Heli-ski­ing the Skeena Ten­ure

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Bruce Kirkby

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.

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