A poor ski season in Southwest BC can make you discover wonderful things. Our Whistler-area forecast was dismal with yet more pineapples (warm moist air) calling for torrential rains to mountaintops. Meanwhile the storms were calling for an epic collision of moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Alaska to hit Northern BC, where an arctic air mass had stalled. The forecasts were for ridiculous storm totals with over 1m+ forecasted for Smithers with cold temperatures.
It was so easy and affordable to travel up to Northern BC so we embarked on our own Smithers storm chase in search of epic powder.
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.
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 near access backcountry. 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.
Hankin Ski Area
The story of the purpose-built backcountry-accessed Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area is remarkable and says as much about the quality of the people in Smithers as it does about the passion of backcountry skiers. 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, the Canadian federal and BC Provincial 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 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.
With it being so easy to get to Smithers and Northern BC from Vancouver we believe that powderhounds should consider it as a necessary destination!
Photography and article by Lee Lau.