So, after I retired at the beginning of August (at least for ski season), I started thinking about doing a hell trip. My buddy and I had been discussing it for a few years, and last year we did Matt's trip to Gulmarg (see an awesome TR from this year's trip here). Gulmarg was not easy skiing; it was, in fact, the toughest skiing we had ever done. The combination of deep untracked snow, steep terrain, and variable conditions spooked my bud from trying the hell trip, so it was just me going this year.
I shopped around a bit, looking for an outfit that would offer great terrain and good snow. I also understood that many hell operations get weathered out and fly large helicopters that are almost like buses. And excess vertical charges can often tally up quite a substantial additional tab that often surprises the clients. So, I found Northern Escape. I think I had seen their operation profiled in one of the ski movies; probably from TGR or Matchstick. They offer cat backup. They also have small group flying, and instituted two new options this year: the Elite package, where two groups of no more than 4 guests share a helicopter, and unlimited vertical. I called up John Forest and discussed the operation with him. I was pretty impressed (as a naive first time hell consumer might be), but this seemed like a great operation.
A couple of additional factors that weigh in their favor. First, the operation is in Terrace BC, which you can easily reach via a two hour flight from Vancouver. The lodge is at most a 20 minute drive by van from the airport. No 7 hour bus trip from Calgary! Second, they are located in the Skeena mountains close to Southeast Alaska -- a lot of marine influence that brings snow that sticks to steep surfaces. Also, they get a lot of snow -- some of the deepest snow in BC as they are quite far north and close to the influence of the Gulf of Alaska. Finally, they have a huge tenure: 7,000 square kilometers, 1.7 million acres. They've not even completely explored the tenure.
So, I signed up for a 5 day Elite package with unlimited vertical which guaranteed me over 100,000 vertical feet. I figured the even smaller groups would keep the day moving. As our group (two Austrian skiers, two Russian boarders, and myself) was really well matched, no one was ever waiting for someone else. Originally it looked like the five of us would have a private helicopter, but they split us into the boarder group (who skied with two guides, the real guide and a guide in training) and the skiers (who skied with one guide). Our group stayed at a separate lodge from the folk who were on the regular package. We had our own absolutely top flight chef. The food was fantastic.
I picked early February to go because John told me that the deepest time is at the end of January. This year, however, BC (and the entire West Coast) was beset by atypical weather conditions that had never been seen before. After an initial good start to the season, it stopped snowing in mid January and got very warm, in the 50's in fact. The result was that almost all of the lower slopes slid with wet slab avalanches. It then became quite cold (in the single digits to teens) and that avi debris froze solid as a rock. It was very unfun to have to ski through or across the avi debris. Fortunately, they did receive 20+ CM on top of the frozen slab. And the conditions turned to bluebird with stellar stability, meaning that we skied the high alpine terrain on slopes that normally do not get skied.
Some runs we did find the hard slab underneath, but for most we were skiing soft snow. Lots of it was nice powder. There was also a good bit of wind affected snow, but it was all skiable and immense fun.
We only found tracked lines on a few of the runs, usually as we were working our way out from the lodge or the return to it -- the locus of flights narrows as you might expect as you approach the lodge.
So, it wasn't the skiing conditions that I expected, but it was extremely good skiing. I got three first descents (e.g. no one ever had skied those lines). The terrain is mind boggling huge. It gets as steep as you (actually the guides) are willing to go. If it was a normal year, you'd have 4-6k vertical foot runs, but ours toped out at 3k.
I think I got good value for money and it was a great time. I'm going back next year with my son-in-law! Here's a video produced by Northern Escape that documents the trip -- of course the intro is stock, but the rest is from our group.