So it is only fitting that owner/guide Giacum “Jake” Frei is the first Heliskiing Operator Interview with HELISKI.com Heliskiing Canada Series. Thanks!
1. The Skeena Mountains may be new to some heliskiers and heliboarders. Tell us about the Skeena Mountains of BC Canada.
The Skeena Mountains have been on the heliskiing scene for about 15 years. It is a newer area for sure. What makes the Skeena’s special is the combination you get between Coastal precipitation, interior dryness and a northern cooler climate. Depending on where you fly in the Skeena’s you can have a bit more of one of these options. This allows for an operation with a larger area to switch skiing zones if the conditions vary. Some parts of the Skeena’s have a lot of precipitation, you have a lot of natural glades, which makes for very enjoyable skiing.
2. What made you decide to start your own heliskiing operation?
I guess what really started the idea was that I grew up just a few hours drive south of the current lodge and I always had the goal of bringing guests here to see and experience this part of B.C. The area was not new to me, it was my back yard. I have explored the Skeena Mountains since I was old enough to. In 2003 I was per chance in the government office and out of curiosity had a talk to the officials in charge of tenure leases. From that talk it never stopped. Through government I met Norman Winter, who was also looking for an area and we teamed up. Later Norm went on to develop another area near Revelstoke, BC.
3. You may be the best skier with whom I have heliskiied. How did you get to be so damn good?
Thanks Tom, nice of you to say that. Hmm, I guess I can say, I devoted my entire teens and early 20 to skiing. I opted to complete my high school through correspondence and moved to Switzerland at age 15. I skied every chance I got. I also completed any course I could take and was lucky enough to ski with some amazing skiers and mountain guides from different fields. I landed my first sponsors [freeskiing] at 16, and sure did not want to let them down. I was pretty ambitious and devoted to improving my ski level to the highest I could take it. I would also say being in front of the camera really helped me improve, you see yourself all the time, see your position, your posture. You also want to get it right on the first try, hit the right spot.
4. What is different about Skeena Heliskiing in BC Canada?
A few things that make Skeena Helisking different are:
A. The lodge!
B. Large area and large selection of terrain
C. Close proximity to an airport, easy access
D. Low number of down days
5. You are known for European guests who like to ski fast. Is that a fair reputation?
I would say so, yes. Even adding a bit of a straight line in there somewhere Skeena Heliskiing is also known for providing the clients with a wide variety of runs. Not so much for lapping the same run; but trying to find runs that challenge the keen skiers, giving them a good selection, and trying to motivate them to improve as well. I love to see that someone is really stoked that he or she skied something very well. Love helping them out.
6. What is your average vertical in a week?
Our average vertical varies per year from 118,000 feet to 151,000 feet over the last 6 years. We do ski more from late Feb onwards, due to the longer days. In January the days are shorter and we ski more technical runs in the trees. Sometimes the big powder days are slower, as every wipe out cost lots of energy and time if the snow is really deep. [That’s why Jake fills his choppers with good skiers…]
7. Skeena may have the best small heliski lodge in the business. How did you pull that off?
I also have to thank “luck” for that. During the exploration days prior to heliskiing we noticed that there was a lot of new traffic on the main road, we went to see what was going on and we drove to the lodge site just as the building was being started. Original plans were for a primarily summer-use fishing lodge. Original plans for Skeena Heliskiing were to start 2 years later, after completion of a small lodge structure in the skiing area. Needless to say we were pretty happy when the owner said, he would rent out the lodge to us for the winters.
8. How big is a group / lift?
A group consists of 5 skiers and 1 guide.
9. How many groups / lifts per helicopter
Our standard is 2 groups of 5 per heli [Awesome!]. On occasion when a party wishes it, we also run 3 groups of 5. Starting this season, if we use this program, we use our second helicopter to shuttle the groups out to reduce shuttle time.
10. How many guests can you accommodate at any one time?
11. How many down days do you average per season?
The average is 7 down days per season over the last 7 years. [Surprisingly good]
12. How far is the ride from the Smithers airport?
Depending on the road conditions, between 1.5hrs to 2 hrs.
13. What do you do to accommodate helisnowboarders?
We actually have almost 20% snowboarders. We work with the heli-skiing booking agents, like HELISKI.com, and clients to try to organize snowboard groups, to get them together. We have a small fleet of K2 snowboards to use for snowboarders. We have enough boards and bindings that work well for the current conditions. So the heli-boarders always have the most current, well maintained gear and no luggage hassle. [I didn’t even beg for that plug]
14. Are there any disadvantages to being a small operation?
A. You have to be more careful that the groups fit together, that every one in the group has the same level
B. As a business, having a small operation and a short season, it is really important that the weeks are full, or else it really hurts us.
15. Have you ever considered extending your season?
We have, but for us the best time of the winter is from January to the start of April. Running later is a higher risk of down days since the tree skiing can be finished if it gets warm. During November and December we are fully focused on sales in Europe for the next years winter season.
Bonus Question: You have such a large area and you are booked solid. Do you have any plans for expansion?
Yes, we do. We will have Cat Skiing in our area for this coming winter. We have contracted out a section of our southern tenure to Skeena Cat Skiing www.skeenacatskiing.ca who are hard at working getting things going for this winter. We are also looking at various different locations to start another small operation. We have something very interesting planned for that, but cannot tell you any more right now. I will keep you updated, but I can tell you it is a very cool concept.
Thanks, Jake. I hope to make some turns with you again sometime soon.