Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

A road trip through western Canada reveals some of the smallest and most remote ski hills in British Columbia – followed by an epic adventure with one of the biggest heliski operations on the planet.

22nd March 2024 | Words by Alf Alderson

Like most heliski operations, Northern Escape Heliskiing revels in superlatives. But in this case, they’re fully justified. Operating in the wild and virtually unpopulated Skeena and Kitimat mountain ranges of northern British Columbia, the company is twice winner of the ‘world’s best heliski operator’ award. It offers access to a staggering 5,500 square kilometres of terrain (that’s almost 230 times the size of Whistler-Blackcomb, North America’s biggest ski resort, or 3.5 times the size of Greater London), which varies from huge glaciers to steep couloirs and endless forests; and to top it all off, it is buried annually in more than 100 feet of snow.

This was to be my final stop on a two-week road trip around this isolated corner of BC, but before I get to sample all this skiing munificence, I’m about to hit some of the smallest ski hills in British Columbia on a mini-road trip. Indeed, one of them doesn’t even have any ski lifts…

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

I begin my adventure by flying into the blue-collar lumber town of Smithers, a couple of hours north of Vancouver, to ski the town’s modestly sized Hudson Bay Mountain. Although the mountains here tend to be more rounded and less spectacular than, say, the Alps, they receive ample quantities of snow every winter and it’s usually of the dry and fluffy variety.

Unfortunately, I’ve arrived in an exceptionally warm winter – the ‘pineapple express’ has just come roaring through the region, bringing warm air from as far south as Hawai’i and with it rain instead of snow.

This might explain why, as I arrive at the resort’s parking lot at 10am on a Tuesday morning in mid-February, there are only two other vehicles parked up. That said, irrespective of the snow conditions, it’s hard to think of any ski resorts in the Alps that would be as bereft of humanity as this in the middle of what is half-term in Europe. Then again, BC doesn’t have a school half-term, a blessing for skiers if not students.

And to be honest the snow could be a lot worse. A selection of blue runs (the equivalent of a European red) have been nicely groomed and, with my fellow skiers Brian and Ian, we enjoy them all to ourselves – literally. All the terrain is accessed via one triple chair and/or two T-bars, from which we’re also able to veer off onto the occasional black and off-piste run through the trees (although these are challenging given the crusty snow) as well as meandering between the ski hill’s characterful A-frame cabins located amongst the trees. Some date back to the 1950s, and if you’re lucky enough to own one you can enjoy ski in/ski out action all winter.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

All of Hudson Bay Mountain’s runs are below the tree line, offering a modest 1,750ft of vertical, but for those happy to skin up from the top of the lifts, it’s possible to get into the alpine and increase the accessible ‘vert’ to 3,776 metres – very respectable, if hard work.

It’s easy to see the potential this little ski hill has in good conditions; given the sparsity of people in this part of the world (Smithers has a population of just over 5,000 and is the only large settlement in the area) and the usually abundant deposits of powder, the various locals I meet assure me it’s easy to score fresh tracks day after day in a good season.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

And when conditions are good you can even ski all the way back to town (the ski hill sits a few kilometres out of Smithers) from the bottom of the Skyline Chair. We have to drive back in Brian’s pickup, however, doing the obvious thing after a day of skiing and heading for a beer at the splendid Smithers Brewery Company, a small craft brewery on the prosaically named 3 Avenue.

Lager, IPA, brown ale, pale ale – you name it, they brew it. I sip an appropriately named Hudson Bay ISA whilst chatting to one of the partners in the enterprise, Blaine Esby, who nonchalantly mentions in passing the kind of thing that could really only happen in northern Canada, to wit: “A moose kicked my dog”; fortunately said dog was not badly injured and presumably learned a valuable life lesson, i.e. don’t mess with a moose.

Despite the temptations of Blaine’s products, I retire early for the night as jetlag kicks in, ready for a tough day on the morrow, which sees us hitting the Hankin-Evelyn backcountry ski area, 45-minutes’ drive north-west of Smithers.

