On Highway 37 in the Coastal Mountain Range of Northern British Columbia, not far from the Alaska border, is a little truck stop called Bell II. It’s got two gas pumps, a diner, a mean old German cook named Max who makes insanely good soup, a one-eyed dog, a pool table, a few cabins, a makeshift Jacuzzi … and an A-Star, one of the finest helicopters known to man.
It first appears on the side of the road like some kind of mirage, the mere suggestion of civilized life an almost forgotten concept after hours of windy, gravel roads that either lead to Alaska or Kitwanga, B.C., depending on which way you’re headed. The small compound, located just off the side of one of the most remote roads in North America, bears an uncanny likeness to the set of Northern Exposure: It’s rustic, not like the lodge at the summit of Vail wants to be, but rusty-rustic-like the various tractors, trailers, and old pickup trucks scattered about the property with nowhere to go until spring thaw. There’s no phone, no nearby town, and no people-aside from the folks who run the place, and the occasional pot-bellied trucker who pops in for a cup of joe on the long journey back to civilization. The cast of characters could very easily comprise a television series.
On its own, the desolate location and remote, worn look of the place seem fitting for a Stephen King novel-an island in the wilderness that exists unto itself, relatively unbeknownst to the rest of the world. The kind of setting where anything could happen and no one would ever know about it. But the potential of the area is immediately apparent. Beyond the giant lodgepole pines that shroud Bell II from so much as a glimpse of the outside world, huge peaks span the horizon one after the other in a never-ending series of snow-covered peaks that look good enough to eat. They’re so close, doable lines are almost visible from the side of the road-but with the sea of mountains that poke up behind them in the distance, it’s obvious that this obscure spot is the gateway to an endless expanse of mountains that go all the way to Alaska and beyond.
Which brings us back to the helicopter: a sleek black-bodied number with enough power to fly at high altitudes, and with a skilled pilot, land on even the most precarious of perches. This impressive machine sits next to the tool shed and clapboard garage, stunning and magical but somehow out of place, like a limousine parked in front of Denny’s on prom night. The sound of its rotors in motion and the gale wind that make their power imminently known seem alien, like a spaceship has landed and transformed the otherwise quiet little area into this surreal, secret transporter pod that feels like something out of a Star Trek episode.
Home to Last Frontier Heliskiing, the place seemed to be just that-one of the only spots left where the people are few and the terrain is so vast that even the guides are still mapping it out, naming runs daily and marking them in red pen on the series of topo maps thumbtacked wall-to-wall in the upstairs meeting room.
Craig Kelly has the stature of a wise man. Beneath his heavy eyelashes and muddy, hazel eyes, thoughts are brewing. He slinks around the pool table holding the stick in both hands, shoulders always tilted to one side and back slightly arched with a visible flexibility that can only come from many hours poised in impossible yoga stretches. It’s the same bendy posture that comes through in his riding, like those super poked-out contortionist method airs seen in so many photos.
It’s impossible to imagine what might be going through his mind, but the furrowed brow and intense focus are the same whether he’s making the impossible shot in this game of pool against our Swiss guide Franz, or the first few turns off some unnamed peak that’s never been ridden. Lord knows there had been plenty of those over the last few days, with bluebird skies and stable snow conditions allowing us to burn some serious heli time. The only limits Craig and the others had in terms of what they could ride were the ones they put on themselves.
In the realm of big mountains, focus like Craig’s is what negotiating terrain like that requires. That’s a scary prospect when the opportunity to push those limits is actually there for the taking.
Between Craig, Jeremy Jones (the 23-year-old ex-racer turned psycho slough-surfer from Lake Tahoe), and Vail local Megan Pischke, there had been plenty of those heart-pounding moments: waiting, watching and not breathing while these three laid tracks where they had never been laid before.
First descents are a feat that only a small percentage of snowboarders are in any kind of position to pursue. First off, it requires a real combination of skills: the ability to stay in control at high speeds; hold an edge on steeps and constantly changing snow conditions; land big air when necessary; negotiate technical lines and hold it together over exposure and other obstacles; and understand snow conditions, avalanche dangers, and how to ride with or avoid sloughing when snow starts moving on steep faces (which it inevitably will). Then there’s the issue of money (as soon as you start talking heli time, you’re talking serious cash flow) and the cost of getting to these places in the first place (ask a travel agent about airfares to Smithers, B.C.). This is an arena for serious pros.
