Bella Coola Heli Sports – where heliskiing is divine
Skiing is terrific, heliskiing divine. At least around Bella Coola in the far north of the Canadian province of British Columbia. And its „Pantheon“ area is as beautiful as the heaven of the gods from Greek mythology.
Nic Butler looks a bit like one of the bears that roam the forests of British Columbia in summer. The burly heliskiing guide with the full beard can’t be ruffled by anything. If he were to warble the Jungle Book classic „“Try a little comfort…““ to himself, the picture would be perfect. But „“Bear““ Nic is anything but clumsy. His turns in the deep snow are smooth, his eyes wide awake. Restlessly, they scan the slopes around us.
„“And it’s sorely needed,““ points out our second guide, Daryl Kincaid, with whom Nic consults before each descent. The mountain massifs in the Coast Mountains east of Bella Coola are gigantic, overwhelming and – yes, definitely also a bit scary. Carelessness or even recklessness would be fatal in the far north of British Columbia. „“These really are Big Mountains here, just like in Alaska,““ says Daryl.
Bella Coola Heliskiing: Picture-book landscapes in northern British Columbia
On our first flight from Pantheon Heli Ranch into the huge area of Bella Coola Heli Sports, there is a gripped silence in the helicopter. Out there is nothing but white wilderness. Gigantic glaciers and bizarre peaks as far as the eye can see. In the valleys, streams meander through deep snow-covered forests. No village, no power pole, no road disturbs the picture-book landscape so high in northern British Columbia (BC). On the horizon, Mount Waddington rises 4,019 meters into the sky. Canada’s „“Mont Blanc““ is the highest mountain in this ensemble of giants in the Coast Mountains.
The scenery is incredible, as is our first landing site. Gently, the pilot sets the Bell 205, which weighs tons, down on a tiny summit grade. While the guides unload our skis from the box attached to the right side of the helicopter, I climb out with four other skiers. Huddled together, we squat next to the left skid, the gusts reaching gale force from the rotor blades tugging at our jackets.
Then the „“flying lift““ rises with a deafening rattle above our heads into the steel-blue sky. Seconds later it disappears in a rapid dive into the valley – and suddenly there is absolute silence. Like flakes in a snow globe, swirling snow crystals dance around us in the sunlight. Fascinated and a bit intimidated, we look around. There is no sign of human civilization. The next big city is Vancouver and that is almost a thousand kilometers away. No wonder I feel tiny in this seemingly endless world of rock, ice and snow.
Adrenaline, dopamine, serotin – pure happiness hormones
With a tingle in my stomach, I strap on my avalanche backpack, and with a click, the bindings of my wide powder skis snap shut. Far and wide there is not a single trace to be seen on the slopes, until Nic is the first to dive into the knee-deep powder snow. Then we follow: an investment banker from New York with his son, the adventurer Bill from Oregon, and Mike, a retired colonel in the US Army. I launch last ahead of Daryl, who follows behind as a tail guide in case someone falls and needs help.
My first turns are still a bit cramped. But then I get faster, the wide powder slabs float up wonderfully and I glide almost weightlessly through the dusting powder snow. Adrenaline, dopamine, serotin – I don’t know which happy hormone cocktail is shooting through my veins right now, but the effect is intoxicating. I don’t realize how much my thighs are burning until I’m almost a thousand meters down in front of the already waiting helicopter.
As soon as everyone has climbed back into the helicopter, within a few minutes we’re off up another peak at „“Unicorn Peak““ and into the next deep-snow slope. „“Such descents on immaculate powder slopes may be a rarity elsewhere, but with us they’re an everyday occurrence,““ Nic tells us. With his ear muffs slipped over his helmet, he now looks like a bear for good.