This innovative little non-profit ski hill is accessed down a dirt road (4WD and snow tyres compulsory) and offers many of the facilities of a regular ski resort – marked runs, gladed trees, a warming hut – but with a rider: there are no ski lifts and no grooming, and very definitely no chichi mountain restaurants.

Which means that along with Brian, Ian, ski guide Hans Mundhenk and Jordan Young of Smithers’ excellent Local Supply Company ski shop, I find myself skinning 520 vertical metres uphill through quiet, shadowy pine forests, light snow falling gently, where yet again there’s not another skier in sight, eventually reaching the warming hut just above the treeline.

Here Hans fires up the woodstove, Jordan pours the hot tea and we take a break from our labours whilst enjoying wilderness views that take in the Babine Mountains in the east, rising to almost 2400-metres, and a guffaw-inducing peak called The Nipples to the north.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

Then it’s back down on Run 6 (there are eleven runs in total) in snow conditions that are a far cry from what the locals are used to. I suggest you check out ‘Hankin Evelyn: Will a Ski Area Without Lifts Transform the Sport?’ on Salomon TV to see what it’s like to ski here in more normal conditions. Let’s just say the descent was ‘challenging’ – or as Brian thoughtfully points out when we’re back in the car park: “Hey, it was an adventure; you won’t forget that in a hurry”.

And he’s right, although I’ll actually remember Hankin Evelyn for its potential (that word again) as much as the challenging downhill experience.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

We depart this unique ski hill to travel on to the town of Terrace, a couple of hours to the south-west on BC-37, a road that is the haunt of pickups big and small and logging trucks big and humungous. We in cosy little Britain like to ridicule the gas guzzling vehicles of North America, but if I lived in a place this wild, where you can drive for hours on end through nothing but forest and mountains, where snow and ice are par for the course for half the year and moose and elk regularly amble across the highway, I’d be driving a bloody big pickup too.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

But I digress… Terrace was to be my base for skiing both Shames Mountain and for accessing Northern Escape Heliskiing. A regional and railway hub of 12,000 souls, the town sits on the banks of the Skeena River, one of the world’s great salmon fishing rivers, surrounded by magnificent mountains which are plastered in snow brought by storms ploughing in from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

When we hit Shames Mountain (Canada’s first non-profit community service ski co-operative), some 35km west of Terrace, the tiny resort’s usual snowpack of 40ft a year is at around 80 per cent of normal. Again, it’s the result of that damned pineapple express, but it’s still possible to get in some good turns on the less-than-good (by BC standards) snow.

It doesn’t take long to discover the über-friendly Shames Mountain – after all, it has but two lifts (a double chair and a T-bar), accessing some thirty marked runs and just 1600ft of vertical, but if you think you’ve seen all there is to see after a morning or so of hooning around all this, you’re very much mistaken.

=Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

For Shames is as much about what you can’t see on the trail map as what you can. At the mountain base you’ll find a map of ‘Backcountry Shames’ nailed to the wall, which could just as easily be entitled ‘The Real Shames’, for this is what people come to Shames for.

You can, for instance, get to some very fine sidecountry directly off the top of the T-bar in the Deliverance Trees, whilst a 45-minute skin up The Dome will open up heaps more terrain – alpine, glades and trees – that ends with easy access back to the base lodge. Further afield, huge, challenging mountains beckon those with strong legs, big lungs and a sense of adventure. Head out to Happy Valley and on to the delightfully monikered Valley of Certain Doom for snowbound adventures to test the best.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

This is only a fraction of the exciting terrain on offer out of bounds, and if you check out the recent release from Matchstick Productions (‘The Best Skier You’ve Never Heard Of’) you’ll see some of it being ripped apart by head of Shames Mountain ski patrol Adrian Grabowski. You’ll never ski as well as him, but at least it will give you the chance to see what big mountains, big snow and a small ski hill can result in when it all comes together.

I leave having yet again ‘seen the potential’ of another northern BC ski hill, somewhat frustrated but at the same time happy that I’ve at least got to ski a few lines here and, as much as that, enjoyed meeting so many locals. This is small town/small ski hill Canada, and absolutely everybody chats to everybody: on the lifts, in the base lodge, in the ski shop, in the parking lot – it’s a regular gabfest, and all the better for it.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

And, of course, there is still plenty more skiing to come at my next stop – Northern Escape Heliskiing (NEH), the world’s first carbon neutral heliski operation.

