I’ve been sitting in the back row of a tour bus with James Heim, Hugo Harrison and Ingrid Backstrom for five hours now. My legs are asleep, I’ve played video games on my iPhone until the battery has died and what’s worse is that we’re out of beer! We’ve been driving down the vacant back roads of British Columbia as we head to Last Frontier Heliskiing lodge for a 2-week shoot with Matchstick Productions, and to say that this lodge is located in the middle of nowhere is an understatement! After traveling all day from Vancouver we finally pull into the parking lot and are immediately whisked off to our private quarters, and when we walk into the main lodge and are greeted by a gorgeous log cabin, a gourmet cook running the kitchen and a fully stocked bar, we look at each other and all agree… this should be a fun place to kill some time… and knowing heli trips we’ll be sitting around waiting for weather A LOT!!!
This trip came together about two weeks earlier. I’d been talking with Hansee, MSP’s director of operations all season long trying to plan a heli trip with them, so when he offered me the seat as still photographer for this trip i jumped on it. I cleared my schedule for the dates, packed my bags, kissed my girlfriend goodbye and headed North to Vancouver. Aside from getting my camera gear across the border, the trip came together pretty easily. Before I knew it, i was sitting on the porch of a cabin in Northern British Columbia, drinking a beer and watching the sun descend over the Canadian Rockies…not bad at all. And on top of that i was going to be skiing and shooting with 3 of the best big mountain skiers in North America in what looked to be some incredible terrain.
After settling into our rooms we all meet up and set our game plan for the trip. We took a look at the topo maps strewn across the walls of the guide room, and start discussing where to begin the search for good lines. With only the vaguest idea of where we were and where the steep lines might be, we spend the following day flying around the tenure of the operation exploring what different types of terrain we have to work with. While we’re excited, we’re also a bit scared though, as the thin snow pack has left a lot of the faces a bit boney. On top of that, the prevailing winds have produced some enormous cornices overhanging almost every skiable face. It’s not the ideal conditions we all hope for, but you make do with what you have.
Regardless of the snow, we now have an idea of where we’d like to start things off, and feeling pumped we all wake up earlythe next morning, grab a quick breakfast and some coffee and hop into the A-Star to head out to a zone titled Spring Break. It’s a big face with cliffs and spines, and there’s about 7 lines that we can milk out of it. We all get into our places and Hugo and Heim drop in respectively. As they wait at the bottom, Ingrid drops in. She skis the top part of her line flawlessly, but as she drops the final cliff and points the run out she hits a runnel and is launched into a cartwheeling crash. There’s an awkward moment of silence throughout the valley as we watch her finally come to rest, at which point everyone jumps on the radios to see if she’s hurt. To our relief she’s ok, but she’s tweaked her knee pretty bad and is going to be down for about a week before she can ski again… bummer!
We put Ingrid in the heli and send her back to the lodge. Heim, Hugo, and the rest of the crew continue on in search of the next zone to work. We find a massive face that drops everyone’s jaws. It’s well over 3000 vertical feet, it’s steep as hell and there are massive cornices overhanging nearly the entire ridge. After glassing the ridge from a peak across valley, we’re able to find two solid lines…get in!
We work this face and several others over, but finally have to call it a day when the mid-day sun begins to bake the slopes and it’s no longer safe to be out there. As we fly home though, we can see a storm looming on the horizon which we learn later is a big one and unfortunately it looks to be with us for a while. With any heli trip, there’s an understanding that you’ll be spending a lot of time sitting around waiting for conditions to align. There are so many factors that go into being able to ski big lines (weather, snowpack, avalanche conditions, light, wind, etc…) and they all have to come together for things to go down right. The snow is out there and the stability is pretty good. Now all we need is clear skies!
Day after day goes by. Wake up, eat breakfast, check the weather, check email, eat more, work out, check the weather, eat more, drink beer, go to sleep… and repeat. As the days pass, everyone grows increasingly restless. However, with each passing day Ingrid’s knee has had a chance to rest and she’s ready to ski again… whenever the conditions allow us to.
Every once in a while, we get a window of light. Like school kids in a fire drill, we frantically suit up and run out the door. Sometimes it clouds up before we can even take off. Other times, we’ll get out on top of a line, only for it to milk out on us. This, to say the least, is frustrating. But, in trying to be optimistic, we make the most of these situations. We’re getting in some great sightseeing and I’m taking some beautiful scenic shots. And on top of that we’re getting the occasional free run… no cameras, no filming just friends riding. Sometimes you forget how much fun skiing is when you’re filming. It can almost seem like a job and you can lose sight of what you’re doing. These occasional free runs help to remind everyone that we get to ski for a living… life is awesome.
The days continue to pass and the clouds don’t break. We look at the calendar and realize that we only have 2 days left. We’ve been here a week and a half already and we’ve really only had one solid day of shooting and a couple of sporadic hours here and there. We’re not in a panic, but we’ve decided that we’re not going to wait any longer. If we can fly, we’re going for it. With that mentality, we load up the heli and head out, even under grey skies.
We punch out of the cloud after about 30 minutes of widow shopping, andfinally we are in blue sky. Everyone is stoked and we quickly scour the area for lines. We were hoping to find big faces with flutes and spines, but to no avail. All of the big lines we see have massive overhanging cornices, or peppery rocks throughout, and the fact is that we just don’t have the time any more to scout for more big faces. Making do with what we have, we focus on the shorter, mini golf style lines and bang out quick line after quick line. We ski through the afternoon and into sunset, and finally as the light dips below the horizon we have to head back in. The afternoon couldn’t have been better. We head home tomorrow afternoon and we’re all happy we were able to get in one more solid day of shooting.
Bags packed, we head into the lodge for dinner, and one of the guests that’s been staying there buys everyone at the lodge bottles of champagne! We eat and drink and tell stories of our two weeks we’ve spent here. We haven’t skied as much as we’d like to, but it’s been an incredible time.
Morning comes and we load up the bus to depart for Vancouver. It’s a different mood than when we boarded the bus two weeks earlier, full of anticipation. Now, we’re heading home. The trip is over and we all are heading in different directions to finish off the remaining month of the season. Every trip is an adventure, and this one has been no exception.
I grab my seat on the bus, kick off my shoes and settle in for another long road trip. I put on my headphones and start to nod off when someone taps me on the shoulder. It’s our guide and he has a case of Kokanee beers in his hand. This isn’t going to be such a boring bus ride home after all.
Words and all photos: Ian Coble