalk natives and Europeans to describe the lush, treed valley of meandering rivers and abundant wildlife. Bella Coola has always been a crossroads.  Following a millennia-old native trade route, explorer  Alexander Mackenzie ended his epic two-year crossing of the continent here in 1793; seafarers Sir Francis Drake, James Cook, and George Vancouver all made stops. Later, explorers Sir Edmund Hillary and Thor Heyerdahl were drawn by the mystery of the Thorsen Creek petroglyphs, which most closely resemble those found in Polynesia — was there a connection to the enigmatic Nuxalk culture that has flourished here for thousands of years? That mystery remains, but modern pilgrims know that skiing Bella Coola is an experience like no other.

BCHS’s main accommodation is at historic Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, with luxury cabins arranged around a central eco-lodge that  Sierra Club groups beat a path to each summer to watch grizzlies palm salmon from the Atnarko and Bella Coola rivers. An A-star B3 that guarantees small group sizes lands each morning beside the hot tub/spa/mini-gym and a native-style teepee sweat lodge. Inside, gazing around the recently up scaled surroundings, those who visited in the early days might wonder, What happened to the stuffed cougar? While some memorabilia languishes in an upstairs office, most of the old Tweedsmuir’s dusty kitsch is long gone. The memories, however, are intact, and the stories have piled up as deep as the snowfalls: Here’s the corner where TGR director Todd Jones, passed out drunk, was buried in furniture by his crew, then filmed trying to battle his way out. There’s the table where Shane McConkey drew a sketch of the first rocker ski — the Spatula — after making the first big-mountain descent on water skis (he would also film his first ski BASE jump here). Out the windows are runs like Morrison Hotel (named for ski hero Seth), made famous in many a jaw-dropping ski film.

A legion of ski and snowboard personalities aren’t the only legends here. The amigos who operate BCHS are three of the biggest characters in skidom: infamous filmmaker Christian Begin, cinematographer Beat Steiner of Warren Miller pedigree, and Pete “The Swede” Mattson, the wisecracking, longtime guide synonymous with the history of extreme skiing in British Columbia’s coast range. These days, mostly he presides over an extreme wine cellar and five-star fare at the dinner table with guests, while the other owners appear only periodically. It happens that Begin, an old friend, has had a chance to join us on this trip. Our first day had been gray, gray, gray, and it was clear we weren’t going anywhere. Unlike other heli ops, however, at BCHS you can do what anyone else in the valley does when they have time on their hands: go fishing — even in February. It’s mere steps to the Atnarko River, which is chock-full of rainbow, cutthroat, and steelhead, and Tweedsmuir supplies all the gear. Wading and casting wet flies along the river rimmed in huge, fresh cougar tracks, Tatum had hit a small rainbow while Begin netted a 26-inch steelhead.

When predicted clearing had set in next day, Condon made sure we’d taken of early. Our first run found only a few inches of new snow straddling hard patches from last week’s warming, but as we stepped west in the heli toward the coast, we’d found 12, 15, 18 inches of cold crystal sticking to a firm base. From the air, the snow’s surface, lightly scaled by the wind, resembled the rippling skin of some giant beast. Indeed many of the leg-burning plunges felt like riding the back of a long-tailed brontosaur; our longest and last of the day was more than 4,000 feet to valley bottom. Back in the lodge after a dinner of succulent duck, the Swede barked news updates, weather reports, and bad jokes. On a roll, Condon couldn’t resist a little oneupsmanship.

“What’s the difference between a ski guide and a large pepperoni pizza?” Pause. “The pizza can feed a family of four.”

Lead guide Jia Condon drives from the back seat before taking guests on a day of ski touring

On the other hand, a pizza can’t ski glaciers in the morning, and then fly to seaside hot springs to soak, pick mussels, and watch whales in the afternoon. Such opportunities are what define BCHS. Down days here bring more than pool games: There’s fishing, but also archaeological hikes and visits to native mask carvers where you hunker in dark studios listening to rain and the spirit-animal legends that drive local mythology. And then, when the gloom lifts, you’re back out in a million-and-a-half acres, readying for another huge descent in deep, silky powder. If you believe that snow is beautiful, magical, and transformative, then you accept that a day in the right kind can change your life. And a week? Well … you do the math. Actually, I’ll do it for you. The most easily reached heli-skiing in North America means you can ride the afternoon you arrive and the morning you leave. That’s extra time to explore an ocean of glaciers and knife-edged rock the size of the Swiss Alps. And while the mountains are huge, the three luxury lodge settings and small heli groups are intimate.

On the last morning, the young-gun pros fly deep into the folds of the coast range to scope a couloir that Condon insists has never been skied. Debarking from the bird while it hovers gingerly above the couloir, the trio huddles close while the heli lifts away into silence. All there is left to do is ski it. For Tatum and Ian, who do so with panache, it’s their first-ever first descent. That’s a big deal for pros but the kind of thing even guests do in terrain this big and snow this good.

But lest they think their fortunes miraculous, it appears there’s a reason. “What’s the difference between God and a ski guide?” Condon  had asked over the headphones as the A-star lifted from the lawn.

They’d glanced at each other, shrugging in unison. “God doesn’t think he’s a ski guide.”