Helilight Painting with a headlamp in front of White Wilderness' AStar helicopter.
Copyright: Tripp Schoff Photography
There’s a pulse-quickening excitement as the rotors spin and the pilot palms the cyclic and the collective, causing the helicopter to lift vertically. The Canadian log home lodge, quaint guest cabins and Jacuzzi miniaturize below. The Skeena river is the morning commute of choice for the White Wilderness Heli Skiing pilot until he banks a turn and gains altitude, taking a group of giddy skiers up into British Columbia’s Coast Mountains.
When the AStar touches down on a peak, the skids sink deep into the snow until they settle. The guide trudges around the nose of the heli to the cage that houses Elan’s new powder-loving Ripstick skis while the guests step out into the snow, crouching below the rotors. The heli defies gravity, disappearing off the mountainside. It’s a sight and rush of energy that skiers and snowboarders will never tire of—and that’s before the skiing. The pilot, a skier himself, enjoys watching the group leave serpentine tracks in the powder. As one of B.C.’s newest helicopter skiing operations, White Wilderness has a legit entourage, including the three men profiled here, who contributed their vision and talent toward creating a unique experience.
Marcel Schneider, White Wilderness Heli Skiing Founder
White Wilderness owner, Marcel Schneider, stands in front of the fishing lodge he renovated. Schneider's operation runs heli fishing trips in the summer and heli skiing in the winter.
Copyright: Kyle Hamilton Photography
“All that you do, you have to do with heart” is the motto of Marcel Schneider, founder of White Wilderness Heli Skiing, one of Canada’s newest heli operations. Born in Switzerland, Schneider grew up skiing the slopes of Wengen, Davos and Zermatt every weekend. When he wasn’t in the mountains, he was fly fishing or traveling around the world living out his passions.
Schneider learned about the Skeena River in B.C.—renown for steelhead and salmon fishing—and fell in love with the place. He set out to start a small fishing operation outside of Terrace, B.C. that captured the atmosphere of Canada’s northwest. First Nations people, or Aboriginal Canadians, live along the banks of the Skeena where their ancestors have lived for generations. Forests of western red cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce create a lush landscape that’s home to animals such as wolves and bears (black, brown, grizzly and the rare Kermode). It was important to Schneider to have real log houses and cabins hewn from local timber to capture Canadiana, the uniquely Canadian style. “Swiss people are detail-oriented and it’s great to combine that with easy-going Canadian open mind,” says Schneider.
Schneider and his business partner bought a lodge for their fishing operation, but when they viewed the mountains by air in the summer, they saw amazing skiing potential—and dozens of unexplored runs. He bought the 1,500 square kilometer heli ski tenure (tenure is a permit area in Canada) in 2014 and also the helicopter company. “We have more flexibility and higher quality because we own the heli company,” says Schneider. “The pilots fly locally and know the tenure very well where we operate. We fly with smaller groups in the AStar helicopter so guests don’t have to wait.”
Flexibility became the key business strategy for Schneider, and White Wilderness aims to offer a low-stress heli holiday. Along with unlimited vertical and small groups, guests have access to massage therapy, a Jacuzzi, a bar and a main lodge with an open floor plan. Even the kitchen was designed so guests can see the chef at work. Last season, Schneider partnered with Elan skis and guests have access to Elan’s new big-terrain Ripstick skis. “White Wilderness is about community, the enjoyment of nature, and since we have no vertical limit, you are only limited by your legs,” says Schneider. With his vision, the lodge has a combination of Swiss detail, comfort and Canadian joie de vivre—with some incredible skiing just a quick flight away.
To book, visit www.WWHeliski.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call directly at 1-888-898-1186.
Ken Bibby, Operations Manager for White Wilderness Heli Skiing
Ken Bibby, Operations Manager for White Wilderness, heads to the lodge after a limitless day of vertical.
Copyright: Kyle Hamilton Photography
Ken Bibby grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, son of a documentary filmmaker and adventurer who embarked on exploratory expeditions on all seven continents. “I had this non-traditional adventurous life that brought me into the mountains when I was a kid” says Bibby. “I decided early on that I wanted to be a guide.”
While studying to become a paramedic in Vancouver, a friend took him climbing and backcountry skiing. “That ruined my life,” jokes Bibby. After ski patrolling at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, Bibby started working at huts in the Kootenys and Selkirks, then landed a position as a guide at Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing. He has now been guiding for 17 years and is also a senior instructor for the Canadian Avalanche Association in the industry training program.
