‘King of hills’

🕔Mar 09, 2006

When the time between snow dumps lengthens into days, and ski runs turn to ice, powder hounds like 19-year-old Ben Zachs, lured by the promise of deep powder fun, turn their boards off the ski runs and into the sub-alpine bush. Destinations like the Camel Hump, the Elevator Shaft and Sixty Niners are part of the Powder King legend; skiing them is part of the experience.

Powder King, situated on Highway 97 in the Pine Pass, is north of Prince George and south of Chetwynd. With 1,475 acres of skiable terrain, 2,100 feet of vertical drop and 1,250 centimetres of snowfall each year, the ‘king of hills’ attracts die-hard skiers from near and far.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who ski Powder King and those who don’t.
Ben Zachs

For as long as he can remember, Zachs has been making the predawn, two-hour drive from Prince George to Powder King. He’s been to other hills closer to home, but as his skills have improved over the years, the long drive in the dark along sometimes slushy, slippery roads and sometimes in whiteout conditions began to seem irrelevant. He is simply willing to endure it for the sake of what he considers the “best skiing in this neck of the woods.”

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” says Ben, “those who ski Powder King and those who don’t.”

There is a sense the place runs on faith. Customers keep coming, Powder King keeps opening. Every year the willows are a foot higher and, as astonishing as it may seem, they are eventually buried in deep snow. The day lodge and the large decrepit Atco trailer, fondly known as “The Hotel,” are in a similar state of disrepair, but that only adds to the charm. The ancient two-seater chair lift and t-bar just keep working.

Before the lifts get rolling, and as the days get shorter and colder, pre-ski-season anticipation reaches fever pitch. Amid annual rumours and fears the whole tenuous operation will fold, Zachs and his friends keep their ears cocked and their fingers crossed. Miraculously, the mountain opens anew and the ritual begins year after year.

Powder King’s isolation attracts daring, independent souls not unlike the people inhabiting B.C.’s northern half. There is a sense rules don’t apply. Ski patrol seems to be almost non-existent, and rampant out-of-bounds skiing is eulogized by customers.

This season Powder Kings has come under new ownership. So far, except for a few well-needed renovations to “The Hotel,” the hill has stayed the same. Ben hopes this continues—especially that the new owners won’t put limits on where they can ski. “That would ruin the fun,” he says. “Dedicated powder hounds like me and my friends would have to seriously consider the value of buying a season’s pass.”

New owners Jim and Hiedi Salisbury say they “do not promote out of bounds skiing,” but on the other hand, “we can’t keep tabs on everyone,” Hiedi notes.

If at the end of the day if they hear of someone stranded, however, they will bring in helicopters or whatever it takes to get them off the mountain. “We have two certified first aid attendants on the hill at all times,” Hiedi says, “and we are looking into becoming part of the ski patrol volly [volunteer] program.”

Volunteers are trained members of the Canadian Ski Patrol system and typically volunteer their time 15 days per season in exchange for a free season’s pass.

This year’s ticket price, forty-five dollars for an adult day pass, is a bit higher than at some of the other northern ski hills, but it’s not a deterrent for people like Zachs.

“It’s the incredible amount of powder that keeps me going back,” says Ben, who recently bought himself a pair of PFD (personal flotation device) skies. “Fat skis are a must.”

They lift the rider, effortlessly allowing them to float on top of the deep snow. “Groomed ski runs are boring,” he says, and notes that almost all the skiers waiting at the bottom of the lift are on fat skis. After the fresh stuff is all cut up, only rank beginners and families stay on the runs. Everyone else has gone into the bush.

No one is deterred by the large sign at the top of the t-bar cautioning out-of-bounds skiers that they do so at their own risk. Experienced skiers and snowboarders regularly slide past the sign into the forest beyond. A well-worn path in the snow beckons them, promising acres of fresh, pristine powder snow. Above the t-bar, hardy souls hoist their equipment onto their shoulders for the trek up the peak, another out of bounds area, for the promise of an exhilarating ride down the face.

Zachs and his friends have taken courses in avalanche training, and wear avalanche beacons and carry shovels when skiing out of bounds. “The equipment is an added expense but it’s sensible,” Zachs shrugs. “And besides, my mom wouldn’t let me do it otherwise.” The shovels come in handy to build jumps, too. And with piles of fresh snow, a soft landing is only adding to the excitement.

The other great thing, says Zachs, is that there are no lift lines. Even though the chair lift is slow and creaky, and the t-bar is not much faster, there is rarely much more than a two-second wait. At the end of the day, legs aching, there is a sense of urgency to extract the most worth out of one’s day pass.

“It’s easy to sweet-talk the liftie into letting me be the last person to ride up the T,” says Zachs, his eyes shining. “And even though I’m tired, that last run down the mountain is the sweetest one of the day.”

But if the young new owners from Powell River have their way, there will be more appealing features added to Powder King in the future. In addition to the hotel renovations, their plans include setting up a ski school and employing certified ski and snowboard instructors. This summer they want to clear the willows off at least two runs from top to bottom, and they hope to put in another lift, in the same spot where the crumbling remains of an old lift still stands, left over from what locals know as the 1980’s “Azu heydays,” when the resort was called Azu.

“We want to make the hill more family-oriented,” says Hiedi. Pregnant with triplets herself, she has a clear interest in promoting a family atmosphere.

Jim has coined a new phrase for their new business—“The Whisper Of The North”—as it’s hidden away in the depths of northeastern British Columbia. “Nobody knows about it,” he says.

Developing a new twenty-four lot subdivision alongside the existing one is part of their plan to attract visitors from all over the world.