There are life goals. There are bucket lists. And then there are experiences that change the way you look at the world. Make you realize that you need to reprioritize. Figure out a way to make it happen again. That’s what our adventure up to Northern Escape Heli Ski was. Was it THAT good? It was the best ski trip I’ve ever been on. Nothing even comes close.
Far North Doesn’t Even Begin To Describe It
Our original plan was to make a road trip out of it. Hit a few resorts on our way up and back. That went out the window as we started hashing out our itinerary. The company’s name fits to a tee – it IS a Northern Escape. Terrace, British Columbia, where it’s located, is almost a THOUSAND miles north of Whistler. In fact, it’s only a 100 km east of the panhandle of Alaska. As such, getting there is a bit of a logistical challenge.
Drive? HA! Fly It Is
The options were to take a fifteen-hour ferry ride on the ocean (that only happens twice per week) or drive 22+ hours on two-lane mountain roads that may or may not be open. Just too much for this heli ski trip. Even flying from Tahoe it was going to make it a two-day journey. Instead, we opted for a hybrid approach. Drive up to Seattle and take a flight from there.
Best Airport In North America?
And that’s what we do. Taking a quick forty-five minute flight from the Emerald City, we land in Vancouver. To reduce the risk of missing our flight to Terrace to go heli ski, we give ourselves a LONG layover. Seven hours to be exact. Stepping through customs, we’re greeted to one of the nicest airports in North America. Instead of those huge monolithic terminals like JFK or DFW that remind you of a hospital, YVR feels more like a luxurious five-star hotel lobby. It’s decorated with colorful art that showcases the region. Dining options include local flare instead of McDonald’s or some other franchise.
Hide N’ Seek With The Mountains
This is where we meet our buddies Aaron and Bassel. We enjoy an adult libation together and board. Our plane leaves the terminal and quickly ascends. The city of Vancouver disappears into a deep blanket of clouds. Flying northward the sun shines above and clouds shroud the scenery below. It isn’t until our final descent we’re given our first glimpse of the Coastal Range.
The mountains look impressive, but it’s not until we get off the plane we notice just how BIG they really are. Terrace sits at almost sea level and yet it’s entirely surrounded by high country. Peaks that rise quickly. More than 8,000 feet from the valley floor. To give context, Lake Tahoe sits at 6,229’ feet above sea level and the tallest peaks are at 10,000 feet. In Colorado, the peaks might be taller, but they slowly rise from Denver. The Coastal Range, on the on the other hand, just shoot straight up from the valley, from 226′ to 8,000’+!
Air Canada? More Like Air Can’t-ada
We watch as ski bags, duffels, and totes get unloaded via the baggage rack. Nearly every piece is accounted for except for one and then the conveyer belt stops. Uh oh. One of our friend’s bags didn’t make it. Our shuttle driver with a gloomy sigh says, “Unfortunately, this is very normal. The local’s joke for Air Canada is that it’s Air CAN’T-ada. They lose luggage ALL the time… and there’s a good chance something won’t make it to the mountains.”
Local Freshies® Tip: If you’re going to go heli ski, be sure to put your ski / snowboard boots IN your carry-on along with any first layer. You can always borrow a jacket or skis, but boots and first layers are a bit more challenging.
Off Like A Herd Of Turtles
Throwing the gear into the shuttle, we shove off. We wind through the lumber town of Terrace and exit quickly. The undulating road follows the Skeena River. Above us, the clouds loom angrily. We make a left and pull into our home for the week – the Yellow Cedar lodge made with… you guessed it. Yellow Cedar.
All-Inclusive Resort – Snow-Style
Lodge doesn’t even begin to describe the Northern Escape Heli Ski accommodations. It’s more like an all-inclusive resort. Instead of one you’d find on a beach in Mexico, this one has epic powder skiing. Strolling through the grounds, our host points out the amenities. On the first floor is a fitness room and sauna. On the 2nd, a cozy lounge area as well as a dining room. We continue onwards and come upon two jacuzzis bubbling away under a canopy. Finishing off the tour, we end up at the cozy pub. Inside a pool table and music plays over the speakers.
Champagne & Socializing
Sipping on a glass of champagne, we begin to introduce ourselves to the other lucky folks. There’s a mother and son from Germany. A crew of six people from Utah and Colorado that booked this as a bucket list item. And after a bit more socializing, it’s time for dinner.
