New heli-ski venture gets airborne

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Born out of a love for the North and a desire to ski, a new venture is about to take off just north of the Hazeltons.

In the Skeena, Atna and Sicintine Mountain Ranges, awaits the second largest heli-ski tenure of B.C. With 6,750 square kilometres, only Bell II, between Kitwanga and Dease Lake, surpasses its size.

“This is a skier’s nirvana,” says Giacum Frei, director of marketing, and one of three founders of Skeena Heliskiing. “We have one of the world’s best skiing and exceptional snow.”

The expansive tenure, approved by Land and Water B.C. in early fall of 2004, makes even bad weather skiing easy, Frei explains.

Skeena heli-skiers can choose to ski through trees, which in addition to offering deep, untouched snow, provide terrain definition and safer conditions, as the trees act as stabilizers on the snow fields.

Most of the terrain ranges between 25 and 35 degrees in steepness. In the world of extreme skiing, this wouldn’t lure the daredevils.

“We want to get away from the vertical slaughter,” says Frei. “Instead, we aim to create more of a vacation, in a family-oriented, fun atmosphere.”

He brands their approach “new age heli-skiing.” “Back in the glory days there were the classic 50-55-year-old ritzy males from high society in Aspen or St. Moritz. With snowboarding, a new clientele has arrived. The “freeride,” style has been integrated into the industry, and younger people have money to spend. It has changed the scene, and we need to recognize that.”

Frei expects to see lots of women, and even some kids, with Skeena’s different approach and style of guiding.

“We’ll have a maximum of three groups of four or five people at any time. That will provide a good interaction and a relatively tight client-guide relationship.”

Everyone will stay at the Kispiox river-front Bear Claw Lodge, which features hand-sculpted and painted first nations totem poles in the foyer, built-in rock spa, 10 rooms, three lounges, and lots of intricate detail, carefully crafted with local materials by local artisans.

Long-time Kispiox resident and lodge caretaker Joy Allen will make sure not just the helicopters have a well oiled and greased machinery. On the menu: home-cooked, fresh country food—and lots of it.

“We’re northerners,” says Frei, who’s from Burns Lake. “We’re part rednecks and we want to show our true colours, even if that means a few ‘eh’s’ in each sentence.”

The two other partners who round out the team are Ray Carrier from Smithers, and Norm Winter from Revelstoke.

A biologist and former Land and Water BC employee, Carrier looks after the land management and environmental stewardship aspects of the business.

Winter will be the lead guide, with his 15 years of experience from different heli-ski operations from all over the world, including India and New Zealand.

Of Swiss descent, Frei also has a lot of international know-how in the ski and guiding industry, but had been looking closer to home for an opportunity to transcend those skills.

“It didn’t make sense to always work elsewhere, when our backyard has the very same—if not better—opportunities. Anyone coming from Europe sees the potential here.”

As a new heli-ski destination, the trio hopes to attract additional tourism to the area, rather than draw from existing northern lodges, which offer similar products.

Frei spent the fall in Europe marketing the venture, but will be back in time for when the first group arrives Dec. 27.

For the next season, cat-skiing is in the management plan. By then, Skeena hopes to employ 20 local people.

Industry stats
  • The alpine ski resorts registers 5.6 million skier days. The heli/snowcat visits equates to about two per cent of the alpine skier days.
  • In the heli- and snowcat skiing industry, approximately 28,000 skiers account for 95,000 skier days in B.C. in one season. In addition to their ski days, they spend another 23,000 days in the province during their trip.
  • The gross revenue per alpine skier day was $52 in 1999/2000. The heli/snowcat industry revenue per skier day was $1,012 in the same year.
  • B.C. residents make up only four per cent of the market. U.S. visitors account for 53 per cent, and Europeans 35.
  • The Revelstoke/Selkirks region accounts for a third of the visitors, followed by the following regions, in order: Coastal, Golden, and Blue River/Valemount. The Northern region only accounts for 1.8 per cent of the total.
  • The direct total spending in the industry amounts to $92.6 million.
  • The industry employs almost 2,500 people annually.
  • At least 33 communities in B.C.—many of which are relatively small, and historically linked to extractive resource industries—are cited as having direct economic linkages to the heli- and snowcat skiing industry.
  • The economic linkages associated with the industry come primarily in the form of employment, purchases of food and beverage supplies, equipment and business supplies.
  • In all regions, the least positive impacts were tied to the industry’s role in creating land-use conflicts as well as other visitor-resident disputes.

Source: Socio-Economic Benefits of Helicopter & Snowcat Skiing in British Columbia, June 2002 (an initiative of the BC Helicopter and Snowcat Operators Association). The data is based on the 2000-2001 season.