While most of the Rockies faced a rough season last year, northern British Columbia made up for it with powder-aplenty. Lee Lau photo.
A poor ski season can make you discover wonderful things. As recounted in "Northern BC is Going Off", the Spring 2015 forecast in southwest British Columbia was dismal; it called for pineapples (warm moist air) and torrential rains on the mountaintops in our home range near Whistler. Meanwhile, these same storms made for an epic collision of moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Alaska to hit northern BC, where an arctic air mass had stalled. This meant that northern BC was likely to get some epic powder.
We did some research and found that through Hawkair, northern BC airline, and a Northern BC Tourism promotion, you could fly, ski and stay at Terrace and Smithers for about the same cost as a typical Whistler package with travel from Vancouver. The cost is around $650 to $700 per person for a two-day weekend for two days of lift tickets, three nights of accommodations and flight!
We did more research and the forecasts suggested ridiculous storm totals, with over two meters of snow forecasted for Terrace/Kitimat and over a meter forecasted for Smithers. Because two meters of snow can really mess up stability (and make it hard to even get to an area to ski) and because temperatures were forecasted to be slightly colder in Smithers, we made our decision and made reservations!
Smithers and Hudson Bay Mountain
Hudson Bay Mountain gives plenty of options for gladed and non-gladed runs, both in and out of bounds. Lee Lau photo.
Hudson Bay Mountain is perched on the side of its namesake mountain overlooking the town of Smithers. It isn't particularly large, but with the lack of crowds, there is plenty of room (see their ski map here). We had so much snow and there were so few people that we didn't bother touring at all on the first day; 83 centimeters of fresh snow and there were 23 cars in the parking lot. With a water content of approximately 4 percent, the snow was light but there was so much of it that we were straight-lining the less-steep runs off the base lodge via the T-bar just to get going. Once we turned our attention to the steeper pitches off the double chairlift, we found that the gradient matched to the epic amounts of powder and was much more adequate for our needs!
On the second day when a mere 15 centimeters fell (and there were 38 cars in the parking lot) that we actually took some turns in the backcountry. Past the ski area boundary, they do have uncontrolled slackcountry ( Hudson Bay Mountain backcountry skiing map here). Access is so ridiculously simple that one doesn't really need skins- you can simply shuffle out by traversing to various runs that are gladed for perfect short (300+ m elevation) tree skiing. Just make sure you know where to turn back in to make it back instead of getting cliffed out!
While our timing was obviously impeccable, there's much to be said for the quality of skiing and the quality of backcountry possibilities accessible from the HBM ski area. The people are exceptionally friendly, the skiing is low-key and the antithesis of Whistler's glitz & glamour. The quality/variety of terrain is enough for a weekend of fun and exploration. Of course, dealing with a meter of blower over the head powder will make any ski area great, but we still came away with a distinctly positive impression of Hudson Bay Mountain.
Hankin Ski Area
The nearby Hankin Ski Area offers a backcountry alternative to those willing to work t avoid the crowds on big powder days. Lee Lau photo.
The story of the purpose-built, backcountry-accessed Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area is remarkable and says as much about as the quality of the people in Smithers as it does about the passion of backcountry skiers. Vince Shuley does an admirable job describing the genesis of the area and it is needless to belabor the background in detail. In summary, Hankin-Evelyn was the brainchild of Brian Hall (owner of the Stork Nest Inn in Smithers and a longstanding member of the community). Smithers trees are very tight and good tree skiing is hard to access without sled access or alder thrashing. During the economic downturn of 2008, the Canadian federal and BC Provincial governments provided stimulus funding for shovel-ready projects. Brian applied for grant money, got the grant money and after spending over a million dollars, the Hankin and Evelyn backcountry-specific recreation areas came into being
The road to Hankin is about 25 kilometers north of Smithers. It's a decent drive on an all-weather plowed road (20-30 minutes of driving), though if it's recently snowed a lot, you'll likely need a high clearance vehicle to get to the parking lot. There are 11 trails for backcountry skiing (Hankin map here) which vary from mellow to steeper treed runs to some decent sized alpine shots. There is a warming hut just below tree line as well as signage marking the runs- and of course, there was so much snow. We had over 120 centimeters of new snow to be broken.
We spent a couple of days touring in the Hankin area. It turned out that runs 1, 2 and 3 (great names guys!) were the steepest at approximately 35 degrees and we needed all the gradient for redonkulous amounts of snow we had. On the first day, putting in the skin track took quite some effort and straight-lining was the recommended option. On the second day, the runs skied better since we could actually pick up speed to make turns and maximize face shots. Unfortunately, due to the snow load we never did touch the alpine, but even a casual glance showed possibilities.
Evelyn Ski Area
The Evelyn ski area sits a little closer to Smithers than the Hankin ski area, which makes it more appealing for shorter trips or those without four-wheel-drive. Lee Lau photo.
The Evelyn backcountry ski area is a little closer to Smithers, being only about 4 kilometers north of town (and a much shorter drive than Hankin). When there's a lot of snow, if one has a 2 wheel-drive or lower clearance vehicle, this may make Evelyn a more practical destination. The relative proximity of the parking lot is offset by the length of the approach as a little over an hour of skinning on a gentle uphill gradient logging road (approximately 4 kilometers long) is required to get to the actual trailhead. The gentle approach grade does mean that the exit is fast.
Evelyn's three trails are steeper (approximately 40 degrees) than Hankin’s, and there is no warming hut. As with the Hankin area, the runs are gladed with well-spaced trees. Perfect pow conditions meant that ski quality was more than acceptable for us.
Getting There & Where To Stay
Smithers is just a 2-hour flight from Vancouver. It's literally 4 hours door-to-door from Vancouver to our accommodations in Smithers. Last year, our choice of Hawkair seemed like a no-brainer when bundled with a ski-and-stay package; unfortunately, Hawkair has since discontinued their Smithers flights. You can now get to Smithers via Air Canada.
On this trip, we were guests of the Aspen Inn and Suites. The Aspen has a restaurant attached that serves breakfast, which is included as part of your stay. It also serves pretty good lunch and dinner food and beer. The excellence of the customer service is reflected in little things- such as the fact that the bartender remembered us from a previous biking media trip we took to the area over 4 years ago. The Aspen is also part of the tourism group offering the value-priced Ski and Stay Packages in combination with Hudson Bay Mountain. Also in this group is the Storks Nest, which is run by Brian Hall, the main force behind the Hankin Evelyn backcountry ski area.
Author’s note: These ski & stay packages were valid for Spring 2015. For Winter 2015, you can ski & stay in Smithers for $180 (2 nights, 2 breakfasts, 2 days’ lift tickets, shuttle to the hill.). The same packages also apply to Terrace, the home of fabled Shames Mountain, which is just 2 hours away.
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