Interview by Tom Jackson, HELISKI.com
I recently caught up with John Forrest, General Manager of Northern Escape Heli-Skiing in Terrace, BC Canada on behalf of HELISKI.com,HELIBOARD.com and HeliskiingReview.com. John is also past president of HeliCat Canada, the Canadian heli-skiing & heli-boarding operator industry association. I have skied there a couple of times. Hope you enjoy as much as I did.
1. John, you have worked for a number of other Canadian heli-skioperations before starting Northern Escape Heli-Skiing [including TLH Heliskiing, Last Frontier Heliskiing, Mike Wiegele Heliskiing]. What is your heliskiing resume?
We’ll, I’ve been doing this pretty much all my life. I think this may be my 25th year of guiding now…? Anyway, I became a guide while I was still quite young and never looked back. When I was in my early 20’s I started a snowcat skiing company and then moved on to heliskiing where I began managing the operations for a new and growing company. Together with the owner of that company we founded yet another heliskiing company, which I then sold my interests in to start Northern Escape Heli-Skiing. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve loved every moment of it. I guess I also spent a few seasons in there at some of the larger heliskiing and snowcat skiing areas just to round out my experience. I’d like to think that I’ve taken all the great things I’ve learned from all the places I’ve experienced and packaged them together at Northern Escape Heli-Skiing.
2. Yours is the story of the Moses of Heliskiing, wandering British Columbia until you found the perfect spot. Tell us how you picked this terrain, please.
Wow, that makes it sound rather biblical… We chose the Terrace area for Northern Escape Heli-Skiing for several very specific reasons. First, it’s renowned for one of the deepest, most reliable snowpacks in the world. Second, the terrain is spectacular with huge alpine and amazing gladed trees. Access was also important, as most people’s time is now more valuable than money. Our guests fly directly here, and it’s one of the easiest destination heliski areas to get to. They usually save at least 1 or 2 days travel time and the associated expense buy skiing/riding with us. Our location also allows us to ski/ride a full day every day, thus our“week” long packages are really 7 full days.
3. What made you decide to start your own heli-skiing Canada operation?
It was just a natural path in life for me. It’s something I love and I’m lucky enough to have been able to make a living doing it. I still guide pretty much every day and I love that I can do that.
4. You added catskiing backup last year. How did that work out?
Yes, the addition of our snowcat back-up program has been very successful. Everyone, including the guides, love the fact that we ski every day. I’ve noticed over the years that our guests now expect more from their heliskiing holiday. Also, with the addition of shorter 3, 4 and 5 day trips, peoples’ time is more valuable. Back in the day, one down day in a week was pretty average and it was a welcome rest day in a seven-day package. Now-a-days, one down day in a three-day package can be very disappointing. Thus the advent of our Snowcat Back-up and ZERO down days! It can actually be some of the best skiing of the week in the cats, asyou’re out at the height of the storm when it’s just dumping, and we’re doing lap after lap of steep, gladed trees. The runs average over 1800 vertical feet and there’s everything from steep trees and pillows to more mellow terrain. The guests love it.
Also, you’ll find that there are many ways to count a down day and every operator has their own method [True. Some operators do not count a down day, even if you only heliski one run!] But one thing for sure is that if you have enough snow to have a viable heliski area, you must also have some poor weather… and if you have to spend a day or two of your package skiing one or two “poor weather” runs over and over (think bump lines here) due to that poor weather I would question whether you should count those or not? [Also true. Lapping flat terrain near the lodge is not what heliskiing is about, eh?] I guess that’s up to you and the operator…
Northern Escape Heli-Skiing is more about quality and not quantity, although we do rack up a lot of vertical each week. With our snowcat back-up, we have a huge amount of terrain available to ski and ride and we find the experience is much better than pushing the weather and skiing/riding one or two runs over and over just to be out in the heli. We found that it also increased our safety margins as we didn’t find ourselves fighting to fly in the poorest of weather just for those skied-out runs. In a week, we generally have six days in the helicopter and one day in the snowcats. That basically gives you a bonus day with us, whether in the heli or snowcat, as many operators “week” packages are only really 6 or at best 6 ½ days in a week anyway.
