Sport: Coola Runnings
“This run is called Sex Wax,” Rob Orvig says with a casualness that seems at odds with the crevasse-lined expanse stretching out below him. “It’s on a pretty real glacier, so stick by my tracks.” Without further instruction, the Bella Coola Heli Sports guide disappears into an explosion of white, leaving my fellow skiers and I little choice but to dive in and chase him down the 2,800-vertical-foot slope.
Massive vertical drops wrapped in virgin white powder are common sights in British Columbia’s Bella Coola Valley, where 10,000-foot Coast Range peaks meet the Pacific Ocean in such an uneasy truce that kelp tinsels the lowest firs. Located some 600 miles northwest of Vancouver, the region endures regular ocean storms that blast the chiseled mountains to create deep snowpacks on steep slopes. Bella Coola Heli Sports—one of the largest heli-ski operators in North America and the only one holding permits in the Bella Coola Valley—presides over a 2.6-million-acre territory in the region, meaning that just a handful of skiers have the run of an area nearly 500 times the size of Vail.
Bella Coola’s newest offering, the Steep Skiing Challenge, is for an even more select group. Launched in 2011, the six- to eight-day program (available March through April and priced from $8,880 per person, all-inclusive) is tailored to expert skiers in search of larger-than-life chutes, many of which have never been skied before. Some slopes may be too remote for the helicopter—requiring guests to hike, climb, and even rappel to the drop-in points—while others are accessed by tabletop-size landing zones that barely accommodate the chopper. Participants in the program average six to seven descents per day and, by week’s end, are guaranteed to ski a minimum of 75,000 vertical feet, weather permitting. “It’s not for fainthearted, weak-kneed people,” says Wade Bashaw, Bella Coola’s head guide. Nonetheless, he adds, “We’ve had people fall on their knees and not want to get up.”
If the Steep Skiing Challenge is too strenuous for some, Bashaw and his team offer a number of options that are more manageable for the frequent, if not expert, skier—but still include hair-raising terrain and first-time descents.Alsoconsistent are Bella Coola’s small groups, which guarantee no more than four skiers for every guide.
At the end of each ski day, guests return to one of three mountain lodges. Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, a nine-chalet resort set amid 60 acres of privately owned parkland, is the most luxurious and includes an outdoor hot tub, a sports bar, and a gourmet restaurant. Should one of the Coast Range’s infamous snowstorms ground Bella Coola’s fleet for the day, guests can head out from the lodge for snowshoeing or go fishing for spring salmon in the Atnarko River. But when the weather cooperates, skiing—indeed, some of the world’s best skiing—is the order of the day.
Sex Wax, one of several runs with a surfing-themed name in Bella Coola’s territory, is neither the steepest nor the deepest track on our itinerary. But with a foot of fresh snow underfoot, the sun shining, and a stadium of rock surging 2,000 feet overhead, it is certainly one of the most memorable.
Bella Coola Heli Sports, 604.932.3000, www.bellacoolaheliskiing.com