Photos do no justice to the scope of what riding big mountains is all about. The mags are plastered with them to the point where we’re desensitized to what it is we’re even looking at. In some cases, the inclination is to think “Hell, I could do that,” especially when it comes to pretty powder turns. But try getting out of the heli harnessed on a rope, or standing on a ridge that’s as narrow as your feet and drops off so steep on both sides, the slope below isn’t even visible. Sure, they can see the bottom from the top, but nothing in between. All these guys have to go on is what they’ve witnessed from the heli, making note of various rocks and other features that will give them visual cues-a mental map, so to speak-of which way to go when they’re on the way down. Except for one thing: they have to turn the whole picture upside down.
That’s the amazing part. We’d do these “fly bys” when the riders would see a peak they liked. This would involve lots of pointing and collaboration via radio headset among the guide, the pilot, the photographer, and the riders as to a) whether landing there is even possible, b) is it safe enough, and c) where we would shoot it from. These were some of the most exhilarating moments as far as riding in the heli was concerned, flying in tight circles all sideways and fast while the thump-thump-thump of the engine and the rotors would get considerably louder as the pilot kicked in more power to execute these maneuvers. Depending how complex the lines, we’d fly in circles several times, or until the riders felt comfortable and confident enough for us to land and empty their carcasses out into the wild, blue yonder. At that point, the rest is up to them.
“I’ve been making turns around gates for the past ten years. I’m over it,” Jeremy says, all slow and drawn out, in a way that seems to mirror his unshakable, low-key personality. He’s annoyingly calm for someone who just straight-ran another ridiculously steep line, stomping two simultaneous cliff drops along the way. Someone comments that the signature he left with his tracks look a lot more like an “I” than a “J.” He responds with a chuckle and a grin so wide, it shows both rows of teeth-choppers that would put the Osmond family to shame.
It’s only 7:00 a.m. when Jeremy nails that first descent on “Pixie Sticks,” a peak the crew had been drooling over all week. Waking up to a descent like that seems like it would be as hard to digest as a greasy omelet, but apparently Jeremy wasn’t the only one willing to stomach it. For Megan, whose unconventional nature had resisted becoming a part of Olympic hype, the journey into big-mountain riding had opened up a whole new world. In the past few seasons she’d ventured to places like Greenland and Alaska, building on her already powerful riding style and gaining a better understanding of exactly what she could handle. Being in the company of experienced backcountry riders like Craig and Jeremy only fueled that fire, encouraging her to accomplish things that perhaps surprised even herself.
The descent of this peak was one such instance: The summit was a dramatically steep face where the knife-edged ridge came to a point. The riders could see two distinct lines coming off the summit, and one off to the shoulder, along a wide flute that passed a wall of deep blue ice. Megan chose this line, not only for its challenge, but for its aesthetic appeal and the rare opportunity to be that close to something that beautiful.
After Craig’s hair-raising descent through the most direct line (the sketchy, loose, granular snow at the top reminded him of the sugar inside Pixie Stix, from that came the name), Megan dropped in last. Her first five turns were enviable, the smoky spray she left in her wake more visible against the backdrop of the deep-blue glacial ice. Even from a distance, it was easy to see each moment frozen the way they would eventually appear in these photos, in synch with the sound of Gordon’s camera shutter as he fired off a sequence of shots.
From the semi-fluted shoulder, she’d have to cut into the main lower face-her timing and the location of that turn were critical. If she turned too late she’d end up over a crevasse, and if she turned too early she’d get taken over a cliff on the face. We all sat and watched, talking her through it in our minds. She hit the crux just right, stopping only for a second to let her slough go by, then headed straight for the exit in a triumph no less significant than winning a gold medal in Nagano.
The heli engineer always stood waiting for us at the heli pad back at Bell II. He was a heavy-set man with long hair and wore these big, square wire-rimmed glasses with the clip-on shades flipped up. The wind gusted wildly about, blowing his hair every which way, but he just stood there, as if there was no way we could land that thing without him. He was as much a fixture of the place as the various tools and machinery used to maintain this incredible machine, the chariot that took us to another world.
Inside the lodge, things were always strangely normal, despite whatever hair-raising ordeal we had incurred that day. Jesse, the one eyed dog, laid in the same spot she always did, in front of the coal-burning stove next to the drying room. A few truckers would be sitting at the Formica card tables in a cloud of their own cigarette smoke, illuminated by the setting sun. And each night, we’d reenter this unchanging world as if our time in these mountains had been all but removed from the passage of time, like it all took place on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise-all part of the journey into the last frontier.
For more information on Last Frontier Heliskiing, phone/fax (250) 558-7980. For reservations (USA and Canada) call 1-888-655-5566, or check out the Web site at www.tlhheliskiing.com/lfh; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned to www.twsnow.com for unpublished photos and more from “The Last Frontier.”