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4 Skiers vs. 1.2 Million Acres

4 Skiers vs. 1.2 Million Acres

Skiing | October 2012

Far from the rush hour of southern B.C.’s heli central, fledgling Bearpaw is at once intimate and immense.

By Kate Siber

“I’ve actually never skied this,” said my guide, Kevin Taylor, at the top of our first run. “We’ll have to name it when we get down.”

Coming from a veteran guide, the comment gave me pause, but at Bearpaw Heli-Skiing, first descents are astoundingly common. When the run turned out to be 2,500 vertical feet of loose glades stuffed with knee-deep ultra-dry fluff, a superlative name seemed fitting.

Sinclair Mills (pop: 47ish), a forgotten sawmill town about 60 miles east of Prince George, British Columbia, may not seem an obvious spot for world-class heli skiing. But the area’s sunken barns and abandoned mills conceal a trove of four remote mountain ranges rarely traveled by skiers. Taylor, a former logger and Crescent Spur Heli-Skiing guide, and his wife, Amber Shipley, opened Bearpaw last winter after ski-touring the area for decades, rarely glimpsing other people. The operation is probably the smallest in Canada—it takes only four guests at a time—yet it has one of the continent’s largest tenures, with 1.2 million acres of mostly unexplored glades, chutes, and alpine bowls.

If the terrain is rowdy, evenings are decidedly mellow. The main lodge, which Shipley and Taylor hand-built out of reclaimed lumber, stone, and glass, feels more like a home than a hotel. Come evening, Kevin mixes Bear Cubs—dangerous elixirs of vodka, muddled raspberries, lemon, and honey—while Amber fixes dinner—cedar-grilled salmon, perhaps—in the open kitchen. Guests trade war stories by the stone hearth, pet the resident springer spaniel, or hit the wood-fired sauna before retiring to the two-story guest cabin.

On my last day, Amber’s son Jeremy joined the group—a birthday present from his mom—and Amber challenged us to ski 1,000 vertical feet for each of his 31 years. On a mission, we slashed through shin-high powder fields, pillow-drop glades, and burned-out spruce stands. Not a single cloud marred the sky. After 33,000 vertical feet, including a few more first descents, my quads felt like goo, my face was seared by sun, and my baselayers were clammy with sweat. In other words, I couldn’t have been happier.