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The final frontier: skiing Canada's last wilderness

Stewart in Canada’s British Columbia is one of the most remote ski areas in the world. You won’t find any five star hotels here, but this is a new kind of luxury, where you can glide across fresh snow for miles without ever crossing another skier’s tracks

By Simon Usborne
Published 26 Nov 2019, 10:20 GMT
In Stewart, it's possible to ski Mount Everest to sea level and then half as much ...
In Stewart, it's possible to ski Mount Everest to sea level and then half as much again, or four and half times the Vallée Blanche, Europe’s longest lift-served descent.
Photograph by Elemental Adventure

I’m standing in waist-deep snow as the helicopter lifts and pivots, swooping down into the valley below like a hunting falcon. Then, there’s nothing but silence. Colin Moorhead, my Canadian guide, points out several peaks, most of them unnamed. In every direction, glaciers the size of cities wind between ridges towards the horizon. “We might just be the luckiest people in the world right now,” he says gleefully.

It’s my second day in the far north of British Columbia, close to the border with Alaska’s south-eastern panhandle. We clip into our skis and cut fresh lines through wide-open alpine faces before dropping into meadows and glades of perfectly spaced trees. All the while snow laps at my knees and I let out involuntary whoops of joy. Colin’s right — this is obscenely good.

By the time we flop, panting and exhausted into the snow, we’ve descended more than 40,000ft. That’s Mount Everest to sea level and then half as much again, or four and half times the Vallée Blanche, Europe’s longest lift-served descent. And all without so much as glimpsing another skier. Come to think of it, I haven’t even seen any other tracks.

Heli-skiing operations have mushroomed in the past 20 years; the Canadian Rockies are home to dozens, but flying uphill doesn’t come cheap and the high cost of skiing this way has turned the sport into a luxury enterprise. If you’ve got the money to heli-ski, one may often assume, you can also expect to be pampered.

But there’s a breed of skier who welcomes a break from the normal trappings of luxury travel. Last Frontier’s operation in Stewart, a forgotten goldrush town with a population of 400, is here for them. This is remote taken to a whole new level. They get more than 80ft of snow every winter this far north, and that’s just the average. It’s also a real town where, for a few months each year, a surviving group of salt mine workers mix with skiers from all over the world, hard hats and overalls mingling with garish Gore-Tex.

After my big day in Colin’s company, I sink into a hot tub at Ripley Creek Inn, a guesthouse and toaster museum (that’s another story) on Stewart’s main drag. The plastic Jacuzzi is plonked in the back yard next to a rusting tug boat. Rooms inside are comfortable but modest, while meals over the road at the Bitter Creek Cafe are hearty, not fussy.

Over steak, chips and beer I chat to Last Frontier founder Mike Watling, a dentist’s son from Surrey who put his life savings into the venture when he set it up with two Swiss skiers in 1996. “Luxury here is flying around one of the last true wildernesses,” he tells me, “and skiing powder top to bottom 15 times a day.”

If further evidence of Stewart’s remoteness were needed, you can find it at the border, surely the only road into America without a guard or even a gate. I stroll straight past the abandoned customs house, which shut down when Jimmy Carter was still president. Only a friendly dog stops to inspect me as I head to Glacier Inn, a bar that opened in the 1950s and one of the few that still clings to life. Its walls are lined with more than $95,000 in signed green bills. “The idea was that if you were ever broke, you could come back and get your money,” says the landlady Jody Bunn.

Over dinner, I strike up conversation with Drew Searl, a pacemaker tycoon from Phoenix, Arizona. He has the money to ski anywhere in the world but is on his eighth trip to Stewart, always taking the same room at Ripley Creek Inn. He points out some of his own signed dollars, pinned on the walls at the Glacier Inn. "The skiing here is the best, it’s unbelievable,” he tells me, as I nod in agreement. “This is a place centred around one thing — skiing. For me that's a true vacation.”

How to do it

Elemental Adventure, a specialist heli-ski tour operator, offers trips to Last Frontier Heli-skiing — Ripley Creek from C$8,100 (£5,070) for four days or C$12,700 (£7,950) for seven days, full-board, ground transfer from Terrace, guided heli-skiing, skis and safety equipment. International flights not included. Air Canada flies from London to Terrace, via Vancouver.

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