To celebrate his big birthday, friend JP invites friends and family to travel to Northern Canada in April 2016 for a skiing experience of a lifetime. We are heading to Bell 2 Lodge, the more Northern of two lodges run by Last Frontier Heliskiing. It is not so easy to get to. We meet up in Vancouver on Thursday evening having come in from London, Zurich, Barbados, Miami, Toronto and Singapore. Next morning we fly 90 minutes North to Smithers where we are met by a couple of folks from the lodge and a rather battered coach. "Good morning everyone" says the driver, "my name is Brian and our slogan is safely home or to your destination". Bell 2 lodge is around 200 miles further north up route 37 on the Alaskan border. It's a five hour bus journey on a long empty road passing mountains, rivers full of salmon and pine forest full of caribou and bears. Eventually we pull into what looks at first like another gas station but is our home for the next week.
The lodge (above) has a large, comfortable central block with dining room, a big bar and lounge upstairs, as well as shop, ski room and ping pong, snooker, table football and darts to keep you amused if it is too foggy to fly. The rooms are in large comfortable log cabins - two up, two down - and there is also a sauna and hot tub along with a room for stretch classes for the early risers. It is a short walk from the ski room to the helipads - we quickly learn not to carry your skis on your shoulders in case you have a nasty accident with a rotor blade! We are here for the last week of the season so the lodge is not full. As well as our group of 10 skiers there are also four Austrians so Last Frontier is running two helicopters for us. The Austrians have one and our group uses the other - splitting into two groups of five with one group skiing while the other is ferried to the top of the mountain. Cliff, one of our guides, gives us the briefing; how we load skis and sacks into the basket on the side, getting in and out etc. then Joel, the pilot, rather scarily explains what to do in an emergency landing.
Finally we are off, lifting above the trees and crossing the river then climbing as we head towards the mountains. Our guide (Cliff or Lucas) scouts out runs that look in good condition and discusses with Joel through the headset. Some of the landing spots on tops of mountains or on ridges next to cornices look incredibly precarious but Joel sits the helicopter down precisely next to little marker posts. "Keep close to the heli on this one" says Cliff if we are next to a particularly scary drop. We pile out and Cliff unloads the sacks and skis from the basket while we crouch down away from the rotor blades. Cliff gives Joel the thumbs up and the heli lifts off, blasting us with loose snow, and then swooping down off the side of the mountain leaving us in peace. We feel incredibly privileged being able to ski an area which is apparently a quarter the size of Switzerland and there are just 14 skiers plus guides. With hundreds of routes to choose from we can put in fresh tracks on every run. There is also an amazing feeling of space with the big wide faces and great glaciers running between the mountains.
Being late in the season there is not a lot of fresh snow when we arrive. We find a little powder on the higher slopes with softer "spring snow" lower down. We can't ski all the way to the valleys as the snow turns to soup. One run down through the trees showed us just how tricky this was. After starting early on our first day we move our schedule back for the next couple of days and go out around 10.30 once the snow has softened a bit. Most of the skiing is quite reasonable although it gets a lot harder on crusty snow or slush. On our last day we ski a very steep, narrow run which was definately not for the faint hearted. We are all wearing "ABS packs" - rucksacs with built in air bags that you can trigger by pulling a toggle if you get caught in an avalanche. In fact there is little danger of this with limited fresh snow although on our last day we do set off a few sloughs (pronounced sluffs) when the top few inches of snow starts to slide.
The guides have named hundreds of runs on each of the mountains - we move from Via Constanza to Golden Girl and then on to Cousin or Swiss Direct. A big map of the area in the lodge shows them all and the guides are adding to it all the time. A small section is below with the runs we skied highlighted. At lunchtime the guides and pilots dig a table in the snow by excavating a circular trench and we sit on our rucksacs and drink home made hot soup with sandwiches, fruit, nuts and chocolate bars. We sit in the sun most days - apparently in January lunches can be very short! After lunch a few skiers with sore legs might head back to the lodge when the heli goes to refuel. With our ski package we get a minimum amount of vertical feet skied for the five days. Each day the guides print out our feet skied so we can see how we are doing. Extra feet are expensive (it is heliskiing) but in fact we don't go over by much.
After three fine days we wake up to thick cloud and rain on day 4. We had expected this storm to arrive but it means no skiing today. Instead most of the team decide to visit Stewart, a small port a couple of hours away on the Alaska border. We take our passports so that we can visit the US's most northerly state. Our guide Lucas drives us and Heather plugs in her iPhone with 1970's rock classics. We stop to photograph the Bear Glacier which spills down the mountain and almost reaches the sea. Stewart is a small seaside town - population around 400 swelling to perhaps 2000 in the summer. A hundred years ago it was a busy community as it was a trading post on the way to the gold rush towns but now there is not a lot going on. We visit Ripley Creek - the other base for Last Frontier's heliskiing operations - and walk around looking at a few old wooden buildings (below) before crossing the border into Alaska. Amazingly there is no US border check - apparently because the only roads into and our of Hyder lead back into British Columbia. Hyder itself is dead - one shop is open and everything else is shut up and will open later in the year when the fishing season starts. We take pictures of an eagle perched on a piling in the fjord and then head back towards Bell 2 managing to spot both a black bear and moose on the way.
On our last day we wake up to almost clear skies and 20cm of fresh snow on the peaks. We are heading back to Smithers later in the afternoon but still have almost a full day's skiing. And what amazing skiing - what I had imagined heliskiing would be like. Long runs through amazing scenery cutting fresh tracks with the whole mountain to ourselves. The snow is perfect, spraying up as our fat skis cut through it. Then crouching down next to our skis and packs as the heli comes in to pick us up, buffeting us as it lands. Clambering in, four of us squashed up on the back seat as we lift up again through fabulous mountains to be dropped on another peak for the next descent through virgin snow. We are so lucky to get this on our last day, so lucky just to be here. As we drive back towards civilisation with the evening sun lighting the snowy peaks above us and bringing out the colours of the forest, we wonder whether might be able to get back sometime soon.