Fresh tracks

🕔Dec 15, 2005

Steve Ogle is a powder hound and outdoor enthusiast who, despite living in the recreation Mecca of Nelson, chooses to travel to the North year after year. He has done the good, bad and the gnarly ski trips in search of the winter fluff that many of us only associate with heavy shovelling. Who better than a southerner to point out the gems in our back yard? Here, Steve describes some of his adventures in hopes of inspiring folks from all latitudes and walks of life to explore the skiing bounty between Jasper in the east and Haida Gwaii in the west. Set aside some time this winter to check out what to do (or not to do) as outlined in Steve O’s Amateur Guide to the North.

Prince George/Jasper

It’s always worth checking out new areas, especially to set the tone for a trip. Up here, the locals have their pick of no less than four local ski hills, and countless cross-country trails for getting in shape for a winter adventure. This year my plan is to explore some of the legendary backcountry at Powder King, and to sleuth out some turns around Fort St. James. For a cold-turkey intro to the big stuff, Mt. Robson Provincial Park looks good, or perhaps skiing a high route near Jasper or Valemount. It’s the Rockies, so I’ll be honing my avalanche skills before heading up that way.

B.C.’s little Switzerland

Getting to Smithers is easy: Just follow Highway 16 until you see some skiers wandering around. Truly a ski town, goggle tans are in vogue here, making it easy for outsiders to blend in when they roll into town. I’ve had nothing but warm welcomes in this place, and nothing but good skiing. Last spring, I was lucky enough to have a double dose of hospitality and powder—first at the Burnie Glacier Chalet, and secondly at Ski Smithers.

The Howson Range: A small country’s worth of jagged peaks, steep couloirs, and backcountry charm. Nestled in this Alp-like setting is the Burnie Glacier Chalet, a sturdy refuge designed, built, and operated by mountain guide and long-time Smithers local Christoph Dietzfelbinger. This backcountry hut is one of the best I’ve ever visited, and the surrounding terrain is nothing short of the very best. Located about a twenty-minute heli flight from Smithers at about 1000 metres elevation in a striking Coast Mountain landscape, this alpine sanctuary and its surrounding terrain should be on every skier’s hit list.

Whether your fancy is steep chutes, ski mountaineering ascents or classic n-shaped “horseshoe” traverses, the Howson Range has it all. Some tempting objectives include an ascent of either Kitnayakwa or Telkwa Peaks, a sojourn to the upper Polemic or Solitaire glaciers, or a tour over to the Sandpiper’s Loft.

If you really want to step it up a notch, there’s always the unclimbed north face of Howson Peak—the highest mountain in the Coast Range between Bella Coola and the Iskut River. For those with more modest inclinations, a tour of the rounded Tom George Mountain may suffice.

After nestling in the chalet’s down duvets, it may take your best efforts to actually go out skiing. Otherwise, try the wood-heated sauna or some haute cuisine shared with 10 of your friends. A guided and catered trip is definitely recommended, not only because this is big terrain, but because—contrary to your buddies’ insistence—Quaker and Kraft are not European menu items. Treat yourself.

It’s always nice to make a smooth transition back to civilization, and thus it was no disappointment to relocate from the Burnie to the pleasantly Swiss-style streets of Smithers. Last spring, I met up with a bunch of other southerners for a tour of Ski Smithers, guided by a couple of locals who were nice enough to show us the best that the hill had to offer—which was a lot.

The Crater Lake backcountry area was no slouch either, but the most fun was cruising the runs and soaking up the sun at the resort. It sure beat skiing in the rain down south last year. Another great trip I’ve done was to tour into the Silver King cabin in the Babines. A nice cross-country ramble and a great new hut are just two more reasons to put Smithers on your list for this season.

Prince Rupert and Terrace

West of the Kitwanga Junction, be prepared for some wet and wild action. The ocean has a significant influence here, and Gore-tex is your friend. I like to group Prince Rupert and Terrace together, mostly because every potluck dinner I’ve ever attended in either town has hosted a 50/50 mix of Terrace and Rupert folk—and they’re all hard-core skiers. Also, I have fond memories of a ski traverse that linked the ocean and the mountains in much the same way that Highway 16 links Prince Rupert and Terrace, only with a bit more devil’s club and a lot less traffic.

The presence of Shames Mountain en route between Terrace and Prince Rupert is like a giant fridge magnet holding up the skier’s regional map, drawing in a mix of locals from either community in addition to outsiders like myself. While the South was either washed away or dried up last winter, locals at Shames were snorkelling in an average four-metre base.

Of course, it’s a coastal venue with its associated glory and heartbreak, such as the 98-centimetre powder day last season that was capped by a parade-ending rain crust. Life was good during my visit though, meeting up with some old friends and meeting new ones alike. Skiing a deserted hill during the closing weekend with 50 cm of fresh wasn’t too bad either. I thought if I mentioned the rain crust that maybe it would keep the crowds away for the next visit. I think the word is out though.