Dinner… Is Served
Heading up to the 2nd floor, we shuffle into the dining room. One side of the room has floor to ceiling windows giving us a view of the river and the mountains in the distance. On the other is the commercial kitchen with the chef and his crew whipping up our meal. Taking our seats, the chef comes out and explains the first course.
A Foodie Heaven
This was par for the trip each evening. Every meal had three courses – an appetizer, main dish, and finished with a dessert. Each item was painstakingly made from scratch giving a nod to local cuisine. Dinner wasn’t just a regular meal, but a culinary exploration. Every night dishes included items like lamb shank with the velvety smooth mashed potatoes. Risotto with perfectly seared scallops. Not just great skiing but an entire experience. The food alone was worth the trip.
Dietary Restrictions? No Problem!
One of the most stressful things about going on vacation if you’re allergic to a food or have a strict diet is meal planning. Most destinations think of you as an afterthought. Not so with Northern Escape Heli Ski. They go extra lengths to ensure you don’t just have something to eat but that each meal is just as good or better than what everyone else is having.
A Quick Heads Up For The Tomorrow
With our bellies full, our guides for the trip – Troy, Albi, and Elliott – give us the run-down for next morning. Peering outside, it’s raining cats, dogs, and maybe even elk. But in the alpine, it’s ALL been snow. Little did we know just how deep it was going to be. Exhausted from the day’s travel, everyone heads to their rooms.
Weather Says… Flip A Coin
With Terrace’s location that far north, the forecast changes by the day. By the hour. And you could see what they meant that morning. We saw EVERYTHING at sea level. A cold wind blew in, and it snowed heavily for a hour. The next moment, it warmed and pelted us with rain. You could FEEL the power of the storm track that close to the north pole.
And yet through it all, a few hundred feet above us it was snowing heavily mixing with a dense fog. That meant the helicopter wasn’t going to fly… or was it? As our main guide Elliott said, “We’re going to heli ski… until we’re not.”
Crash Course On Avalanche Rescue
Day one included a quick tutorial. Going through a few training exercises, we played through scenarios on how to find and dig out a burial. Finishing it off, we get a lesson on how to use our avalanche bags if we get caught in a slide. Similar to wearing a seat belt, each of these are items of last resort. With a bit of common sense and following your guide’s instructions, you would never need to use them.
Heads You Win… We’re Going Heli-Skiing
And as quickly as the announcement was made to alternatively go cat-skiing… it flipped. The clouds had parted into one zone. We were a full go for heli!!! Troy gives us another tutorial, but this time it’s about how to enter/exit the helicopter safely. Skis and snowboards are stowed in a cage above one of the skids. The backpacks are thrown into a small compartment in the tail. Troy slides open the backdoor, and we hop in. It’s a snug fit to say the least. We help each other snap on our seat belts, and in a jiffy the rotor begins to spin up.
The Ferrari… Is Worth The Price Of Admission
The seats begin to shake from the force, and as quickly as we hop in… we were whisked away at Mach 10. This “Ferrari” of helicopters is exactly that. It feels as if we were in a movie. Over the loud *whop* *whop* *whop*, my mind could hear songs like “Flight of the Valkyries.” Images of Die Hard and Predator fly through my head. Everyone including myself have permanent grins locked on our faces.
Dive bombing through the valley, the pilot shuttles us up to the high alpine. The zipping canopy of green trees below us are so close it feels like we could touch them with our hands. The emerald forest is quickly replaced with cotton covered glades. Massive slopes poke in between the dense snow-filled clouds. Like a nimble butterfly the helicopter lightly lands on top of a peak.
The “Big” Game Is Finally Here
The door whooshes open. The heli-wash blast us with cold air and snow as we leap out. Running to the rear compartment, we swing open the back and grab our packs. At the same time, our guide throws our snowboards and skis into the snow. Ducking down and gripping onto our bags tightly, we huddle like a basketball team before the big game. The closest team member to the pilot gives us a thumbs up.
And Then Silence…
And with that the heli lifts off and disappears. The loud thumping replaced with an absolute stillness. Each of us take in the moment. The snow is coming down with a fury. Stepping away from the landing zone, my feet plunge up to my waist. All I could think about was how good it was going to be. We were transported into a true magical winter wonderland.
High Avy Danger… Means Playground Terrain
With all the new snowfall over the last two days, the avy danger was high. And so we smartly moved onto mellower terrain. Luckily it was playful. Rollers, bumps, whoop-tys. Wave-like feature and great snow. A snowboarder’s dream. And most of all, it was DEEP. As their motto goes, “It’s deeper here.” And it was.
