Early February 2015 storm chasing in Northern British Columbia – Smithers!!.
A poor ski season can make you discover wonderful things. As recounted in “Northern BC is Going Off” , the forecast in south west BC was dismal with yet more pineapples (warm moist air) calling for torrential rains to mountaintops in our home mountains in Whistler. Meanwhile the storms were calling for an epic collision of moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Alaska to hit Northern BC, where an artic air mass had stalled
We did some research and found that via Northern BC airline Hawkair and a Northern BC Tourism promotion you could fly, ski, stay at Terrace and Smithers for about the same cost as it takes to get to Whistler from Vancouver on a typical package. The cost is from $650 to $ 700 per person for a two day weekend for 2 days lift tickets, 3 night accommodations, and flight all in!
We did more research and the forecasts were for ridiculous storm totals with over 2m+ of snow forecasted for Terrace/Kitimat and over 1m+ forecasted for Smithers. Because 2m+ of snow can really mess up stability not to mention 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 is the ski hill 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 (their ski Map here). We actually had so much snow and there were so few people that we didn’t bother touring at all on the first day; 83 cms new and there were 23 cars in the parking lot. At a water content of approx 4% the snow was light but there was so much of it we were straightlining 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 was much more adequate for our needs!
It was only on the second day when a mere 15cms new 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 and can simply shuffle out 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 and not get 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; and the quality/variety of terrain is enough for a weekend of fun and exploration. Of course, dealing with approximately 1m of blower over the head powder will make any ski area great but we came away with a distinctly positive impression of Hudson Bay Mountain.
Ski Smithers guest services!
First ride is on the Panorama T-bar
Pow to be had all day of the Skyline chair! 38cms new added to the 45 new from earlier in the week
Pow on Coldsmoke! No-one to share it with.
Taken at 11am inbounds
Chapman bound trees
Cliffs in the Ozone in the backcountry accessed area traversed from the chairlifts
Hankin Ski area.
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 belabour 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 (thanks Lehman Bros and investment banker criminals) the Canadian federal and BC Provincinal government provided stimulus funding for shovel-ready projects. To cut a long story short 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 25kms north of Smithers. It’s a decent drive on an all-weather plowed road (20-30 minutes of driving) and if it’s snowed a lot you’ll need a high clearance vehicle to get to the parking lot.. There are 11 trails for backcountry skiing (Hankin map here) varying from mellow to steeper treed runs to some decent sized alpine shots. There is a warming hut just below treeline. There is signage. As mentioned the road and parking lot is plowed. And of course, there was so much snow. Over 120cms 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 straightlining was the recommended option. On the second day the runs actually skied better since we could actually pick up speed to make turns and maximize faceshots. Unfortunately due to the snowload we never did touch the alpine but even a casual glance showed possibilities.
115cms new. Al getting ready to break trail in the new snow
Map of the runs that were cut. Imaginative names huh!! On the 1st day we skied the the 1, 2, 3 runs then the hut runs. On the second day, realizing the futility of trying to ski bottomless low-angled pow we stuck to 1, 2 and 3 which are the steepest
Brian pointing out the alpine potential
We stayed in the trees in the pow
The Day use cabin
Inside the Cabin
Another day on Hankin
It was actually better skiing the 2nd day when some more tracks had been put in and the snow had settled
Parking lot, some Whistlerites came up for some pow!
Evelyn Ski Area.
The Evelyn backcountry ski area is a little closer to Smithers being only about 4kms N of town and a shorter drive. This means that when there’s a lot of snow, if one has a 2wd or lower clearance vehicle, Evelyn might be a more practical destination. The relative closeness of the parking lot is offset by the length of the approach as approx 1.2 hours of skinning on a gentle uphill gradient logging road (distance approx 4m) is required to get to the actual trailhead. The gentle approach grade does meant that the exit is fast.
Evelyn’s 3 trails are steeper (approx 40 degrees). 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
Two runs are signed.
Top of the run
Where to stay
On this trip we were guests of the Aspen Inn and Suites. The Aspen has a restaurant attached that serves breakfast as part of your stay. It also serves pretty good food and beer. The excellence of the customer service is reflected in the fact that the bartender remembered us from a previous media trip for biking from over 4 years ago. The Aspen is also 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, run by Brian Hall who was the main force behind the Hankin Evelyn backcountry ski area.
Aspen has the Ski and Stay Package. They bundle a room and lift tickets. You can also get a shuttle from the hotel to the restaurant, as well as to and from the Airport so you don’t need a car!
Hearty Skillet Breakfasts included with the package
Spacious rooms at the Aspen; quiet and clean.
We had a kitchenette but didn’t use it except to make tea in the morning.
Nice bar for Apres at Mt. Hudsons Bay
View of Mt Hudsons Bay from Smithers
Breakfast at the Storks Nest Inn
Smithers is just a 2 hour flight from Vancouver. It’s literally 4 hours door to door from Vancouver to our accomodations in Smithers. Hawkair is a no-brainer when bundled with a ski-and-stay package. Lineups are basically non-existent. They will not lose your baggage or ski boots unlike the competition (cough cought Air Canada), They match the competition’s prices. There’s not much to critique about this wonderful Northern BC carrier.
No lines at Hawkair
Walk on the Plane in rain
Walk off in Smithers snow