10,000 SQUARE KILOMETRES OF REMOTE MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS. ROUTINE WHITE-OUT CONDITIONS. AVALANCHE-PRONE SLOPES. MORE THAN 200 RUNS. AND JUST FIVE GUIDES.
Heli-skiing the Skeena Tenure
Heli-skiing the Skeena Tenure
“IT’S TOO WHITE. I can’t land,” pilot Craig Roy’s voice crackles over the radio as he inches the B2 helicopter toward a snow-plastered ridge in the Skeena Range of northern British Columbia. A blizzard of rotor wash obliterates any vision, and without rocks or trees for reference, the machine could be slipping in any direction and he’d never know. Peeling away, Roy banks hard and tries another approach. Winds buffet the helicopter, and as he nears the ridge, visibility is still completely obscured. “Drop a nail,” the veteran pilot mutters as he fights to keep the machine steady. Roy has logged more than 10,000 hours, and flown with Skeena Heliskiing since its inception 14 years ago. Sitting in the co-pilot seat, Giacum “Jake” Frei, head guide and founder of Skeena Heliskiing, pulls a rusty spike from his pocket, loops a tail of fluorescent flagging tape around it, then tosses it out the window. Roy circles back and this time, using only the nail for orientation in an otherwise complete whiteout, manages to touch one skid down, just long enough for Frei to hop out. Then the helicopter peels away. Scrambling up the ridge, Frei guides the chopper toward a plateau near the
A sea of SNOW CAPPED PEAKS spills to the horizons, ridges dotted with Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. It’s a LAND VAST ENOUGH to disappear into.
summit of Mount Baldy. It lands so close to him that the front windshield touches his jacket. As the rotors whine to a halt, the pair begins lugging heavy batteries, solar panels and an antenna to the peak, where they erect a seasonal VHF radio repeater. At their feet, a sea of snow-capped peaks spills to the horizons, ridges dotted with Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. It’s a land vast enough to disappear into, and indeed this is where Gunanoot, the famed Gitxsan outlaw, evaded capture for 13 years during one of the longest manhunts in Canadian history. It’s also home to one of the world’s largest heli-skiing tenures. And in the days ahead, as Frei and his guides organize for their season, I tag along to glimpse just what’s entailed in preparing a 9,500-squarekilometre roadless wilderness — an area nearly twice the size of Prince Edward Island — for operation. FREI IS QUIETLY confident, with the lithe body of a gymnast and a fiveo’clock shadow coarse enough to brush a horse. Preternaturally athletic, he was raised in Burns Lake, B.C., by Swiss parents, and spent his youth travelling Europe as a professional skier and mountain guide. It was on a trip home, 17 years ago, that Frei first spotted the possibilities for heli-skiing in the Skeena Range, a jagged spur of the Coast Mountains pressing inland south of the Sacred Headwaters region of northern British Columbia. After investing three years and every penny he had exploring the remote valleys by foot, ski, snowmobile and chopper — and documenting 920 potential ski runs in the process — Frei was granted “tenure,” the right to operate a commercial venture on Crown land. Heli-skiing is a $190-million industry in Canada, employing 2,000 at 41 operations sprinkled across the western provinces and territories. Based out of a timberframe lodge a two-hour drive north of Smithers on the banks of the famed Kispiox steelhead river, Skeena has a support staff of 12 and just five guides. The guides tumble in later that night. Gregarious and loud, they sport the tousled hair and clear eyes of those who live
outdoors. Within minutes, Robert Reindl from Austria has tossed his brand new staff helmet in the garbage. “I hate helmets. You can’t hear anything.” Daryl Kincaid from Whistler, B.C., fishes it out. “He doesn’t wear hats either. Not even at -20. But he’s still young. He’ll learn.” Lee Boland from Smithers, B.C., tries on a new, bright-red guide jacket. “It looks great. But does it come in men’s colours?” Frei rolls his eyes. Worried I might get the wrong impression, the newest member of the crew, Martin Fichtl, leans close and whispers, “Don’t worry. We are deadly serious when we need to be.”
THE NEXT MORNING the helicopter shuttles the guides to a windswept ridge, on the southern edge of Skeena’s tenure. In the days ahead, as they familiarize themselves with variations in the local snowpack, the guides’ primary responsibility is digging landing zones at the tops and bottoms of more than 200 runs, and flagging each with wooden stakes, giving the pilots a critical visual reference in poor conditions. After a prolonged early-season cold snap, Frei expected to find powder in this valley, but instead, a recent sunny spell has created a breakable crust. As the guides start skiing downward, they probe the snow with ski poles, assessing the feel of every turn, talking constantly about their observations. Below the treeline, the guides fan out to dig snow pits. I stick with Kincaid, a 30-year guiding veteran. As he shovels, he points to runs lining the opposite side of the valley. “See that tiny gully? I keep an eye on it if conditions are twitchy, ’cause it’ll pop before anything else.” I begin to realize these men know this vast area intimately, in the way a farmer might know every nook and cranny of a ranch. Kincaid digs more than three metres before hitting the ground. He measures temperatures every 10 centimetres through the snowpack, tests compaction with his finger and uses a magnifying glass to inspect crystals and identify sliding layers. He jots his findings in a field book. At the same time, four other guides are digging their own pits, on different aspects of different slopes at different elevations. By the end of the first day, more than 20 snow profiles have been recorded. It’s just the start.