Bringin’ A Knife To A Gun Fight
The snow was so deep that my normal powder board wasn’t enough. Dropping in, it felt like I was bringing a knife to a gun fight. Jaime, on the other hand, already made the decision to change. The Canadian-made Prior snowboard on her feet was specifically designed for powder. Instead of her normal 153cm, this volume shifted snowboard shape was MUCH shorter – a stubby 143cm but at the same time much wider.
Local Freshies® Tip: If you don’t have your own dedicated powder board… use theirs. Freeride ain’t gonna cut it.
Powder Board Is The Yosemite Sam Of Snow
She looked at it and said, “How do I ride this board? Squeeze in? Squeeze out? Lean back… forward…. ah, forget it! I’m just gonna drop in….” And after the first turn, I can hear her yelling with joy. “THIS IS AWESOME!” If it was a cartoon character, it was Yosemite Sam. The board was a fun gun-slinging outlaw that could turn on a dime. Allowing you to bounce around and play through the snow like you were hunting rabbits.
Quick Break… And We’re Off Again
As we arrived at the landing zone, we could already hear the whoompfing of the chopper blades coming back to pick us up. Even though there were three groups using the same helicopter, it felt as if our wait times were maybe 60-90 seconds. In fact, you do so much skiing on a BIG Day, you could easily hit 25,000 vertical feet.
Local Freshies® Tip: Don’t be a cheap skate. For ANY heli ski operation, upgrade to the unlimited package. Even if you don’t hit the minimums, you’re at least ensuring that if the snow is good, you keep skiing.
Postponed On Account Of Snow
We lapped the same zone a few times, but as quickly as the sky opened, it closed yet again. The next storm was arriving quickly. To say that spring is a turbulent time of year is an understatement. As Troy said, “Flip a coin.” It could be cold, warm, wet, or sunny… but the one thing that’s pretty much a guarantee? It will be deep. March is in fact their snowiest month.
As we finish for the day, another kind of fun begins. With only 18 people in the lodge, the feeling is a sense of camaraderie. Like we are part of a championship team to maximize fun-ness. Libations are poured and friendships made. After a fun evening and yet another great meal, we all head to bed.
Where The Cat’s Play… Catland
The next day dawned yet again with torrential rain and now the fog was even thicker. This time we were for sure grounded. Today’s destination – Catland. Even when the chopper can’t fly, they have a cat-skiing area that’s set aside for those down days. To get to it, you still need a heli-lift albeit below the cloud ceiling. The region was a playground. What it lacked in steepness to avoid avalanche danger, it more than made up in fun things to jump and roll-over. While it wasn’t the big lines that Northern Escape is known for, at least we were getting powder turns. The storm was so big that we couldn’t heli ski two days in a row.
Wear Your Sunscreen!
The final morning… peering outside the dining room window, the darkness, mist, and fog combined into a black shroud. So dense we could barely see the river a few hundred yards from the lodge. And yet, looking up you see a slight hint of blue. Could it be? Albi our guide stepped into the dining room and with a big smile announced loudly something we hadn’t heard all week – “Wear your sunscreen! It’s going to be sunny.”
LET’S – GO – SKI
We couldn’t believe the great news. Time was of the essence! Quickly scarfing down our food, everyone began the walk over to the boot room and started suiting up. The atmosphere was like a locker room. The air thick with excited chatter. Questions like “Would we make it to the alpine?” were being whispered. People flipped on their avalanche beacons and grabbed their packs. The guides chimed in letting all of us know… LET’S – GO – SKI!
Shuttlecraft And Heli’s
Two of the groups hop on the shuttle while the other walks over to the heli. The bus provides the fastest way to get everyone over to the closest landing zone just before our travel up. Each mile we tick off, the fog begins to dissipate over the Skeena River. Dashes of blue sky could be seen in between the puffy clouds and majestic peaks.
A Meadow… And Our LZ
We make a left onto a dirt road called Har-lee’s Junction. Albi does his best to avoid the massive potholes filled with water. Alongside the road, only specks of snow dot the forest. You wouldn’t think we were going skiing but mudbogging instead. We snake our way to the end of the road. To the left are tiny homes being constructed. And to the right is a meadow. Trudging through the thawing dormant grass colored in saffron and caramel, we setup our gear on the makeshift heli-pad.
