First it was silver, then trees and, more recently, pot. Now BC’s mountains are at the centre of a new boom, this time it’s backcountry skiing.
Three ski-touring huts, four heli-ski operators and one cat-ski company will all open their doors this winter. Each adds a slightly different spin to the more than 84 existing operations harvesting powder across Western Canada. Many opened in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, even more people are venturing beyond ski area boundaries on their own. Taken together it’s obvious: the backcountry is getting busy.
“There’s a whole lot of factors contributing to the growth,” says Brad Harrison, the executive director of Backcountry Lodges of BC. The strength of the U.S. dollar, ski movies popularizing powder skiing and increasing interest in fitness are all playing a part. But ski technology might be the biggest factor.
“Skis, bindings, boots, etc. have advanced so much in the last 20 years,” says Harrison. “You don't have to be the most fit, athletic or skilled person to backcountry ski anymore.”
The biggest evidence comes from gear sales. Ski boots designed for the backcountry made up 12 per cent of all alpine boots sold in North America last year, according to the Snowsport Industry Association, a 27 per cent increase over the year previous. Where backcountry was a niche left to small brands in the past, now almost all of the big companies sell touring boots and bindings. Page views on backcountryskiingcanada.com, a website full of route beta, have doubled every year since Brad Steele founded the site in 2006.
“Where ski movies used to include a lot of in-resort skiing, now it’s all these wild places,” Steele says. “Everyone wants a piece of the adventure.” At the same time, a tumbling U.S. dollar ignited an 8.8 per cent increase in the number of tourists coming to BC between January and July 2015.
Add it all up and it’s getting crowded out there. Beyond growing numbers of recreational riders, there are now at least 16 heli-ski, 10 snowcat and 29 commercial backcountry-touring lodges. The Alpine Club of Canada manages another 29 backcountry huts. Now add the eight new operations. Most are in the southern half of BC, where almost all the easily accessible, good quality terrain is staked. With most operations fully booked through this winter and into next, there are likely more to come. And that may create problems.
“BC is a big place, but the land is not infinite,” says Brian Cross. The veteran hut owner, involved with both Mt. Carlyle and Valhalla Mountain Lodge, expects more conflicts like the one Valhalla Powdercats recently experienced. When the company set up shop in a popular snowmobile and backcountry skiing zone, the locals revolted. They caused so much trouble the cat-ski company moved out and found a new tenure. Another example: one of the new backcountry huts controversially carved its playground out of a little-used chunk of heli-ski tenure.
More of that is likely to come, says Harrison, unless the government takes an active role in dividing up the mountains between commercial and non-commercial, motorized and non-motorized users.
As for Cross, he’s not too worried. “People have been saying we’re running out of ski terrain for 20 years,” he says. “There seems to be plenty for everyone.”
The Alpine Club of Canada took over a ranger station in Waterton National Park, opening up the park’s first backcountry hut.
Louise & Richard Guy Hut (pictured, above)
The long awaited link in the Wapta to Yoho traverse on the Alberta-BC border was made possible by a large private donation by the hut’s namesakes.
Deep in a remote chunk of the Selkirk Mountains, southeast of Revelstoke, this hut promises first descents, steep tree skiing, big glaciers and tons of snow.
Heli & Cat Operations
Atlin Heli Sports
Based out of the northern BC town of Atlin, with all the character one would expect, this operation mines the Alaskan-style faces, big glaciers and deep snow of the northern Coast Range.
Specializing in custom groups, Silvertip will access a remote chunk of the Cariboo Mountains above Quesnel Lake.
White Wilderness Heli-Skiing
Ideally situated to expand to fish and ski packages, this operation is based on the famous Skeena River near Terrace and skis the little explored Skeena and Nass mountain ranges.
Gostlin Keefer Lake Lodge Catskiing
The newest cat-skiing operation discovered one of the last chunks of the western Monashee Mountains for its playground and built a 9,000-square-foot lodge as its base.