Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021
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Powder power

Discover the ultimate heli-ski playground above BC’s misty rainforest

When you’re the smallest in a group, it’s clear where you squeeze into the hierarchy of some sports. If there’s a problem aloft while sailing, for instance, you’re the first to be sent up the mast to swing in the boatswain’s chair. When your inevitably larger partner falls off the rock climbing wall, at least a metre or two of line pulls you up before the comical Flying Wallendas act is balanced out.

But, on a heli-skiing excursion, when your bum is even smaller than that of the lone female in the group, you’re awarded the coveted jump-seat that’s squished in between the pilot and guide in a five- (or in our case six-) person A-Star helicopter.

And with the front row seat comes all the spectacular visual rewards in panoramic format on each return run. The fat cats in the back only get sideways views of the magnificent terrain of BC’s Coast Mountains.

Bella Coola is a ski destination like no other. On our first morning, our group stood around in a moist and misty rainforest environment, waiting to be taken up into alpine terrain. Being outfitted in full ski kit made us feel quite out of place. Nearby, moss dripped from tall cedars and fir trees on the shores of a trout-filled river heading for the sea a few kilometres away. My buddy George had brought along hip waders and his fly fishing gear for some unique après ski.

Within 60 seconds of rising from the big H on the tarmac, we moved above the treeline and low-lying clouds and into full-on winter. We were reeling over the massive mountain scenery and brilliant sun. Jagged grey rock faces, some more than 3000 metres, separated colossal glaciers and wide aprons of untouched powder, convincing us that the Coast Mountain range can be far more impressive than anything in the BC Interior.

Bella Coola Heli Sports’ tenure is over 600,000 hectares. Its longest run is 2100 vertical metres and the area’s average annual snowfall is over 12 metres. More than one dramatic vista had me leaning behind my seat to close George’s slack jaw before he drooled on himself.

George and I shared runs with our guide Neil who, like many BC mountain men, grew up skiing in small-town Ontario. Also in our group were Markus, a friendly doctor from Germany; his laidback wife Martina and a local contractor, Larry, whose only skiing experience, it turned out, was by helicopter.

Our extraordinary pilot Richard was a veteran flight instructor on Sea Kings and Labradors with the Canadian military, and, perhaps more impressive, an ex-Snowbirds manager. He continually amazed everyone, not through macho manoeuvres but with subtle flying skills that made us feel like we were in a Mini Cooper pirouetting from one exact landing zone to the next.

The second group of skiers that ascended in the helicopter, while we skied down, were über-chatty 20-somethings from Sweden and Switzerland who had saved the best of their Canadian trip for last. I wrote in my notes the first day: “How are they here? When I was their age, I backpacked across Europe and stayed in hostels.”

We farmed one deep duvet of untracked white after another while, back at the airport, controller Carolyn sat with radio in hand, following each run on a huge wall map. She always knew where and when each group landed, skied, lunched, lapped one another and so on.

Bella Coola Heli Sports offers a posh set up with private cabin accommodation and a grand main lodge in a woodsy setting, but we chose their more reasonably priced Big Mountain package that has clients stay at a guesthouse in the town of Hagensborg, about 20 kilometres from Bella Coola.

Settled by Norwegian immigrants, who came up via Minnesota, Hagensborg has an interesting history, and it shows in the architecture of the old houses and barns. The port town of Bella Coola, a 20-minute drive down the valley, is the kind of place that would look a lot better under a blanket of snow — a deep blanket. With the logging industry gone and the commercial fishery decimated, the town is struggling to keep up to its pretty name. Luckily, we were in there to ski.

There are many genres of skiing: racing, park & pipe, telemarking — but powder-seeking is like an addictive drug that makes all forms of sliding down a hill secondary. As each knee-deep then thigh-deep run inevitably seemed better than the last, I smirked, thinking of what it’s like to be doing laps on groomed hills at a ski resort.

Everything we skied may have been named and trackable on a big map, but there are no sign posts with blue squares and black diamonds in heli-skiing. Every run is a discovery.

Given that we could see the enormous fjord of seawater creeping into the Bella Coola Valley right after take off, perhaps the biggest (and most welcome) surprise was how un-maritime the powder was.

This was light, fluffy, blower snow with such a low water content you’d expect to find it in, say, New Mexico, not the Coast Mountains. Indeed, the snow quality seemed to make our three days last a season.

The juxtaposition of that dry snow with the experience of flying back down into the rainforest each afternoon is something that’s hard to forget.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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