Revelstoke, Whistler, Rogers Pass, the Selkirks, the Rockies. Mention Canadian ski destinations and the eyes of powder hounds glaze over and their minds travel to these hallowed lands, these meccas. Each of these places are jewels in the crown of world-class backcountry skiing: their bounty of views, terrain and powder are known to skiers everywhere.
Mention Northern British Columbia and brows begin to furrow. Mention Smithers and quizzical glances appear. This is not entirely surprising. Sure, Canada is big. British Columbia is big in its own right. For the longest time, paper maps (remember those?) of BC used to cut off the upper half of the province. But there is a northern portion and it’s surprisingly easy to get to. In fact, there’s LESS door-to-door travel time than to the more well-known parts of this Canadian province.
Do you want stunning terrain? Lots of snow? Magnificent, empty country? And relatively easy travel? Northern BC has it all.
Getting to Northern British Columbia
Travel from our home in Vancouver to Northern BC (Smithers) is a 3 hour trip by air. When we compare this to travel time to Revelstoke or Nelson, by car, we’re looking at at least a 6 hour drive. Even with Calgary as a starting point, getting to those two places would take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours.
The time calculus is irrefutable. If you are a destination traveler, getting to Northern BC takes relatively less time door-to-door. That’s one reason to go.
Northern BC terrain
The terrain in Northern BC is massive. While BC is relatively underpopulated, over 80% of its 4.8 million people live in its southern parts. This means that when you get to Smithers, not only are you surrounded by huge mountains, you’re also outnumbered by wildlife. Literally. There’s no competition for lines up north. Another reason to go.
The Burnie Glacier Chalet
With the explosion in popularity of backcountry skiing, it’s now hard to get into backcountry huts. People book one year, sometimes two years in advance. It’s easy to understand why: the allure of untracked snow; the contrast between inbound crowds vs. backcountry solitude; the inherent attraction of exploration of new places. But backcountry skiing involves its own particular set of challenges, many of which revolve around maintaining some degree of comfort in a winter environment.
Voilà, the concept of backcountry huts: perfect places to rest and prepare for multiple days of ski touring. The concept of guided and catered backcountry skiing was imported from the European Alps to BC, and the tradition of hut-based touring has flourished ever since. At the Burnie Glacier Chalet, a group of us joined a backcountry trip guided and organized by Tom Wolfe of Sawback Alpine Adventures for a week of ski touring.
The trip. And lots and lots of pictures
Our trip took place from March 22 through the 29th, 2019 and we booked it almost 16 months in advance! Snow depth was below seasonal averages but our forecast was for exceptionally good (albeit unseasonably warm) weather. Our group had varied backgrounds and backcountry skills, and Sharon and I were among the guests with more experience.
I knew from experience that we were heading to an area with massive glaciation. Glaciers add a considerable layer of uncertainty to other objective hazards present in backcountry skiing (e.g. avalanche hazard, weather, etc.). Also, through experience I knew that time and patience are required to figure out glacier navigation and travel. This made me a little resentful as I had only 7 days to ski-tour in such terrain. After all was said and done, travel conditions were excellent and we got to explore magnificent glaciated summits and icefields. We even scored powder skiing during one of the more remarkable warm spells I’ve encountered in almost 20 years in the backcountry.
We were fortunate to have Tom and Sean show us around and we got to ski and experience terrain we would never done on our own. The pictures tell the rest of the story.
Other useful things to know before you go
Northern BC is amazing. Backcountry skiing is amazing. Sawback Alpine (Tom Wolfe) is amazing. These are all reasons to book now. Backcountry skiing is NOT becoming any less popular.
- Northern BC Tourism – your go-to source for all things Northern BC
- Tourism Smithers – you’ll have downtime when you fly and there’s a surprising amount of things to see and do
- The Burnie Glacier Chalet itself, check it out!
- A list of all the backcountry lodges in BC
- Tom Wolfe’s superbly professional guiding services can be found here Sawback Alpine Adventures (this is to the specific trip page)
- Sean Fraser provides guiding and avalanche education services in the Smithers area. You can find him at the Hyland Backcountry