Diamond in the rough 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF STELLAR HELISKIING - A STELLAR EVENT Stellar Heliskiing — an A-star helicopter and 80,000 acres spread across two ranges to play around in.
  • Photo courtesy of Stellar Heliskiing
  • A STELLAR EVENT Stellar Heliskiing — an A-star helicopter and 80,000 acres spread across two ranges to play around in.

When Jason Remple suggests it's a few degrees colder in the Purcells, hard against the east side of British Columbia's Kootenay Lake, than in the Selkirks to the west, you believe him. Born in the former mining town of Kaslo midway along the 100-km lake, and raised in tiny Meadow Creek capping its north end, he's lived his entire life sandwiched by these two storied ranges. He knows where the good snow is.

As soon as he could drive Remple was making the six-hour-return trip to ski Whitewater Ski Resort outside Nelson. Later he wrangled a dishwashing job at Meadow Creek's Selkirk Wilderness Skiing — world's first cat-ski operation when it opened in 1975. Suddenly his view flipped from frontcountry ski culture to the world of backcountry pow, and he became a guide by the age of 21. Immersed in western Canadian can-do spirit and the wild cowboy atmosphere of dreaming big and skiing bigger, Remple worked his way up to operations manager. By the time he left in 2014 to focus full-time on Stellar Heliskiing, the nascent business he'd founded in 2005, he'd spent 23 years at Selkirk Wilderness learning the ropes of mechanized backcountry and guiding thousands from around the globe. As it turns out, one of those was now paying particularly close attention to his weather prognostications.

As clouds assemble over the Selkirks to scud across the sky in disorganized flocks, it seems Remple has indeed chosen correctly. On a sun-bathed powder bench high in the Purcells, Stefan Engstrom — onetime co-founder of Sweden's Peak Performance clothing and now CEO and creative director of that country's highbrow lifestyle brand, J-Lindbergh — surveys the kingdom he now shares with Remple. You see, in addition to being a functional-fashion guru, Engstrom is also a partner in Stellar.

Both powder-junkie and savvy marketer, Engstrom had long been on the hunt for a backcountry B.C. ski operation to serve a personal troika of investment, retreat, and testing-ground for his designs. A few years back Remple had tried to help Engstrom buy Selkirk when it was put up for sale; that had fallen through, but, well, Remple did have this upstart boutique heli-ski thing... was that of any interest?

In July 2014, Stellar announced Engstrom and his friend, Bjorn Algkvist, as investment partners. Like Remple they were dedicated lifelong skiers, having both competed for the Swedish freestyle team in the 1970s before their successes in business. Continuing to ski when they weren't moving and shaking elsewhere, now they had an A-star helicopter and 80,000 acres spread across two ranges to play around in. Not that playing was all they wanted: Remple could bring the snow and terrain and handle the testy nuance of machinery, but Engstrom was a creative force who could bring the pizzazz required to get attention.

On this day that means more Swedes: superstar photographer Mattias Fredriksson and big-mountain superman Sverre Liliequist, bringing to life Engstrom's vision of a visually stunning, technically demanding backdrop for a J-Lindbergh catalogue shoot. Liliequist, another lifelong skier, former racer, and de facto freeski icon not only adds skill to the mix, but a quiet demeanor and Blue Steel stare that can sell any high-end ski brand — not to mention a heli-op.

The Purcells deliver with jaw-drop runs like Merino Man, Slick Willy's, Ghengis, and a massive, glacier-hewn apron named Big Boy that holds a day's worth of lines. "A guy who lives south of Kaslo looks out his window at this terrain every day," muses Remple as he and other guides dig out a snow table for a gourmet lunch overlooking the lake. "So one day I brought him up here skiing. He was blown away." Those of us who've only just seen it feel the same; Engstrom, meanwhile, grins quietly, a cat who clearly loves the taste of canary.

At day's end we re-cross the lake in the heli, setting down outside rough-and-tumble but picturesque Kaslo. Though future plans include a dedicated lodge and cat-skiing, for the time being this diamond-in-the-rough will continue day-trips while focusing on multi-day packages based in the refurbished, movie-set-worthy Kaslo Hotel. Heli-skiers will here enjoy lake views and unpretentious dinners, breakfasting at the Treehouse Restaurant across the street — a classic Kootenay diner where locals offer the kind of tall tales Remple has likely told his share of.

Tall tales, in fact, seem unavoidable here. The previous day, the crew worked the vertiginous Selkirks behind Kaslo, finishing on Stellar's marquee peak: 3,000-metre Mt. Brennan, which boasts 1,600 vertical metres of skiing — a huge descent by any measure, something Liliequist clearly felt the need to celebrate. In an alpenglow moment, he'd thrown one of his patented backflips off a handy cornice; not typical modelling behaviour, but Engstrom clearly has no interest in crafting clothing you wouldn't be comfortable give'n 'er in. And that's something cowboy Remple can appreciate (stellarheliskiing.com).

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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