Northern BC ski hills offer something in every size

🕔Nov 19, 2007

If you’re a ski hill owner, heli-ski operator or backcountry lodge owner, last winter’s record snowfall is a tough act to follow. But with a la niña weather system now creating a massive body of cool water off the Pacific coast, some in the ski industry are thinking their luck might just hold for another epic season.
With this in mind, Northword looked into what the northwest has to offer when it comes to ski hills. Traveling Highway 16 from Terrace to Jasper we found one big hill, two medium-sized hills (one with big hopes), and a handful of smaller local hills with big hearts—some just barely hanging on. Ready?

We start in the west, at Shames Mountain outside Terrace. Shames receives some 12 metres of snowfall in a good year, translating into over six metres of settled snowpack.
Shames General Manager Gordon Russell, back in the top job after a year’s absence, is optimistic the mountain will serve up another year of unusually deep snow. If it does, skiers can access the hill’s 28 runs via the mountain’s t-bar and double chair—a good, solid on-hill offering.
But some locals will tell you that Shames is at least as renowned for what is located outside its boundaries as within.
“The cool thing is the lifts take you to just below the alpine, and within half an hour you’re standing in an alpine bowl,” says Shane Spencer, owner of Azad Sports, Terrace’s backcountry skiing store.
Spencer says the appeal of the Terrace backcountry can be measured by the number of pairs of backcountry ski bindings sold in his Terrace store: Azad has the third-most sales volume for the popular Fritschi backcountry binding in all of BC.

The next stop heading eastward is Ski and Ride Smithers. The hill is now entering its second season under its new owners, Vancouver-based 20/20 Properties, and rumours are flying about the company’s big plans for Hudson Bay Mountain’s south flank.
A new Ski and Ride management team under 20/20 president Lorne Borgal hopes to move forward with the first phase of its Master Plan this winter. While skiers won’t see a new lift installed for this season (a deal to buy a used chairlift from Whistler reportedly fell through after it was discovered the lift was shorter than advertised), the company isn’t ruling out the cutting of some new runs.
“We could probably see some development over the winter months,” confirms Director of Mountain Operations Jamie Cox.
They’ve got more than new runs up their sleeve, too. The company has also taken delivery of a brand-spanking-new snowcat, made plans to increase services at the Skyline Lodge, and initiated the development of northern BC’s first disabled skiing program.

Pine Pass
Leaving Smithers, it’s a solid eight-hour drive to Powder King near Mackenzie, where skiers are rewarded by the eponymous pow at a small community ski hill nestled in the snow-plastered peaks of the Pine Pass. Arriving at Powder King on a dark, snowy night, you might feel like you’ve driven into a scene from Steven King’s The Shining—it’s remote, telephone-less, eerily serene, and bisected by high-voltage power lines. In fact, PK’s lack of “services” (like sprawling condos, eight-dollar hotdogs and yuppies on cell phones) is precisely its draw. This is a mountain for skiers who like deep snow.

Prince George
Back at Prince George, you find a number of small hills. Right in the suburbs is Hart Highlands, a small ski hill for beginners, children, and freestyle skiers with 11 machine-groomed runs. It is operated by a non-profit society that keeps its day rates low. It also offers night skiing, an unusual feature for this region.
The next closest is Tabor Mountain, located right next to Highway 16. Tabor is a small hill, whose dozen runs, covering 244m (800 ft) of vertical, are serviced by one triple chair. It ain’t big, but if you live in Prince George, you can be on your boards in 20 minutes, making Tabor perfect for late-afternoon hooky from work.
If you’ve got a whole day, or a weekend for that matter, you might keep driving to Purden Ski Village, an hour’s drive east of Prince George. When conditions allow, Purden offers a friendly, family atmosphere and some good skiing accessed by its two double chairs and one t-bar.
Purden’s manager, Keith Buchanan, reports that global warming has made for some tough times at the small, low-elevation hill (the highest point is 4,500 feet), shortening the resort’s season and resulting in unpredictable snow conditions. But he’s still doing what he can to give skiers what they’re after.
“Last year was the first year in three or four years that we had decent snow conditions,” Buchanan adds. “We’ve just decided to back off and try to sell a bit of skiing whenever the conditions allow it. We’re just trying to survive.”

Tabor and Purden will get you out skiing, but if it’s the big mountains you’re after, it means driving eastward for another couple hours to the Rockies—famous for their height, but not necessarily their snow. We thought we’d include a description of Marmot Basin, the westernmost of the Rocky Mountain resorts, for all those who think the Rockies rightly belong in BC.
Located in Jasper National Park, Marmot has lots of new developments on tap for the coming season. The most notable is a $2 million snowmaking system, which will allow it to make snow on most of the lower mountain. Director of Marketing Brian Rodes is hopeful this system will allow Marmot to break last year’s record-early opening date of November 17.
With its dry Rocky Mountain climate, snowmaking has long been on Marmot’s wish list, but it’s been a long time coming because the hill is located in a national park. According to Rodes, the new system addresses the biggest environmental issue associated with snowmaking by using runoff water from the ski hill itself rather than developing new water sources.
Also new at Marmot: A new 2,000-square-foot deck (voted “Best New View” by Ski Canada magazine), a new snowcat, and…wait for it…on-hill Rogers cell phone service! (Rodes notes that the new service is most popular with CN workers who can now ski while they’re on call).

Other ski options
If your wallet’s feeling fat, there’s no reason to limit yourself to crowding the lift lines. For a couple grand a pop, you can ski like royalty at any of the North’s many heliski outfits. In the west, check out Northern Escapes Heli-Skiing (Terrace), Skeena Heliskiing (Smithers), and Last Frontier Heliskiing (Bell II). Further east, you’ll find Canadian Mountain Holidays (McBride, Valemount), and Robson Helimagic (Valemount).
And if neither helicopters nor chairlifts are your pleasure, you can ski the backcountry with professional guides at a number of backcountry ski lodges. In the north, these offerings include Christoph Dietzfelbinger’s Burnie Glacier Chalet, located in the heart of the spectacular Howson Range, and Dave Henry Creek Lodge near Valemount.
So, there you have it: a half-dozen ski hills for your sampling pleasure this coming winter. From low-key community affairs, with rustic day lodges and sluggish lifts, to mid-sized resorts with dreams of the big time, there’s quite a variety. One thing that all these northern hills have in common is that it’s a long drive from one to the next, so make sure you pack enough long johns to stay a while!