The lure of Bella Coola's Icy Peaks 

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY ERIC BERGER - A happy skier exits the helicopter, ready to embark on an adventure of a lifetime
  • photo by Eric Berger
  • A happy skier exits the helicopter, ready to embark on an adventure of a lifetime

A flight from the Lower Mainland to B.C.'s central coast is like journeying to the fabled Himalayan kingdom of Shangri-La. From the air, vast ice fields, remnants of the most recent glaciations about 12,000 years ago, spill out on all sides in a scene more reminiscent of Greenland. Closer to Whistler, the massive Pemberton icecap, a favourite destination for backcountry ski touring, is impressive enough. From the perspective of the Bella Coola Valley, though, it's just a drop in the ice bucket.

As Gail Moody, project manager with the Nuxalk First Nation's Healthy Beginnings community program, explained to Pique during a visit to Bella Coola in October, local peaks are closely tied to legendary events. "If the glacier on Table Mountain melts, war canoes will be revealed where they landed after the Great Flood."

Ice-encrusted topography like this is what lured three long-time residents of Whistler north to see for themselves a decade ago. "In the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary journeyed here to train with a group of climbers from Seattle," explained Peter "Swede" Mattsson, co-owner of Bella Coola Heli Sports and Tweedsmuir Park Lodge. "How can you lose in a place where one of the local peaks is named Mount Stupendous? This is way more impressive than Banff. Our lodge is only at 180 metres elevation and we look up at peaks over 3,000 metres tall."

Mattsson is an authority on the Coast Mountains. In the 1980s, he and his current business partner, Beat Steiner, recorded the first ski descents in Garibaldi Provincial Park's Diamond Head region. In the same era, Mattsson also laid claim to being the first to mountain-bike into Spruce Lake in the South Chilcotins, today a popular destination for fat-tire riders.

Mountain bikes aren't the only gear with inflated girth. Powder skis have also gone through a pumped-up retooling. As Steiner told Pique: "Extra-wide reverse-camber design not only represents a significant change in ski technology, it also revolutionized backcountry powder skiing. It used to be you were exhausted after a 100-metre run in knee-deep snow. Now you can float down 1,000 metres without catching your breath. As a result, it's made us reevaluate where we guide clients in our terrain."

Reverse-camber skis, which have upturned tips and tails while the ski between them is flat, were first pioneered in the early 2000s by the late Whistler-born freeskier Shane McConkey, who patterned a design after one already in vogue for wakeboards and water skis. McConkey reasoned that powder snow reacts like water and proved his point with the first prototypes.

When reached by phone at his Whistler office, Chris Prior, the owner of Prior Snowboard Manufactory, where Bella Coola Heli Sports custom-sources gear, confirmed that the advent of reverse-camber skis has made a considerable difference in backcountry downhill skiing. "You can definitely ski longer and harder than a decade ago and still have energy left over to party. Because they are so much wider than regular skis, these models perform like a surfboard, with a lot of room for pilot error."

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