‘Wonderland’, the ‘Wild West’, ‘Promised Land’: these are the colourful names of some of the ski areas in the company’s vast tenure amongst the big mountain wilderness of the Skeena and Kitimat ranges, so remote, untrodden and unskied that many of the peaks are yet to be named.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

Guides Ryan Merrill, Troy Grant, Yvan Sabourin and Elliot James meet around six every morning to assess snow, weather and avalanche conditions and decide where the best skiing will be found before splitting the guests into groups of similar skiing ability.

After a hearty breakfast the action starts around 8.45 am, when the first group and their guide is whisked off into the mountains by pilot Zach Dippo, a man who can place our eight-person Koala helicopter on a dime; in fact, if you’ve got a smaller coin, he’ll land it on that too.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

It’s surprising how quickly you become a dab hand at rapidly clambering out of the helicopter, hunkering down against the mini-blizzard whipped up by the rotors, and, once the craft is up and away, getting avy packs and skis on double quick before taking a short break to enjoy a silence so profound it can be heard.

Then it’s time to take in the mind-blowing views of mighty peaks draped by ice-blue glaciers above huge, inviting snow plastered bowls and seemingly endless snowfields, your gaze eventually falling towards the deep and shady old growth cedar forests and sinuous, meandering rivers valleys below.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

“Cool, huh?” says ski guide Troy with a grin; “Man, I love my job! But hey, we can’t spend all day looking at the views – let’s ski!”. The rule is simple – follow the guide, feeling free to track either side of his trail unless told otherwise, and when he stops, you stop – the unbreakable rule is that you never continue below the guide since he may be standing above a cliff, crevasse or other hazard, and if you have an encounter with said hazard the chances are:

    1. You’ll lose
    2. The beers are on you for wasting everyone’s time

Up until now the skiing has been a mixed bag, with the previous three days seeing plenty of powder but some challenging conditions too, due to the recent unseasonably warm weather. That’s why we’ve flown some 50km north of the NEH base at the opulent Yellow Cedar Lodge outside of Terrace to reach the ‘Promised Land’, where the guides are pretty sure we’ll find consistently good snow.

And they’re bang on. At the northern limit of the tenure we put in eleven runs, each one in sweet, soft powder, beginning on high alpine ridges and snaking down towards perfectly spaced glades where we can make our own lines through the pines, where the skiing is so good it rhymes.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

As a solo skier I’ve been assigned to make up the numbers in a group of five typically boisterous Aussies who rip into each other without let and spend the whole day laughing and joking. They turn out to be exactly the kind of blokes with whom to spend a hard day of heliskiing.

Our final run, ‘Whistle Punk’, is a 2,700 vertical feet descent which was first skied about five years ago and hasn’t been done since. It takes us down vast, open snowfields into the upper reaches of a remote alpine valley from where a stream hidden beneath metres of snow tumbles down into the headwaters of the remote Kitsumkalum River.

I linger at the back of the group so I can experience this glorious wilderness for myself and revel in the sense of being ‘out there’, revelling in the kind of true wilderness that we rarely if ever experience in modern life.

Little and Large | Heliskiiing in British Columbia

Whistle Punk turns out to be my last run of the trip and serves as a fitting end to my adventures in a corner of British Columbia that is little frequented by ski travellers; Northern Escape has come up with exactly what I was expecting from this part of the world – spectacular mountains and amazing skiing amongst great company. Which, after all, is why we do it.

It’s a long way to go, but I’ll be back…


SKIING (Hankin Evelyn Backcountry) (Salomon TV Hankin Evelyn) (Shames Mountain)


Smithers: The Bulkley Suites

Rooms from $129 CAD per night

Terrace: Skeena River House

Rooms from $130 CAD per night


Air Canada ( London Heathrow via Vancouver to Smithers, return from Terrace from £985 per person return.

Alf Alderson is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about adventure travel for 25 years, with his work appearing in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and websites globally. He divides his time between the Pembrokeshire coast and Les Arcs in the French Alps.

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