Dragonflies And Lillipads
Elliott radios to the pilot, “We’re ready.” The calm is broken by the thumping of the helicopter. Like a classical overture, the drum beat of its blades get louder and louder until the helicopter swoops in at a high clip. We watch closely as he makes a tight U-turn and drops in slowly like a dragonfly about to land on a lili pad. Huddled tightly around our bags, the helicopter lowers itself just a few feet from our bodies.
Hot Potato… And We’re Off
Adrenaline courses through our veins. Like the start of a championship game, we’re dialed in. Two carefully run up to the back and swing open the storage compartment. Like a game of hot potato, we hand the bags to the two putting them into the back. They’re stowed in a flash. Like a military unit, we all quickly jump into the heli.
This Never Gets Old!
Bassel looks at me and yells over the deafening drill of the heli, “This never gets old!” I nod. It sure doesn’t. Sitting there, the organized chaos of a helicopter stirs excitement. We hear the noise of the blades picking up speed. The cabin begins to shake like a big block muscle car, and we slowly rise up.
0-60 In Two Seconds
We go backwards for a few moments and then Evan, our pilot, hits the gas. Lurching forward, we go from 0 to 60 in what feels like an instant. The dark seaweed green of trees and gloomy clay are replaced by snow-covered forests. The tall peaks play peak-a-boo with us through the wafting clouds. In an instant, we break through, and our jaws dropped. The previous days we thought we saw the peaks. We were WRONG.
Steep Doesn’t Even Begin To Describe It
Everywhere we look, we see HUGE steep faces plastered with snow reminiscent of AK lines. I now understood why Northern Escape Heli Ski operation is world renowned. The terrain available to them is monstrous. The heli rose up like an elevator against a steep cliff thousands of feet tall. Sliding a few feet over, it delicately touches down on a tiny pad of snow just wide enough for it and us.
Elliott rips open the door and has us jump out. The snow swirls around us from the chopper blades. We quickly get our gear. And just like that, the helicopter leaves. Silence. Looking around, I can’t believe my eyes. Just a few minutes ago we were in a dull mono-chrome valley and the next we’re here.
The Land Of Oz
I felt as if I was Dorothy from Wizard Of Oz when she stepped into Oz. We try to take it all in. Each of us snap pictures. We give each other high-fives. This is what we came for and spent our hard-earned money on. A massive blank canvas is laid out in front of us. We drop in. Turn after turn come easily as we playfully slide down the mountain. We weave around roll-overs. Drop open faces. Lean back and spray massive plumes into the air. Face shots come easily.
A Dangerous Concoction
We stop for a moment and Elliott digs a quick pit with his ski pole. One layer: wind slab. 2nd layer: wet slab. A dangerous mixture of new snow. Today was a day to just enjoy classic low angle “hippy pow.” Finishing off our alpine goodness, we dip back into the trees. With more anchors, the pitch gets steeper.
It’s Like Sierra-at-Tahoe But Better
It reminded me of my best powder day at Sierra-at-Tahoe… but better. Instead of the frenzy of a ski resort stuffed with people, it’s only us. And the untracked snow will last forever. We playfully bounce through the trees and zip our way back to our next landing zone. After a short fueling break, the chopper returns, and we head to our next zone called Tinker Bell. Yet another epic above alpine run.
Heli Ski Is Backcountry… But Better
This is EXACTLY what we came to ride. And yet again, the clouds roll in and the alpine is shut down. Snow began to fall lightly. We were forced to go lower, and ski the same terrain we rode earlier in the trip. It was backcountry skiing at its core… but better. Instead of spending hours climbing a mountain, we got to enjoy the dessert and skip the healthy greens.
Was It Worth It?
The trip felt like an appetizer before the main course. I can only imagine how good the steeper and bigger lines are. If you were on the fence for our heli ski trip… start saving. You won’t regret it. If I need to take out a 2nd mortgage to make it happen… I will. Yes, it’s that good. It’s not just the snow, terrain, or even the lodge. It’s everything about it. Landing, riding, and taking off via a nimble helicopter is unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. It’s worth every penny.
Let Them Know Local Freshies® Sent Ya
If you do make it up to Northern Escape Heli Ski, let them know that Local Freshies® referred you. We’ve partnered with Wildhorn Outfitters so that you get a FREE pair of Wildhorn Googles of your choosing as well.