By Rob Story
The first time Brian Hall explained his ambitious dream of an earn-your-turns ski area, I considered Brian Hall whack. Think about it: On a continent where type 2 diabetes rages unchecked and every other gondola passenger packs an obesity-level BMI, Hall expects skiers and snowboarders to climb 1,500 feet before making a turn? How many North American sliders—mollycoddled all their lives by chairlifts and gravity—are willing to sweat that much?
About 20 a day, it turns out. Still, Hall may be onto something with the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area, a collection of runs and ascent routes near the town of Smithers, in northern British Columbia. He might have just created the ideal ski area for the Climate Change Era.
It's actually less a “ski area” and more of an “area for the purpose of skiing.” Hankin-Evelyn allows no motors whatsoever. No 900cc snowmobiles, no Swiss-engineered chairlifts, no electric hand-dryers. The 9,300-acre preserve, located in the steep Babine Mountains, looks nothing like a cross-country ski course. It looks, well, like Hall’s longtime dream: an alpine touring ski area with runs cut for varying skill levels, in legally accessed land that’s closed to (Canada’s overwhelming hordes of) snowmobiles. Thanks to a million dollars’ worth of
volunteer labor from the Bulkley Back-country Ski Society and various govern-ment grants, Hall and friends brought his dream to life in 2009.
Last March, I strode through Hankin-Evelyn’s entrance gate, a permanent solar-powered beacon checker that flashed a red X until my beeping transceiver teased out a welcoming green O. My group set an effective though humane pace as we skinned
up a mix of roads and glades.
Hankin-Evelyn now boasts 13 named ski runs and 15 miles of trails blessed with astonishing visuals. Green conifers march up to meet dazzling alpine snow-fields. Jagged summits tower high above a mini-Chugach of puckering aprons and fluted lines. The preserve is such a recreation outlier, I’m told it’s already been analyzed in several master’s theses. I couldn’t wait to peel off the skins and ski down.
I’d like to lie and call it an epic day. In fact, descents unspooled in mank that transitioned from firm to overheated quicker than a Pop-Tart in a toaster. It was a microcosm of last winter: a meager, scrawny snowpack cowering before a pitiless sun, promptly surrendering any and all skiable flakes.
Miserably wrenching my ski tips out of mashed potatoes, I wondered if Hankin-Evelyn might just be perfectly suited for the off-gassing fireball that is modern-day Earth. The last two years have been the warmest on record. Anorexic snowpacks might become the new normal.
How should skiers respond? By slapping on climbing skins. Sure, it’s a bummer that face shots face extinction. Yet let’s not forget skiing’s other joys. We can still play in the mountains and tour uphill. As the NordicTrack commercials tell us, freeheel skiing is a great workout. This is what skiing could be coming to: great workouts, lousy turns.
After 90 minutes and 1,500 feet of climbing, we reached a spanking-new shelter warmed by a wood stove, the Hankin Hut. Still panting, I crossed the deck to check the view. Gazing over Hankin-Evelyn’s fragrant glades, precipitous peaks, and zigzagging skin tracks, I could swear I saw the Future of Skiing. It looked sweaty.
> Fly Air Canada to Smithers, B.C., stay at the motel Brian Hall owns—The Stork Nest Inn (storknestinn.com)—and savor the roast chicken at Two Sisters Café.