It’s raining down at the lodge at Northern Escape Heliskiing in northern British Columbia. A couple weeks ago marked the coldest stretch of days, by far, any of the staff here can remember. Yesterday, guests heliskied in the alpine on stable slopes that hadn’t seen new snow in days, (although the guides were magicians in sniffing out good turns). This week, all of British Columbia is on a special avalanche warning as the province gets hit with an unseasonably warm storm that’s dropping a load of heavy, wet snow up high. Guests will still be skiing today—Northern Escape is one of the only, if not the only, heliski operation to offer a full catski backup on storm days for its guests. But the whiplash in the wild weather swings is disconcerting, to say the least.
It’s a huge reason John Forrest, General Manager and one of Northern Escape’s founders, undertook the massive process to turn this into one of the first carbon-neutral heliski operations in the world. He’s watched winter in these mountains change over the thirty-five years he’s been guiding. “It’s not that things are getting warmer, or wetter,” he says. “It’s just that the extremes are tremendous. It gets tremendously cold, and then tremendously warm. It snows more than I’ve ever seen it snow in my life, and then it’s dry for two weeks.”
Some might argue that we shouldn’t be heliskiing at all with the planet facing a climate crisis. A day of heliskiing for a single person emits only slightly less carbon than an economy seat in a cross-country flight, after all. But Forrest counters that argument with the inevitable fact that demand for what’s become the pinnacle adventure in skiing isn’t going to suddenly disappear; around 44,000 people going heliskiing each year in B.C. alone, according to HeliCat Canada. And so if people are going to heliski, the least he can do is offer a carbon-neutral product as part of the solution, and hope the rest of the industry will follow suit—and that someone will eventually design an electric helicopter. “Having a long view in a business that depends on winter can be really impactful,” he says.
Northern Escape’s luxurious main lodge is uniquely accessible, sitting on the banks of the Skeena River just twenty minutes from the town of Terrace. This also makes it a more affordable option for many skiers, and eliminates the cost and carbon footprint of a helicopter transfer—although it also operates a more exclusive lodge deeper in the mountains that does require a flight transfer. Northern Escape’s terrain lies in the Skeena Mountains of the Coast Range, a dramatic, lovely spine of glaciated peaks shot through with sea-level river drainages. Both lodges already sourced local ingredients where possible for their five-star meals, and offered B.C.-based beer and wine options. But Forrest wanted to do better.
He worked with a carbon management agency to undertake a full audit of Northern Escape’s carbon footprint, from staff commutes to and from town all the way up to helicopter flights, including energy use at the lodge, food sourcing, catskiing, snowmobiles, and all lodge vehicles. Although the operation could have offset less expensively by choosing projects in other parts of the world, Forrest prioritized local accredited projects “that would have a positive effect on our neck of the woods here,” he says. Thus, Northern Escape offsets mostly by investing in the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project, which works to change land use that was previously approved for commercial logging into protected forest. The Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s northern coast is the largest intact coastal rainforest in the world—a massive carbon sink—and home to the rare Spirit Bear and some of the few remaining wild salmon runs.
But it’s about more than just offsetting, Forrest says. The operation is also implementing a three-year plan to reduce emissions overall, including adopting renewables, like solar panels for powering the lodge and electric vehicles where possible.
Over après after a deep day of skiing mid-storm, I ask the other guests if Northern Escape’s carbon-neutral status factored into their choice to ski here. All of them were pleased to hear about it—and it was the first time they’d heard about it. Northern Escape only became carbon-neutral last September and hasn’t marketed the initiative much yet. Forrest says the operation isn’t likely to, either. It’s not about increasing the bottom line (making the effort to be carbon neutral is an expensive endeavor that actually decreases the operation’s bottom line substantially) and Northern Escape doesn’t need the hook to draw more skiers—it already books out every winter anyway. “It’s more of a desire to do the right thing,” Forrest says simply.
If guests do want to go the extra mile, though, they can offset their travel to and from Terrace at a reputable carbon offsetter. Another option is to consider staying in the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel. Given that nearly all flights to Terrace go through Vancouver, this hotel’s sustainability efforts—including upgrading systems for better control of energy and water use in rooms and eliminating single-use plastics—make it a more environmentally friendly choice for a layover stay. Fairmont Vancouver Airport also repurposes unfinished soap and bottled amenities for local homeless shelters, women’s shelters, and senior homes; and sends coffee grounds to a local organic chicken farm that in turn supplies eggs to the hotel’s restaurants, which also source local fruits, veggies, and honey where possible.
“However we do it, we need to do better,” says Forrest. “This environment is really special to me, and so my desire over the years has been to also become better: to protect it.”