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How This British Columbia Lodge Created an Uber-Exclusive Heli-Skiing Community

Fannie DuFour is carving a masterpiece, a lone arcing ski track through an acre of unblemished powder. High in the Central Coast Mountains of British Columbia, the shadowy contours of more imposing peaks rise behind her. Beyond those, snowy fangs and conifer forests plunge into a shimmering channel of the Pacific Ocean.

This mountain slope has never been skied before, even by DuFour and the other resident guides, who reached the area via helicopter.

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To get their kicks, some summit Everest. A few adventurers dive with great white sharks. But, today, relatively many heli-ski—the sport of off-piste, backcountry skiing down slopes reached by chopper chairlift. It’s been around since the 1970s, but in recent decades, heli-skiing has become one of the most popular niches in the adventure travel market. But there is heli-skiing, and then there is heli-skiing.

Choppers take you up. It’s your job to get down again.
Choppers take you up. It’s your job to get down again.

Over the last three years, fewer than 250 skiers have reached this area, an area that must be reached with Great Bear Heli Skiing. Building on a family history of 60 years as fly-fishing guides on the Lower Dean River, about 40 miles north of Bella Coola, Great Bear’s timing couldn’t be better. It’s catching the latest wave of skiers who’ve become disenchanted with the cost-benefit of resort skiing and are hungry for increasingly exclusive experiences.

“We’ve dreamed about skiing in these mountains for years,” says Mandi Blewett, who owns Great Bear with her husband, Billy. “We were looking for ways to diversify our business, and we wanted to ensure that there was a presence in this wilderness other than all the mining and logging.”

To realize that dream, the family tapped into an impressive suite of expertise: carpentry, stone masonry, hospitality, snow safety, mixology, and wine pairing. The lodge, opened three years ago, has an open-concept main building—a fortress of hand-milled cedar and fir, river stone, and stuffed leather furniture set in a mossy, stream-bridled shire of cedars, cottonwoods, and alders—and five guest cabins. They also created a family of expert staff able to wear many hats. The roughly dozen workers, whether chef, ski guide, or massage therapist are equally happily to make a latte, shake a cocktail, or ensure the wood-fired sauna is sufficiently baking. In fact, every day starts with Billy personally delivering coffee and tea to each of the property’s maximum of a dozen guests.

Just 12 guests at a time occupy the resort.
Just 12 guests at a time occupy the resort.

“We’re very much an extended family,” says Billy, whose two daughters, Dyllan and Zoe, are among the staff. “And you can tell pretty quickly if someone isn’t going to fit in.”

But what you are really here for is their pair of A-Star B3 helicopters, which lift guests into a vast, powdery realm. There are 2,413 square miles of alpine bowls, glaciers, glades, and old-growth forests here—enough room to fit 190 Whistler-Blackcombs. With the small-group setup, there’s never a wait for a helicopter pickup and the vertical feet you ski every day is limited only by your quads and enthusiasm.

“I’ve worked for a lot of heli-ski outfits,” says mountain operations manager and guide Ken Bibby, “and I want this to be the last job I ever have.”

A big part of that sentiment, he explains, is the type of guests Great Bear attracts—an antidote to the self-congratulatory million-vertical-foot chasers who inhabit some of the larger heli-lodges.

“I can honestly say that we haven’t had a guest here yet who I wouldn’t invite to my house for dinner,” Bibby says.

Ice cold has never looked so hot.
Ice cold has never looked so hot.

Speaking of dinner, meals at Great Bear are served at that rare confluence of utter relaxation and fine dining. After an extended fireside cocktail hour, chef Rob Boland and his partner Emila Jacklin present a salad creation that’s as visually appealing as it is flavorful. This is followed by the main course—a rotation that includes British Columbian sablefish, duck confit, and mole-spiced rack of lamb from a neighboring rancher. Elaborate desserts are crafted by Zoe Blewett, when she’s not traveling to Whistler to burnish her competitive freeskiing skills. All the breads are made from scratch, all the produce and dry goods are organic, and everything served at Great Bear—including the Nelson Brewing Co. beers and Sheringham craft gin—is sourced as locally as possible. 

Happily, the most important local ingredient falls in buckets from the heavens, draping this feral, soaring landscape in more than 65 feet of snow annually. That, coupled with the breadth of terrain outside the helicopter doors, leaves a nearly endless canvas for you to craft your own masterpiece, one sinuous ski track at a time.

Great Bear Heli Skiing one-week packages from $18,000, including charter flight transfer from Vancouver, skis, all meals and alcohol, unlimited vertical feet of skiing, and two 60-minute massages. 

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