If things ever do get busy around these parts, there is always some respite. After all, only a small fraction of the landscape is developed in any manner, making the surrounding wilderness a Mecca for off-the-beaten-path adventure. Again, bring the Gore-tex, although what may be rain in the lush green valleys is usually snow higher up, meaning there are some nice glaciers and ice fields to explore. The only problem may be getting to them.

If you’re the resourceful type, as are a couple of my Rupert buddies Dean Wagner and Nelson Rocha, you might be so inclined to take to one of the deep ocean fiords to penetrate these mountains. The infamous three-week Prince Rupert to Terrace traverse of 2004 began with a three-day paddle up the Khutzeymateen Inlet, and finished through what is now the heli-skiing terrain of Northern Escapes.

If you’d like to explore this area, this new operation located just west of Terrace would be a great option. Otherwise, be prepared for some open ocean kayaking or slogging through neck-deep devil’s club in grizzly country just to get to snow. I won’t say that I was lucky enough to be involved in the trip, but I was there nonetheless. Anyway, like I said: there is plenty for the adventure junkie on the North Coast, but if that’s not enough for you, head west.

Queen Charlotte Islands

Out on Haida Gwaii, one gets the impression that it’s only an archipelago because the rain keeps everything but the mountaintops filled up. If you do get an instant of sun on your visit, either you took the wrong ferry or you are supremely lucky. Of course I sound jaded, but with rightful cause. Out of respect for Queen Charlotte locals, please don’t place the following anecdote in the same category as a normal visit to the Islands, and no matter what—leave your skis on the Mainland.

A while back, a couple of friends and I spent two weeks going for skiing glory down in Gwaii Haanas National Park, and it rained. A lot.

The destination was the San Christoval Range—the same mountains incidentally that were sighted by Juan Perez in 1774, just before he was turned back by a sudden gale. Our approach was heralded by similar circumstances, except that after retreating from a kayaking attempt, we were escorted past breaching whales and bow-riding dolphins by Doug Gould of Moresby Explorers, in his trusty zodiac.

Down in the park, we commandeered a couple of old canoes that were stashed up a remote inlet, and shuttled ourselves across a couple of lakes to the interior of Canada’s rainiest locale. Despite the heavy precipitation, there wasn’t a speck of snow in sight, but that changed rather abruptly once we were halfway across the second lake. Just then, a blizzard like I’ve never before experienced blew in from the Pacific—which on the Charlottes is from both sides—and froze the lake overnight. That didn’t do much for our morale, nor did the continued rain and snow. However, it did herald good tidings for our skiing ambitions.

Nobody but my companions on that trip will ever truly comprehend the miracle of nature that unfolded seven days into that storm, high atop a ridgeline somewhere out past Hecate Strait. One minute (or week), we were in the middle of nature’s fury, and the next (it seemed like a minute, but it was more like 20), the sun came out. For the first time since we entered what I formerly considered an impenetrable rainforest, it felt highly fortuitous to have a pair of skis strapped to our backs—especially considering the snow-filled alpine bowl that appeared below.

The rest is skiing history, or if nothing else, some good entertainment for the locals in Queen Charlotte City. Just for the record, a few intrepid Islanders do manage to enjoy the snowy slopes of Sleeping Beauty Mountain on their skis or snowboards each year. That’s the spirit!


This is the last unplucked gem of the North, or at least what us southerners consider the North. After all, Highway 16 is only halfway up the province, yet to most Whistlerites, like anything north of Kamloops, it might as well be Eskimo country. Once putting the sun to your back at the Kitwanga Junction, you are arguably entering the true North. If the gas prices don’t attest to this fact, then at least the wild beauty and simplicity of the place will.

In Stewart, it doesn’t get much more complex than salmon and bears, and if you look at any map the two outstanding landmarks to consider are the Salmon and Bear Glaciers. The latter will appear on your left as you drive over Bear Pass (don’t forget to keep your eyes on the road) and the Salmon is awaiting discovery after momentarily passing through Alaska via the old road to the Granduc Mine.

I explored the Salmon Glacier last year on skis, and it is truly a wonder. A long, flat wonder. Here, the experienced backcountry artist can paint their own design upon the landscape with skis or snowshoes. It will offer a sublime feeling of insignificance—something us southerners need to experience from time to time. For those inclined to tackle some big peaks, take your pick. En route, don’t forget to check out the welcoming hospitality of Stewart, and of course, if the season is right, some salmon and bears.

Well, that’s the best tour of the North I can give at this point. After all, I am only a visitor, but one that will be returning year after year to explore the spectacular corridor from Jasper to the Pacific and beyond. Be sure to check back in a few years for an update, although it might take more than a few pages at that point!