Heliskiing in Canada
At around 11,000 square kilometers, Bella Coola Heli Sports has the largest contiguous private heliskiing area in the world. The area is roughly the size of the entire Swiss Alps. „“While there are tens of thousands of skiers there every day, we have a few dozen at most. And while within and near ski resorts everything is tracked super fast, here we still ski virgin slopes even days after the last snowfall,““ Nic sums up the fascination of heliskiing.
Heliskiing in Canada is a unique experience, heliskiing in the far north of British Columbia the ultimate – if the weather plays along. Snow amounts of more than 20 meters per season guarantee almost permanent deep snow fun. In the super winter of 2011/2012, Bella Coola reported a snow depth of six meters at the timberline and ten meters at the high altitudes. Only the tips of many trees were still sticking out.
But since snow doesn’t just fall out of the blue, many days of new snow also mean more so-called „“downdays““. These are days when helicopters can’t fly because of bad weather and deep snow heroes mutate into couch potatoes. In the Coast Mountains on the Pacific, you can expect an average of one downday per week, while in central BC around Revelstoke there are just four in the entire season.
Those who accept the higher downday risk will not only be rewarded with breathtaking mountains, but also with unique snow conditions. Because of the proximity to the ocean, the powder is not quite as dry as in central BC, Utah or Colorado. „“But in return, the snowpack is more stable, so we can ski steeper,““ explains Daryl. Next to „“Bear““ Nic, Daryl looks downright lanky. But the man in his mid-sixties is a tough dog and experienced like few others. Daryl has been working as a heliskiing guide since the 1970s and with Bella Coola Heli Sports for many years. Daryl lived through the pioneering years after CMH founder Hans Gmoser invented the heliskiing business in its current form in Canada in 1965.
First heliskiing week more than 50 years ago
The first heliskiing week in history took place back then in the Bugaboos near the towns of Banff and Golden in central BC. Gmoser flew his first guests to the peaks more than 50 years ago in a tiny Bell 47 helicopter. Because the mini-helicopter, which only had 178 horsepower, could only carry one passenger in addition to the pilot, it took forever to get everyone to the top. More than two descents per day were not possible, and in the whole week the heliskiing pioneers only managed 15,000 vertical meters. Today, strong skiers at Bella Coola can do that in a single day, especially since the longest runs have almost 2,000 vertical meters. The highest „“drop-off““ is at 2,896, the lowest „“pick-up““ at 914 meters.
Bella Coola: Young and good
Daryl has seen heliskiing evolve from the adventurous early years to the sophisticated and very safe business of today. Bella Coola Heli Sports is one of the best and still relatively young operators. Founded in 2001, Bella Coola, which flies exclusively with small groups, owes its euphonious name not to a resourceful advertising guru, but to the small town of the same name, which was given by the indigenous people of the region called „“First Nations““.
„“We immediately saw that the mountains east of Bella Coola were made for heliskiing,““ says Beat Steiner. The Swiss expatriate is one of the founders of the heliskiing company, along with Pete „“The Swede““ Mattson. Before founding their heliskiing company with another partner, they shot many ski movies in the Bella Coola region. Steiner behind the camera, the Swede Mattson in front. In the late 1980s, „“The Swede““ was a legend of the Canadian freeriding scene. Later, the eccentric Viking became a sought-after safety expert for spectacular ski footage. Mattson has a special feeling for the fine line between happiness and nightmare off-piste. He feels which run is still skiable and which is life-threatening.
Top priority: safety
„“We all learned a lot from ‚The Swede'““, Daryl says. Safety is the top priority in heliskiing. The pilots are absolute specialists, the guides top trained and experienced ski mountain guides. This has not changed since Mattson and a third partner sold their shares in the company. Steiner now runs the company alone with a cash box filled by potent investors from the USA. Nothing continues to be left to chance, and in the event of an emergency, which can never be ruled out despite all the precautions taken, every guest is lent an avalanche airbag free of charge. To outsiders, it may seem as if the most beautiful peaks are simply approached randomly. In reality, however, Daryl and Nic have planned the day through together with the pilots. Just like in a huge ski resort, they have marked out runs on maps. There are well over 600 in the entire Bella Coola terrain. And dozens more are added every year.
