Powder turns in the Last Frontier of Canada

By Bernice Notenboom

It is still dark when we put our ski boots on and walk to the helipad outside our lodge. Like VIP’s we crawl into the back seat, rotor blades spinning at full speed. Within seconds, we lift off the ground. Like a bird catching an updraft, our helicopter whirls to a landing zone on a ridge in the high alpine terrain. The pilot lowers the chopper precisely between the marks on the plot and gives a thumbs up. Greg, our guide, gets out and opens the door, takes our skis and backpacks out of the basket while we step into the thigh deep snow, hunkering down. The helicopter then whisks away and the five of us are left behind high in the Skeena Mountains. We look around, stunned by our aloneness. I am still chewing a piece of my breakfast! Five minutes ago I was at the lodge, now I am clicking into my ski bindings.

Photo by Grant Gunderson

I am at Last Frontier Heliskiing in Northern British Columbia. If you look at a map, it is way up north, bordering the Alaska panhandle and so it takes some effort to get here. First one has to take a flight to Terrace from Vancouver or Calgary and then to the lodge it is a 4-hour drive over the Cassiar highway, the lifeline to the North. Northern BC’s Mountain wilderness has massive terrain – the size of the Swiss Alps – and this is where Last Frontier secured the world’s largest single heli-skiing area. Boasting an average annual snowfall of 15 to 25 meters across a range varying from rolling slopes to steep chutes to beautifully treed glades – this is prime heli‐ski country. And the best part about it is that we’ve got it all to ourselves!

Photo by Vince Shuley

Greg skis across the slope first and pokes his pole in the snow, testing the stability. He ushers us to come over one by one and reminds us to pull the cord inside our backpack to inflate the airbag in case the snow starts moving under our feet, the start of an avalanche. We ski down a protected bowl into an open powder field, reveling in the sensation of fluffy snow flying up each time we carve a turn. Once you find a rhythm, skis pointing downhill, you effortlessly bounce back and forth, pumping your legs up and down with each turn. It propels you into this weightless existence, just being in the present, forget the rest. This heavenly feeling is so addicting that you don’t want to stop even if your thighs are begging you to! After 500 meters of cutting a long virgin line through sparkling fresh cold smoke, Greg halts to regroup. My Argentinian mates are overjoyed and we take a moment to rest and catch our breath. “What can be better than skiing powder!” one of them gasps. The sun is rising and the sky turns vanilla with tints of pinks and blues. “Soak up the scenery” Greg says “we are now going down into the trees”.

Photo by Reuben Krabbe

We follow him through piles of light powder, vigilant to avoid tumbling into dangerous tree wells. Navigating narrow trees can be tricky because your turns need to be quick, while still keeping your speed. Further down, we fool around in gullies, slalom around alder bushes, and ski around and over natural features. What a playground! We hear the helicopter whirr in the valley floor, voices chattering over the radio, as the pilot confirms he is ready to pick us up. We bundle our skis and poles together, and huddle as our personal ski lift plunges in to collect our group for another run. We do six runs, which seem to go on forever before we break for lunch.

Photo by Geoff Holman – Picnic lunch in the trees

The guides saw a table out of the snow, throw a piece of cloth over it and dish out homemade soup, tea, sandwiches and other treats which fuel our bodies for another set of runs in the afternoon. Fog has moved in the valley, cancelling skiing in the high alpine but luckily there is always tree skiing. We cut ribbons through the silky snow in the dense forest all afternoon, howling and yodeling as we descend. No time is wasted – drop, ski, pickup, and we never really wait long and if we did it was a welcome relief. And, finally, as dusk is setting in at 3:30 p.m. we clamber into the helicopter and head for home.

Photo by Grant Baldwin – Bell 2 Lodge

Bell 2 Lodge is originally an old truck and gas station on the way to the Yukon and Alaska. In 1996, the founding partners (George Rosset, Franz Fux, Mike Watling and Geoff Straight) became enamored with the ski opportunities in these uncharted mountain ranges in Northern BC. After they bought the building, they reconstructed it and incorporated it into a heliski village. Even today, after 27 years and numerous improvements and upgrades, Last Frontier is still a family-oriented business. Currently, over 90% of heli‐skiing operations call the ranges of British Columbia home, which makes Canada the sport’s undisputed world capital. And there is no lack of customers coming from all over the world. The majority of the guests are from Europe, followed by Americans, Australians, Canadians and South Americans. Despite early season, the lodge is completely full, 36 people each week, chasing this endless, high quality powder skiing which is so hard to find anywhere else.

I walk into the boot room which is buzzing with returning skiers taking off their gear. Everybody is smiling and pumped up. On the wall hangs a map of the 10,100 square km tenure with over 1,000 marked runs. With names like Valhalla, Wake-up call, 407 Heaven, and the longest runs topping 2,000 vertical meters, no wonder you can ski the height of Everest every single day!

Photo by Greg Foster – Soaking sore muscles in the hot tub

The day wraps at Bell 2 Lodge with a crackling fire, après-ski nibbles, sauna and hot tub before sitting down for a haute cuisine dinner. The group of skiers is as eclectic as the items on the menu. Father-son teams from the United States, Monaco and Finland, a German bachelor party, a French school reunion, and an Argentinean family vacation. When I ask a Swiss guest why he came he says: ”I am not rich and have saved for years to come and ski this world famous powder. At home we have sunshine, groomed runs, and too many people”. He sighs: “Here it is endless freedom to set your own track”. We chat about the dire snow conditions in the Alps this year and what the future of skiing there might hold.

Photo by Geoff Holman

American snowboarder Keaton points at his dessert and rubs his growing ‘heli belly. We all laugh, well aware that the intake of all these delicious calories will outrun our 22,000 meters of skiing this week. We giddily reminisce about the joy and experience of today’s surreal skiing – and can’t believe we get to do it all again the next day!

Last Frontier heli skiing offers four, five and seven day packages to either Bell 2 lodge or to Rippley Creek. Great Powder tree skiing early season December/January. High Season Feb/March in alpine terrain. For more information on dates and prices: lastfrontierheli.com

Bernice Notenboom is an adventure travel writer and lives in Fernie BC.

Photos courtesy of Last Frontier