BACK IN A CRAMPED OFFICE, the guides wear reading glasses and hunch over laptops, looking a world apart from
the whooping skiers shushing down steep slopes hours earlier. Their carefree ways belie vast skills — heli-ski guides are required to possess the highest winter mountaineer qualifications along with paramedic first-aid training — and this small team boasts more than a cumulative century of experience. As they vigorously debate subtle points of snowpack behaviour (were upper-layer fractures or they upload their observations into an online information-sharing tool known in the ski industry as Infoex. Unique to Canada, Infoex allows the exchange of technical snow, weather and avalanche information over a vast area. Created in 1991 in response to a B.C. coroner’s recommendation following a commercial heli-skiing accident in the Bugaboos that killed nine, nearly 1,000 data points are uploaded daily by professional subscribers including heli- and snow-cat operations, ski resorts, national parks staff and B.C. Highways. This information becomes one of t he key data sources for Avalanche Canada forecasters. For the rest of the season, the guides log into Infoex twice a day; once at dusk, to upload field measurements, and again at dawn, to note what has been observed by neighbouring operations. “In recent years,” says Frei, “the fundamental philosophy of avalanche safety has shifted away from stability prediction toward an exposure management approach. And to make good exposure decisions, you need good information.”
GOOD INFORMATION also helps make sound environmental decisions, which matters because the Skeena region is
Bruce Kirkby (@bruce_kirkby) is a writer and photographer whose latest book, Kingdom of the Sky, chronicles a family journey to a remote Himalayan monastery and will be published later this year. home to 36 per cent of the global mountain goat population — and six heli-skiing operations. Included on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, mountain goats are especially sensitive to disturbance during winter months, when they eat little and survive primarily on body fat.
Heli-skiing is a MILLION industry in Canada, EMPLOYING , AT OPERATIONS sprinkled across the western provinces and territories.
Because goats instinctively scramble upward when alarmed, helicopters flying overhead have a particularly adverse impact, often resulting in herds unwittingly stampeding toward the noise, leading to more stress, confusion, exhaustion and even death. “Goats exhibit high wintering-range fidelity,” says Len Vanderstar, a provincial habitat protection biologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, during a presentation to the guides one evening. “That means they return year after year to the same south-facing slopes. And it’s generally not a big area.” After identifying critical goat winter habitat in the Skeena tenure last winter, Vanderstar recommended “zones of exclusion” around them, and requested that helicopters fly a minimum of 500 metres above or below, or maintain 1,500 metres of horizontal separation. Frei voluntarily chose to participate in the project, despite incurring significant fuel costs, because he felt it was the right thing to do. And for an industry hammered over carbon emissions — fairly so — perhaps it might represent a small step toward regaining some environmental licence. But until now, no one really knew how it was working. Vanderstar projects a map on the wall, showing last season’s cumulative flight paths, and the results are remarkable. A network of dark lines spreads out through the vast wilderness like arteries, and while a few nip the edges of exclusion zones, the
overwhelming majority arc smoothly around critical goat habitat. Frei and neighbouring operators in the Skeena region are on the leading edge of this conservation effort. Meanwhile, larger southern British Columbia heli-skiing operators with tenures overlapping caribou habitat, where those curious animals are also particularly sensitive to helicopter disturbance, still vehemently resist sharing any flight data with provincial biologists.
NEAR THE END of the week, the guides plunge deeper into the tenure, probing new valleys, flagging landing zones and digging more pits, seeking signs of buried surface hoar that could create instabilities in the snowpack later in the season. The puzzle pieces are coming together. “We have a solid picture of the snowpack now,” says Frei as he checks bindings on a fleet of rental skis. That simple statement masks a far more complex vision; an understanding that shifts from valley to valley, varying with elevation, and exposure to wind and sun. The first guests will arrive shortly. Air-bag packs and avalanche beacons line the boot room. Safety briefings have been rehearsed and first-aid and survival kits are packed. The guides have practised searching for buried avalanche transceivers and evacuations on steep terrain. The hot tub is ready and cooks are preparing hors d’oeuvres. Frei and I watch as Reindl and Kincaid build an ice bar beside the landing pad. “We call this training week,” says Frei. “But that’s a misnomer. It’s really meant to get the guides up to speed on procedures, on snowpack and on the tenure. For the next 10 weeks they’ll have to be constantly vigilant. I reckon there are maybe 90 things a guide must tick off in their mind before boarding a chopper. Are the waivers signed? Beacons on? What weather is coming? That’s a lot to think about. And it all needs to be second nature so they can free up mental space for the stuff that really matters.”
For more of Bruce Kirkby’s photos of the Skeena tenure, visit cangeo.ca/jf19/skeena.
Skeena Heliskiing owner Giacum “Jake” Frei hits a slope during season prep ( opposite). Frei and pilot Craig Roy erect a VHF repeater ( above), crucial to communications and to avoiding critical mountain goat habitat ( top).
Guide Daryl Kincaid traverses a slope in the Skeena Tenure while practising searching for a beacon.
Clockwise from top left: Guides load equipment; a column of snow is isolated in preparation for a compression test, which reveals the likelihood of a collapse; guides return to the helicopter after a morning of prep; a guide jots down safety notes on a snow pit.