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The White Gold Rush

  “There is gold in them thar hills”. I’m not certain where that phrase came from, it’s been a century since Western Canada’s last “great Gold Rush” brought hoards chasing the dream, but it strikes a chord in me every time I hear it. In the last decade another “rush” has surfaced in British Columbia – the rush to open up BC’s backcountry skiing, the rush for “white gold”. Not the kind you put on her finger, the kind that blankets the mountains out west; deep, dry powder snow.

 

Geographically, British Columbia is the ideal location for skiing and boarding. The province is blessed with millions of kilometers of vast mountain ranges, constant precipitation from the Pacific Ocean and cold Arctic air from the north. It’s the perfect formula to produce a consistently deep snow pack December through April and the result is the best skiing and boarding on the planet.

Six years ago I left the city and headed for the backcountry to chase my dream. There was no better place to go than Revelstoke BC, arguably the Heliskiing capital of the world and definitely in the heart of the backcountry white gold rush.

It was at that time that the government decided to exploit BC’s most unique and bountiful winter commodity – backcountry skiing. Previously to secure a vast portion of crown land for catskiing or heliskiing would take a minimum of ten years (ironically called a tenure). With the goal of doubling the number of backcountry skier days, the government guaranteed a 140 day turnaround for tenure applications. The resulting rush to open Catskiing and Heliskiing operations created a boom in BC’s backcountry.

Today over 95% of the world’s Catskiing and Heliskiing is done in BC at over fifty (yes 50) backcountry operations in the Province. Recession? You wouldn’t know it. With options for single day Catskiing trips at $350/day, to private Heliskiing tours for $20,000/week there is no shortage of skiers and boarders, intermediate to expert from all over the globe, rushing to BC for the white gold.

Why would someone pay $20,000 to go skiing? It’s impossible to explain in words. The rush is far beyond a powder day on a ski hill. In the backcountry there is no bottom, there are no tracks, just lap after lap of deep virgin powder and after every run you’re convinced it’s the best day of your life. To quote one of our regular guests “it’s without exaggeration, the nearest to Nirvana a skier or boarder can go”. It’s one of those things you have to do to understand but don’t worry, you won’t need $20k to enjoy the rush.

Snowcat skiing (think of the grooming machines you’ve seen on a ski hill but imagine room for 12 passengers) has become very popular in North America with the largest growth in the last decade. At less than half the cost of Heliskiing, and no issues with flying in bad weather, it’s no wonder why.

Powder Cowboy Catskiing near Fernie B.C. boasts 6000 acres of big bowls, steep chutes and is famous for “world class” gladed tree skiing. The white gold on the Western Rockies is legendary for quality and quantity, with over 10 meters (over 30 feet!) of dry champagne powder falling every season. The best part, all that snow and terrain is reserved for only 12-24 guests per day. It’s like having your very own private ski resort (Whistler has 4750 acres and a lift capacity of 34,000 skiers per hour) but better!

Powder Cowboy Catskiing is moderate in price - single day trips for $350/day and 3 day inclusive tours starting at $1800 - but excessive in experience. Guests stay at The Bull River Guest Ranch, an active dude ranch in the summertime, which has a new multimillion dollar post and beam lodge with large dining room, bar, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, stone floors, wireless internet and retail store. The Powder Cowboy guests stay in cozy log cabins with a true western feel. Après skiing amenities include a massage service, outdoor hot tub, sauna and games room. Every night their “Red Seal” chefs prepare a fabulous gourmet feast that will be as memorable as the skiing and riding.

One mountain over in the Lizard range of the BC Rockies sits the legendary Island Lake Lodge Catskiing. Immortalized on film in the early 90’s by filmmaker’s like Greg Stump, the images of Scot Schmidt and the late Craig Kelly (both were investors in Island Lake) shredding its magnificent mountain peaks, deep dry powder and 800 year old-growth forest created a two year waiting list just for a seat.

Island Lake was the catalyst for the white gold rush to follow, and an anomaly in the industry as the only Catskiing operation in the world to own its operating lands - 7000 acres of perfectly gladed, private ski terrain. Twenty years later, Island Lake is the largest Catskiing operation in British Columbia hosting up to 36 guests at a time in three snowcats. It continues to lead the industry as the most luxurious and decadent Catskiing operation, with four lodges, a full spa, hot tubs and a 3000 bottle wine library. Island Lake recently put out a cookbook with Whitecap Publishing, which is on the way to becoming a Canadian best seller. Island Lake is high end Catskiing at its finest - single day trips for $390/day and 3 day inclusive tours starting at $2679 – and thanks to the white gold rush, now you can actually get a seat.

For those of you happy to exchange the “gold in your pocket for white gold in your face” the ultimate Heliskiing or Heliboarding experience is Mica Heli Guides. This is it, small group Heliskiing: just you, three friends and a quarter million acres of the best ski terrain and deepest driest snow on the planet.

Mica Heli Guides tenure is one and a half hours north of Revelstoke BC. Deep in the backcountry and accessible only by helicopter, Mica Lodge and Chalet provide all the luxuries you would expect from a high end heli lodge - gourmet meals prepared by a professional chef, massage room, ski shop, retail area and living room with Satellite TV and wireless internet. Three day “Classic” tours start at $4990 Canadian, and a “Private” week runs $18,250.

Forget down days! A bold statement from a Heliskiing operation, but one that Mica Heli Guides can back up. Over the last 7 years Mica Heli Guides has averaged only 1.5 ‘no fly’ days per season! Mica’s unique location, situated between the moisture laden Monashee Mountains and the cooler air of the Rockies, produces weather patterns that provide consistent, deep, dry powder from December through April.  On the rare day they’re not able to fly, they go Catskiing. Bottom line is you’ll be skiing or riding every day!

Catskiing and Heliskiing in the BC Rockies are “top of the must do” list of every serious skier or boarder. Once you get a taste of the white gold there is no turning back, that powder is highly addictive and there’s no substitute. It’s now September and the rush has begun in Revelstoke. Another epic season will soon be upon us. Snow has been falling up high, winter is in the air and one thing is for certain; “there is cold in them thar hills”.

 

 

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