Ian Morrison at Northern Escape Heliskiing
5. You are the only operator flying the Koala helicopter. Why is that?
The Koala is an amazing ship. It’s very fast and that allows us to be able to explore the far reaches of our immense tenure (1.8 million acres). We also fly in A-Star helicopters for smaller private groups and film crews, one of our other specialties, and we occasionally have a Bell 212 or 205 for larger groups that want to all ski together. Our fleet is quite flexiblewhich allows us to tailor a package to each individual groups’ needs.
6. Groups of six are a perfect fit, eh?
Yes, our Classic Groups in the Koala ski in groups of six and three groups to the machine. It’s a nice manageable size and it’s still quite sociable as well. As mentioned we also have smaller and larger Private groups and film crews depending on their desires.
7. Some operators are not good with calendars. Is a Week really 7 days ofheliskiing at Northern Escape?
That’s funny! Yes, our weeks at Northern Escape are a full 7 days. Given our easy access, we are able to ski a full day on the last day of the week and this enables us to include more of what you came for, skiing/riding! Basically it gives us at least 1/2 a day more skiing in a week and in many cases a full day more each week. Combine that with our guaranteed skiing everyday and your assured of a great week with us.
8. What is your average vertical in a week?
I had to consult our averages in our Operational data base to answer this one honestly… Looking back over the past 7 seasons, we average 24,000 vertical feet per day in the helicopter and last year about 15,000 vertical per day in the snowcats. You’ll have to do the math on that for me. [6*24 + 1*15 = 159K/week!! That's the kind of math I LOVE to do.]
I believe so, but I haven’t been to every other operation. I do know that our guests love the convenience of our easy access and that it saves them time and money when skiing/riding with us. Book your flights directly to Terrace via Vancouver and sit back and relax. Our lodge has that remote feeling, but it’s just so much easier to get there.[Travel tip: book your Terrace leg as a continuation of your international flight and save big bucks!]
10. How many guests can you accommodate at any one time?
We operate with a max of 18 Classic guests at Yellow Cedar Lodge. 10 Private guests at one of our Private Lodges and 10 film crew at yet another separate lodge. Each would have their one Helicopter or two.
11. What do you do to accommodate heli-snowboarding?
Heliboarding makes up about 25% of our clientele. They love it here. Most of our lines are straight fall line with very little, if any, traversing. Most of our guides, including myself, are also snowboarders so we can choose appropriate terrain. We also often have full groups and even full lodges of snowboarder, but if there are just a few in the week we try to group them together. It makes choosing the appropriate terrain for each group easier and makes the guests happier.
12. Are there any disadvantages to being a small operation?
Economies of scale are more difficult with small operations, but the advantages are also many. It costs us more to do many things that we feel should be part of every package and operation. As an example, we include all the latest safety equipment in each package, that includes the avalanche airbag backpacks. We have a new fleet of custom built Prior skis which are also included in each package.
13. Your slogan “It’s deeper up here,” which sounds like my blog…………. How much snow do you get?
I’ve skied a lot of places and I’ve never seen this much snow. It’s not uncommon to see 5 to 7 meters of settled snow at treeline and more than 8 m in the alpine and glaciers. For us as skiers that means a huge base and the more faceshots than you can imagine. Better bring you snorkel!
14. You offer Steep Camp, and you host film crews, so you’ve got the goods?
YES! We generally have film crews with us shooting for 4 to 8 weeks each season. They choose us for our terrain and snow.
15. During one of my visits to NEH, your partner Benny burned my oldMarmot one-piece as an offering to the powder gods. That chopper is parked right on that spot!
We got a big dump that night, so, it worked! He also gave me a new NEH two-piece suit, which I love. But is he a little nuts?!
Ya, Benny’s awesome! He is truly a driven skier and loves the sport, but he hates one piece suits. And you have to admit that yours was from an aging era gone by, so he probably did you a favor. Besides, you looked awesome in that new Northern Escape 2 piece!
Thanks, John. I will see you in January, cause it’s deeper up there!