Ken heard about the opportunity to start up a new heli operation from a friend. He was attracted to founder Marcel Schneider’s philosophy, that of building a safe operation and thus becoming industry leaders in safety and risk management. Bibby was in a unique position to hand pick most of the staff. He made a list of top ski guides, called them personally and put together a dream team, even down to the photographers and massage therapist. “The big thing is we’re a small boutique heli operation,” says Bibby. “There’s an intimate family feel that people really enjoy. You feel like you’re in someone’s home. Also, you can get together 11 good friends and the lodge is yours or four friends and you have a helicopter.”
There are a myriad of things that set White Wilderness apart from other operations. The AStar heli often leaves from the lodge or at nearby heli spots, creating quick access to the runs. Another attractive element for travelers is the lodge’s proximity to the airport in Terrace, B.C, (the 20-minute trip to the lodge is included), which is a short flight from Vancouver. According to Marcel Schneider’s plan, the lodge has modern conveniences with an old-time feel. A high-quality food experience was another mandatory item on his list. Many meals are Instagram-worthy per a “food as art” sentiment implemented by Klaus Menze, White Wilderness’ original head chef who trained under three star Michelin chef, Juan Amador. Fresh baked breads and gourmet soups served on a mountainside and flown in by helicopter are common lunchtime occurrences.
Just as the amenities are a cool marriage between Swiss attention to detail and quintessential Candianana, the skiing in the Northwest Coast Mountain Range blends easy runs with complex, nuanced terrain. “We have ridiculously aggressive terrain when conditions are right—which they quite often are,” says Bibby. "We tend to get better stability in the maritime snowpack near the coast, but because we're also a little farther inland on the dryer and colder side of the mountain range, we don't have a lot of down days."
From a guide’s perspective, Bibby likes the flexibility of having smaller groups, which allows him to explore the tenure area, still full of numerous, unskied runs. Historically, heli ski clients were affluent 50–70 year old men, but now heli operations are attracting a younger generation. “Men and women are interested in getting footage of aggressive skiing and want the personal challenge over the vertical that their predecessors were so interested in,” says Bibby. “It’s a more new school approach to the mountains.” For the son of an explorer and lover of mountains, Bibby and the other guides get to fulfill founder Marcel Schneider’s vision in the white wilderness of the Coast Mountains on a daily basis—that guests are limited only by their legs.
Glen Plake, Pro Skier & Elan International Brand Ambassador
Glen Plake, ski legend and Elan international brand ambassador, helped launch the Ripstick line at White Wilderness Heli Skiing.
Copyright: Kyle Hamilton Photography
When most skiers think of a mohawk, chances are it’s the one belonging to Glen Plake. His iconic hairdo and exuberant personality have been a part of ski heritage for decades. The self-appointed “SkiEO” of the sport, Plake was a pioneer of extreme skiing and starred in numerous ski films over the years. The California native and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer is also a fully certified PSIA ski instructor and is currently working on becoming certified as an AMGA ski guide.
Thanks to his in-depth gear knowledge, Plake has influenced ski design over the years, leading to notable models like the K2 Extreme. In 2006, Plake joined with Elan skis, where he contributes to design and development. He was part of the group that helped develop Elan’s Amphibio technology, a concept that creates skis with traditional camber tip to tail on the inside edge, with a combo of rocker and traditional camber on the outside edge. “Elan has always been more present in the racing world, but when the Amphibio line was developed, it paid more attention to female skiers and created one of the lightest skis in the world,” says Plake. “Elan has made good skis, but it took a lot of technical ability to ski them well. Today, that’s not what it’s about.”
As with most brands, Elan works on new ski designs at least two years in advance. Several years ago, Elan discussed with Plake, other athletes, shop owners and distributors the trend of lightweight gear designed to work in all conditions. “That was the initial idea—to develop a ski that’s reliable and can turn on a dime that gives you confidence in the most challenging conditions that you can handle,” says Plake. “But the skis shouldn’t be hard to ski before you feel how good they are.”
Along with other U.S. athletes, Plake became part of a North American test team—which allowed the Slovenian company to capture the snow, terrain and exploratory nature of where freeride ski performs best. Resurrecting the name from a previous Elan ski that had an underground following, Elan created the freeride-oriented Ripstick line, available in three waist widths: 94, 106 and 116 mm underfoot. (Plake favors the 106.)
This past season, Elan partnered with White Wilderness Heli Skiing and will supply skis for guests and guides. “In March we went to White Wilderness to launch the Ripstick in its context,” says Plake. “Anytime you’re skiing in mountains that have a large amount of vertical, you have the potential of completely different snow types because of temperature and exposure. The turns that you make in the trees could be completely different turns on the upper mountain. So that said, you want a ski that can negotiate those surfaces as you slide down. The Ripstick can ski any type of snow anywhere on the mountain any day of the year.”