Stellar Heliskiing feature in The London Telegraph Ski and Snowboard
March 7, 2016
Where are we going? “Goddam far from civilisation” as our taxi driver puts it. The adventure starts at Calgary airport, where we’re met by two of the owners of new operation Stellar Heliskiing. Our hosts Stefan Engström and Björn Algkvist are, like us, from Sweden. They direct us to a minibus that will take us to Kaslo, population 1,024, an hour north of slightly better-known Nelson in the heart of the Kootenay region. This is British Columbia backcountry, renowned for huge snowfalls, high peaks and ganja-infused hippie dens. On large parts of the Calgary-to-Kaslo stretch there’s almost no mobile phone coverage. And we find out there’s long been opposition to mobile phone towers here, in particular from a group of Vietnam war veterans who chose to settle in BC because they wanted to live off the grid.
Our group of six includes my husband Jonas Nordlander, his friend Filip Engelbert, pro skier Sverre Liliequist, photographer Mattias Fredriksson and his girlfriend Elle Cochrane. Kaslo, when we eventually reach it, is surrounded by the spectacular Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges. Here, we’re greeted by Jason Remple, the third owner, a laid-back guy with his big boots planted firmly on the ground. “Tomorrow’s the day,” he says, looking like it’s the day he’s been waiting for all his life. And maybe that’s the case as we’re Stellar’s first guests for the season.
BRITISH COLUMBIA BACKCOUNTRY IS RENOWNED FOR HUGE SNOWFALLS
Local boy Jason used to run a cat skiing operation here called Selkirk Wilderness and founded Stellar Heliskiing, but it wasn’t an active business until Stefan and Björn came on board. Stefan is a former World Cup-winning mogul skier and CEO of the J Lindeberg clothing brand, and Björn was on the Swedish freestyle team. The two provide financial backing, and own half the company between them, while Jason contributes his extensive local knowledge of the mountains as lead guide, and owns the other half. “For me it’s always been about starting a boutique type of heliskiing operation with a personal feel to broaden its appeal and to attract different types of guests,” says Stefan. “We want passionate skiers and snowboarders to experience this area and Stellar to be a gateway for younger talent – like Chamonix in France, Engelberg in Switzerland and the state of Alaska in America – by offering more affordable packages.” Stellar is in its infancy but Jason already has four other guides working for him. “Stefan and Björn have helped me realise my dream,” he says, and smiles, again.
A heliskiing lodge is planned; meanwhile Stellar guests stay at the charming Kaslo hotel in the heart of the small town. We love the posters on the bar walls saying, “Beer is so much more than just a breakfast drink” and “You can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning”.
SOME 40 PER CENT OF THE AREA AVAILABLE IS YET TO BE EXPLORED
The next day it’s time to have a serious go at British Columbia’s best-kept secret. This part of the west Kootenays is relatively unexploited, with just six or so cat skiing operations within 100km – and Stellar is the only heliskiing outfit in the area. The terrain here offers massive snowfall, steep wooded areas, open spaces and majestic mountains, and Stellar has exclusive use of more than 320sqkm. Twice the size of the Chamonix ski area, it’s divided into six separate zones – three in the Purcells and three in the Selkirks, offering different types of terrain for varied skill levels – and the plan is to gain access to a further 160sqkm in the future.
Jason believes that some 40 per cent of the area available to Stellar is yet to be explored, which makes our week here even more enticing, because everyone gets to name their own run. A few of the runs already named in the operation’s Purcell zones include Bigboy, Slick Wollies and Hot Chillies. In the Selkirks, runs include Glade Runner, Cave Dweller, Uber Trees and Mama Mia. The latter was named after a group of Italians who skied its steep chute, and when they got to the bottom just kept repeating “Mamma mia” over and over again.
The sky is grey when we set off for the Purcells, from the helipad 10 minutes outside Kaslo – we’re one of three small groups going out this week. The knowledge that a massive snowfall and extremely bad visibility could scupper our chances of skiing our fill of Stellar’s terrain calms us down a little. Jason explains that there are only around 10 per cent “down days” here per season. But, despite having statistics on our side, things don’t look good. “If you can’t beat the weather, you have to work around it,” mutters the chopper’s veteran pilot, Carmen Mucciarone.
IT’S SAID TO SNOW UP TO 18 METRES ANNUALLY IN THE KOOTENAY REGION
After a zealous search, he suddenly makes a sharp turn and we find ourselves flying in a wind-still hollow, with a patch of blue sky visible through the clouds above and drifts of typically dry British Columbia powder all around. In front of us is an expanse of sparse forest surrounded by majestic 3,000m peaks. It is, of course, a sight that’s almost too good to be true, and even better when we realise that, as promised, we’re in uncharted territory.
“We’ll descend at our own pace,” says Björn, underlining that this is not a typical heliskiing company with the usual strict rules of counting vertical metres and making people stick close to one another’s tracks, to conserve the snow. “We focus on the good times instead,” shouts Jason, leading the way.
The weather conditions turn out to be fantastic, the best yet this season we’re told. We eat a Stellar picnic lunch of sandwiches, tea, fruit, sweets and cakes at almost 3,000m, do runs that no one has ever done before and feel the muscle burn on the final two most epic and unforgettable runs on Mt Brennan (2,980m). Big, long and varied, the Brennan run descends 1,600m. In the excitement we go all out, which is when we notice small avalanches starting to fall quickly around us. Thankfully we make it to more solid terrain unscathed, and then descend more slowly, humbled and a bit shaken. Ross Trees is the other outstanding run, which has perfectly spaced conifers to weave around. We ski it as a group, with plenty of laughing and yahoos the whole way down.
It’s said to snow up to 18 metres annually in the Kootenay region, but many of the locals have never been up in the mountains. This is a community that has gone from being a former silver-mining and forestry area to a place that was settled by the natural-living advocates of the Seventies. Almost everyone lives on food that’s produced in the region, the so-called “100-mile diet”, and they are here primarily for the lifestyle, living on “Kootenay time”. No one is ever punctual and people like to take it easy. We’re amazed that in this ice hockey-crazy country, few locals have heard of the Swedish former Toronto Maple Leafs pro Mats Sundin – one of the sport’s most famous faces. But then, hardly anyone seems to own a TV. Instead, hanging out with each other is the preferred pastime.
Together with our new-found friends from Kaslo, we end our trip at the local pub, the Bluebelle Bistro & Beanery, enjoying locally brewed beer to the sound of a covers band, who look like they’ve been around for a while. The main topic of conversation is the week that’s passed. It’s been a fantastic experience and I know I’ll be returning, if only for the opportunity to hang out once again in the local dive and listen to a home-grown Patti Smith lookalike wailing out the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women until the roof almost lifts. It’s the ultimate night in a small town, goddam far from civilisation.
Words by Kina Zeidler
Photos by Mattias Fredriksson