North by Northwest 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - SNOW DEEP Enjoying the Coast Mountain backcountry around Terrace, B.C., with Northern Escape Heli-skiing.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • SNOW DEEP Enjoying the Coast Mountain backcountry around Terrace, B.C., with Northern Escape Heli-skiing.

British Columbia is famous in international skiing circles for its Powder Highway—a grand circle route in the province's south linking the (mostly) snowy resorts of Red, Whitewater, Fernie, Kimberly, Panorama, Kicking Horse and Revelstoke. Given the ranges in which these reside, any mission along the route can become a white-knuckle nightmare, so serious winter driving chops are a must. But for those who really enjoy ice-packed asphalt, and don't mind hauling through protracted whiteouts (i.e., Canadians and not tourists), B.C. has a second powder pathway—one where the distances are greater, the roads far sketchier, the mountains less heralded, and the skiing more sublime. I call this particular route "North by Northwest"—a term I coined in a 1996 Powder article, the last time I drove its western axis before a recent trip.

From Whistler, it goes like this: drive eight hours north on Highway 97 to Quesnel and Troll Mountain; another 5.5 hours north through Prince George then west on Highway 16 to Smithers brings you to Hudson Bay Mountain; and a further 2.5 hours toward the coast delivers you to Shames Mountain outside Terrace. Yes, it'll be 16 hours back on a dry road, but you can break it up with cat- or heli-skiing pitstops, or detour to Powder King two hours north of Prince George.

I've written about Troll here before (www.piquenewsmagazine.com, "Tracking Troll," Jan.18, 2018), and though not this sojourn's marquee destination, several things about it are worth reiterating: with its fireplace and upright piano, the log baselodge has the coolest ambiance in all of Canadian skidom; the poutine is top-notch (bottomless gravy!), the main T-bar one of Canada's longest, and the fall-line gladed runs draping its 525-metre vertical a ton of fun—including six-kilometre-long "Snow White." Troll is 30 minutes outside Quesnel, where you'll find Barkerville Brewery and other amenities.

The next leg takes you an hour north on 97 to Prince George, passing mostly through bush. When you hit Highway 16 make a left and cross your fingers: the run through Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Houston to Smithers delivers great scenery, but long, open stretches can also deliver fierce ground blizzards—even on sunny days. Take heart though, your destination, one of the most happening outdoor towns in B.C., will warm your heart. In addition to delis and bistros and quaint/cool specialty shops, there are two craft breweries—Smithers Brewing Co., with a big gorgeous taproom and large selection, and smaller Bulkley Valley Brewery, a kind of punk-rock compatriot in the funky, rapidly gentrifying part of town that includes the excellent Two Sisters Café and Roadhouse. Meanwhile, on Hudson Bay Mountain, 533 metres of vertical are broken into 40-some runs on two sectors: the largely gentle South Face (home of numerous ski-in cabins and their infamous "cabin culture") and the more challenging, steeply pitched North Face—some of the best groomers in B.C. When it's in condition, you can take the long, meandering Rotary Club Community Run back to town. Snowfall isn't super deep, but it's consistent, dry, and fluffy.

The resort is great, but the bigger ski-buzz on Smithers is over Hankin-Evelyn Recreation Area, a backcountry ski-touring haven outside town developed by local Brian Hall and featuring cut runs, transceiver gates, warming huts, and few humans (my favourite part).

Relative to the other distances, it's a short (though often snowy) drive to Terrace west on Highway 16, passing through Hazelton with its startling, Alps-like backdrop. Terrace doesn't have the charm of Smithers, but it has Shames Mountain, with 28 runs (including some serious double blacks), an abundance of natural glades, and 7,800 acres of bad-ass backcountry. Only an hour from the coast, Shames' 1,200-centimetres annual snowfall is legendary, and we were lucky to catch a couple of 50-cm days. Luckier still that when we joined friends for a New Year's romp at Northern Escape Heli-skiing's (NEH) new Mountain Lodge, we benefitted from the 30 per cent greater snowfall this glaciated high-mountain terrain receives. Despite stormy weather that prohibited flying the first day, we still skied powder because NEH has a backup cat for just such occasions. When skies cleared the next day, we flew into some of the most impressive terrain—and deepest snow—on the planet, making the long, high-alert haul from Whistler worth it.

With storms stacking up off the coast we had to hightail it home as soon as a weather window opened. After another layover in Quesnel, pointed it directly back to Whistler, but if you have the chance to detour to Powder King in Pine Pass, you won't be disappointed. It has a solid 640-m vertical, plus easy boot-packing/touring to adjacent terrain on which you can enjoy its generous 1,250-cm annual snowfall and still slide right back into this very wild resort. How wild? On my first visit, there was so much snow that the repeatedly dug-out T-bar was running in a deep, steep-sided gully; somehow a passing wolf became trapped in that passage and was forced to run past everyone on the lift trying to find its way out.

So, the next time you hear a visitor to B.C. boast that they just road-tripped the Powder Highway, smile, fist-bump them, and say: "Cool—which one?"

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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