Heli-access ski touring in British Columbia’s renowned Selkirk Mountains
Nine hours northeast of Seattle sits a helipad obscured from view off the Trans-Canada Highway. The site serves as a staging ground to a collection of backcountry lodges operated by Golden Alpine Holidays and accessible only by helicopter during the harsh Canadian winter. We stood looking at the horizon waiting to hear the first thump of the helicopter as it came over the horizon to the carry us away. Our group’s destination was the Sentry Lodge, a relatively new hut resurrected from the ashes of its predecessor, which burned to the ground in 2013.
Our group of eight regular joes with a handful of hard earned vacay days to spare had assembled from around the world for a week of ski touring powder runs in the Esplanades, a sub-range of British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains renowned for some of the deepest powder skiing in the world. The plans had been set in motion a full year earlier with a deposit to secure a hut for the following February, one of the most consistent months for snow in the region. And when the time came, the weather gods did not disappoint. We arrived at the heliport with three feet of fresh powder in the alpine and a week of clear blue skies ahead of us.
The downdraft from a hovering helicopter is enough to send piles heavy anything flying, pushing snow and grit around with frightening speed. Using my bodyweight to prevent a week’s worth of gear, food and alcohol from taking an unplanned ride down the side of a mountain meant splaying out like a starfish high atop the baggage pile beneath a landing helicopter. A jolting start to the trip, and a stark reminder that this would not be any old day of groomer resort runs.
Sentry is a world away, even by Canadian standards—the furthest out in the string of Golden Alpine Holiday locations. The 20 minute flight takes you over immense series of peaks and valleys with skiable terrain in every direction. It’s hard to believe this is all yours for the week ahead. Outside of a multi-day trip in by foot, a helicopter is the only access in or out of the region. With two guides and a chef, our small group had a private piece of snow-covered paradise.
With one of the most reliable snowpacks in North America, the Selkirks are a dreamscape of gladed tree skiing, endless pillow lines, alpine bowls, chutes and couloirs. Each day our guide, Rich Marshall, led our train of skiers up through the terrain to a daily serving of fresh powder lines, never repeating what we had tackled the day before.
There’s an element to ski touring that makes the turns seem that much sweeter—a connection to the terrain you’re traveling through that can’t be replicated by a chairlift. The feel underfoot of an ever-evolving snowpack, the still warmth of sun-drenched valleys, and wind-buffed ridgelines are all clues to how various slopes will ski and how the rest of your day will unfold.
Rich would gather the information moment by moment, factoring it in with avalanche intel, slope direction, elevation and a host of other inputs, providing us with ski lines that we never would have tackled on our own. Informed by over 30 years of experience in the region, Rich’s knowledge of the terrain was second nature. In fact, many of the passes and peaks have been named by he and his fellow guides over the years—Twistin’ Rollin’ Smokin’, Rasa Pass, and Chaos in the Kitchen, to name a few of the gems.
Climbing 5,000 feet a day on average, we’d start the day at 7am with a double breakfast—yogurt, fruit, and coffee, followed by a calorie dense hot breakfast to fuel us for the rigors of the day ahead. After putting together a bagged lunch, we’d suit up, double check our avalanche beacons and start climbing by 9. Eight hours of skinning, digging snow pits to gauge snow stability and ripping fresh powder lines later, we’d return as a grinning and windburned group.
Once back at the hut we were greeted with hot soup, cold beer and best of all, a wood-fired sauna that melted away the day’s aches and pains—a preamble to the banquet style meals like wild mushroom risotto or melt-in-your mouth beef stew you would expect in a 5-star hotel, not a remote backcountry cabin. The hut itself was the peak of comfort with ample space for 12 guests and additional staff, and perfectly situated with views east of the Canadian Rockies and glimpses west of past days’ accomplishments—distant S tracks on every skiable face. Even the outhouse had a spectacular view, a useful distraction while getting the toilet seat up to temperature.
Going into a trip of this magnitude, I had wondered how I would hold up climbing and skiing for six days straight. But by each day’s end, when it came time to decide on one more line or an extra 30 minutes of beer and sauna, the choice was an easy one—more skiing. In a situation like this, it’s impossible to have too much of a good thing. Between the people, powder, scenery and food, Sentry set the bar for ski trips that we can only hope to equal again in the future.
Here’s to more of the same next year. Fingers crossed.
photography by Martin Maisonpierre