Northern Escape Heli Skiing
By Brian E. Clark
I’ve been fortunate in my career writing about snow sports to have gone heli-skiing in Iceland, British Columbia, Washington State and Nevada. Next up, Chile, perhaps.
But each time, I’ve felt somewhat guilty about using a helicopter to reach high alpine slopes that offered untracked powder runs. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the outings, however.
But I felt better about making turns in big bowls and through powder-filled glades of the dramatic Skeena Range in the Canadian Rockies this past spring with Northern Escape Heli Skiing (neheliskiing.com), which president John Forrest told me is carbon-neutral.
The company can make that claim, he said, because it purchases offsets through The Great Bear Forest Carbon Project, which is led by nine coastal First Nation tribes who have agreed not to cut trees in exchange for payments.
The project is the world’s largest forest carbon initiative, according to Chief Marilyn Slett, president of the Coastal First Nations.
“Vast amounts of carbon are stored by old growth trees in the Great Bear Rainforest on (British Columbia’s) North and Central Pacific Coast and Haida Gwaii (the native name for the Queen Charlotte Islands.) The forests here represent one quarter of the world’s remaining coastal temperate rainforests. As coastal people, who have lived here for 14,000 years, we know that keeping ocean and forest ecosystems healthy is the key to preserving our way of life,” she wrote in a recent article.
Forrest said he considers carbon offsets the low-hanging fruit in his effort to cut energy use and waste in his heli-skiing operation, which is based out of Terrace, BC and uses three lodges – one of which gets its energy from hydroelectric sources. Another one will soon be converted to solar power, at a cost of $500,000 to $750,000, he said.
“It all comes down to doing the right thing for the mountains and the planet, so buying carbon offsets is just the first, most logical step,” noted Forrest, who said his company is going on its second year of carbon neutrality.
“If we’re going to be in this business and use helicopters to go skiing, I want to do it the best way possible and actively reduce our emissions. But the biggest step we’ve taken is making a commitment to reducing everything wherever we can, including making plans to switch to sustainable aviation fuel in the not-too-distant future.”
Forrest said the move toward carbon neutrality began with an “arms-length audit” by Synergy Enterprises (https://www.synergyenterprises.ca), an independent Canadian company that audited Northern Escape’s total carbon footprint from an outside perspective.
“They looked at everything from the electricity in our offices to the staff driving or flying to work to making food to our fuel usage, even flights for marketing,” explained Forrest.
That included the snowcats it employs to get skiers and snowboarders to the alpine terrain when storms prevent the helicopters from flying.
“The next step is to mitigate our emissions, which we are currently doing through buying carbon offsets through a certified program that goes directly to reducing the negative effects of climate change.
“But the way I look at it, carbon offsets are kind of paying for your sins. The more important part of the piece of the puzzle is to look at the carbon audit and seek real ways to reduce our emissions all the way around.”
Forrest, 55, said he’s personally seen the effects of climate change in his three-plus decades as a climbing and skiing guide with more severe rain and wind storms, droughts, forest fires and other climate- and weather-related events.
He said the goal for his company is to reduce emissions by 15 percent come 2030 and 40 percent by 2040.
“The change in the next few years is that we’ll be able to use solar and other things to reduce the immediate use of fuel. But the big difference is that we anticipate within the next 10-12 years, sustainable aviation fuel will be readily available and make that 40 percent reduction achievable. And that’s quite significant.”
Forrest said he knows of only one other heli-skiing company – Bella Coola – that’s made a similar commitment. According to its website, Bella Coola is purchasing offsets for 110 percent of its emissions, making it carbon positive.
“I’m not sure if this makes our companies any more attractive to skiers and snowboarders, though they should be aware of what a warming climate means to our sport,” Forrest said.
“And we’re not doing this for marketing. I’m truly doing it because of my personal desire to operate in the best and most environmentally responsible way that we can.”
Which only made the experience of skiing with Northern Escape and its friendly guides high in the stunning Skeena Range’s light powder, dining on delicious, chef-prepared meals, reading by the fireplace at night and soaking in its big hot tub all the more enjoyable for this writer.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.