Even without piste markings, the guides find the designated landing areas and their way past crevasses and steep faces into the valley. The guides decide which runs to ski early in the morning after studying the weather and snow data. „“If even one of us has the slightest doubt about one of the runs, that run will not be approached,““ explains Daryl. While Daryl and Nic constantly watch out for avalanche hazards, we carefree enjoy one dream run after the other in a unique mountain world: speechless, we stand in front of the blue shimmering glacier break of the gigantic Tiedemann Glacier, which seems to be as huge as the Swiss Aletsch Glacier.
„“The best ski day of my life““
„“I’ve never seen anything like this,““ stammers Bill from Oregon. And that’s saying something. After all, as one of the most famous balloonists in the U.S., „“Balloon-Bill““ has seen a hell of a lot around the globe from the air. „“This is the best ski day of my life,““ enthuses the investment banker from New York. „“That’s great, man!““ grumbles Colonel Mike as we break for lunch at Nirvana Pass in front of the imposing steep face of Siwa Peak. In the helicopter, the guides have brought hot soup, sandwiches and tea. Using the shovels that are standard equipment in everyone’s avalanche backpack along with a probe and avalanche transceiver, Daryl and Nic quickly dug a table and bench for us in the snow.
Anything would taste good to me in front of a backdrop like this, but what Logan Gaede has given us is truly delicious. The chef trained at a top restaurant in Fernie and treats us to glazed steamed halibut fillet, juicy beef steaks and pink roasted rack of lamb at the lodge in the evening. If the Pantheon Lodge weren’t so remote, you could drop by just for the food.
The Pantheon Heli-Ranch – divine!
The Pantheon Heli-Ranch is one of the most unusual heliskiing lodges in Canada. It is owned by two brothers who made their money as airplane and helicopter pilots and then started White Saddle Farm. Bella Coola Heli Sports, which now has four lodges in its program, rents it for the winter. Cattle graze next to the log cabin and heli pad. And when you jump into the ice-cold Mosley River coming out of the sauna or hot tub, the farm dog curiously looks over to protect two- and four-legged friends from cougars.
Pantheon Heli Ranch for eight and Mystery Lodge in the neighborhood for four guests are on the east side of the Coast Mountains, the less expensive Eagle Lodge for a maximum of twelve guests and Tweedsmuir Park Lodge on the west side. The largest of the four lodges is Tweedsmuir Lodge, also open in summer, very close to Bella Coola. Where the helicopter lands in winter, bears frolic right in front of the log cabins in summer.
The fusion of sea and mountains
The western Coast Mountains are not quite as spectacular as the Pantheon massif on the east side. But there are runs around Bella Coola from which you can look down to the ocean. Like the arms of an octopus, the Pacific fjords reach deep into the land. In Bella Coola, sea and mountains merge. Sometimes the guides even take their guests on a short swimming excursion to the hot springs at the Bentinck Arm fjord while heliskiing.
Short breaks are a must, but otherwise there is as much flying and skiing as possible at all Bella Coola lodges – even on the day of arrival and departure. Immediately after landing after the approximately one-hour flight from Vancouver to Bella Coola or Anahim Lake, it’s into the helicopter and off into the snow. „“Of course, private groups in particular can set their own pace and we also have programs for beginners,““ Nic explains. In general, however, Bella Coola Heli Sports is already more of an address for strong skiers and snowboarders because of the terrain and the amount of snow.
In order to tickle out the last meters of altitude, we interrupt our return flight on the day of departure from the Pantheon Heli Ranch to the Anahim Lake Airport again and again for a few extra runs. On the way to Vancouver, we meet the heliskiers from the other Bella Coola lodges – including none other than Austria’s ski legend Franz Klammer and American JT Holmes, who skied down the Eiger. These guys know where heliskiing is really good.