Report from January 2023 and written by Bernice Notenboom
It is still dark when we put our ski boots on and walk to the helipad outside our lodge. Like VIPs, 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, opens the door, and takes our skis and backpacks out of the basket while we step into the thigh-deep snow, hunkering down. The helicopter 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 the bindings of my skis.
- Related: Want To Heliski Alaska Terrain But Don’t Want The Down Days? | Go With Last Frontier Heliskiing, BC
I am at Last Frontier Heliskiing in Northern British Columbia in, Canada. If you look at a map, it is way north, bordering the Alaska panhandle, 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 four-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 heliskiing 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 heliski country. And the best part about it is that we’ve got it all to ourselves!
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 bounce back and forth effortlessly, pumping your legs up and down with each turn. It propels you into this weightless existence, just being in the present and forgetting 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 rises, and the sky turns vanilla with tints of pink and blue. “Soak up the scenery,” Greg says “we are now going down into the trees.”
We follow him through piles of light powder, vigilant to avoid tumbling into deadly tree wells. Navigating narrow trees can be tricky because your turns must be quick while 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 on 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 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.
The guides saw a table out of the snow, threw a cloth over it, and dished out homemade soup, tea, sandwiches, and other treats, which fueled our bodies for another set of runs in the afternoon. Fog has moved in the valley, canceling 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 sets in at 3:30 p.m., we clamber into the helicopter and head home.
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 heliskiing 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. Most guests are from Europe, followed by Americans, Australians, Canadians, and South Americans. Despite the early season, the lodge is full, with 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, buzzing with returning skiers taking off their gear. 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! Everybody is smiling and pumped up.
The day wraps at Bell 2 lodge with a crackling fire, après-ski nibbles, sauna, and hot tub before sitting down for an 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 asked a Swiss guest why he came, he said:” 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 track.” We chat about the dire snow conditions in the Alps this year and the future of skiing there.
American snowboarder Keaton points at his dessert and rubs his growing ‘heli belly.’ 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! We all laugh, well aware that the intake of all these delicious calories will outrun our 22,000 meters of skiing this week.