Hemmed by white, the unfrozen East Arm of Quesnel Lake reaches cobalt-blue to the horizon, where it collides with a mountain skyline rising to meet us. Of all the vistas gathered during this 45-minute helicopter flight from Williams Lake, this is the most stunning. A visage of true north. And when the Bell 212 flashes over an unperturbed moose lounging in lakeside snow to roll into venerable Silvertip Lodge, one thing is clear: we are way out there.
One of the most remote and exclusive powder-skiing destinations on the planet, Silvertip is indeed isolated, deliciously so. Enough that owner-operator Michael Binnion was most attracted to this very notion of authentic wilderness — accessible only by aircraft or boat, delivering an instant sense of adventure from a rustic lodge that instantly feels like home.
Silvertip's triple A-frames rise, surrounded by trees, from a bench above the 100-kilometre-long lake — a rare, inland fjord abutting B.C.'s storied Cariboo Mountains. If that doesn't make Silvertip a one-of-a-kind destination on its own, its 1,440 sq. km. of tenure might: an extreme diversity of terrain with unrivaled proximity to the lodge. Here, ridges spiraling away from serrated peaks like the radiating arms of an alpine octopus harbour exceptional tree skiing in perfectly spaced glades. We experience this directly after downing a hot lunch, gearing up, and marching right back out to the heli-pad. We also discover how some of Silvertips's best and deepest turns are only moments away: big glaciers, wide-open alpine, preternatural tree skiing, and reliable snow all speak for themselves, and we waste no time letting them talk.
Soon we're shredding Old Macdonald, where the snow remains deep and powdery despite an avalanche cycle that keeps us on our toes and out of more exposed areas. The north faces we plumb over the next few days are equally exquisite, shaded from a warming spring sun. Our chill guide, Mike Stuart, worked at Selkirk Tangiers out of Revie for over a decade. Though this is a new gig, he seems like he's been here forever, hectoring us into choice lines and entertaining with tales of springtime plans to climb Denali with two Saudi Arabian clients.
Of course, heli-skiing is amazing anywhere, so this piece can't be just about that — and it isn't. Like so many other mountain enterprises, Silvertip is about dreamers and schemers looking to make a business that will keep them amidst their beloved peaks.
Silvertip Lodge first opened in 1967 as a remote base for fishermen and hunters. In 2002, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) purchased the 14-acre lakeshore property, winterizing the lodge and raising accommodation standards to appeal to high-end heli-skiers (a map of their pioneering heli runs remains on the wall). In 2009, post-recession, CMH sold it to someone who envisioned a unique, member-only heli-ski operation. That pipe dream fizzled, and Calgarian Michael Binnion — who'd always hoped, at least metaphorically, to "own a mountain" — took ownership in 2015. It's now open for heli-skiing in winter, fishing and hiking in summer.
Inside, log walls hung with the usual post-colonial kitsch — elk and moose heads, mountain goat and fox skins, homesteader's tools, a trolling rig for the massive rainbow trout the lake is famous for — channel the same self-reliant notion as the lodge's remote location. But this is no backwoods bacon-and-beans operation. Talented chefs now serve communal four-star meals around a long wooden table that overlooks Quesnel Lake and its constantly shifting moods. Behind it, an artistically rendered antique wood boiler feeds a glycol heat system that circulates throughout the buildings (the sauna is wood-fired; a diesel generator adds electricity).
After dinner, the atmosphere and energy become ribald, raunchy — and ridiculous. Led by Michael and wife Marie, the spacious living room rings with the tequila-fuelled sounds of people running, leaping, and laughing through camp-like games. It's no all-night party, mind you, just some ephemeral bonding that simmers down as fast as it boiled up.
What else is different at Silvertip? Well, unlimited skiing for one. The helicopter is at your group's disposal. Want to make three runs before lunch? Cool. Ten? Also, cool. Maybe you like your soup in a ceramic bowl instead of a plastic cup, and prefer dining in the lodge over a hemorrhoid-inducing lunch in the snow. The operation bends over backwards to provide guests a custom experience — basically, heli-skiing as it was first imagined by heli-ski pioneer Hans Gmoser back in 1966. And with so many ski zones minutes from the lodge, it's easily done. You move at your own pace, but with average runs of 500 to 1,000 vertical metres, it adds up fast. With over 120 named runs, more are added virtually every day, first descents a weekly occurrence.
Perhaps most surprising is that despite its celebrated remoteness, Silvertip is a powder experience for any level of skier, having hosted everyone from Norwegian pros born with skis on their feet, to first-timers from Papua New Guinea. Is there a story to go along with that last reference? You bet there is. And Mike and Marie might even tell you about it.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.