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The quiet climb: after ten years, Hankin-Evelyn still provides crowd-free bc atmosphere

Brian Hall, founder of Hankin-Evelyn, makes his way up the skintrack of his own design. [Photo] Abby Cooper

I was surprised this winter when I first learned about the all-backcountry resort Hankin-Evelyn in Smithers, B.C. Living in Whistler, not much in the Canadian skiing world escapes my attention, and this “resort” had been around for 10 years. So why hadn’t I heard of it? To find out more about this remote touring destination stationed 11 hours up the coast from me, I packed my gear and headed north.

Hankin-Evelyn has all the basic trappings of a ski resort, minus lifts: plowed roads, blower powder, tree skiing, cut runs (sans grooming), alpine objectives and a warming hut. A large map, quaint outhouse and avalanche transceiver checker greeted me at the modestly sized parking lot. The map points out a series of numbered runs and marked uptracks, showing you how to best work the terrain dependent on your ability and goals. An old Lookout Cabin in the area has been completely revamped to accommodate overnight stays for the multiday adventurers. Perhaps best of all, the resort and cabin don’t require a pass, just a recommended donation.

The warming hut at Hankin-Evelyn provides a place to refuel between laps. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Brian Hall, a Smithers, B.C. resident now in his 60s, is the heartbeat of Hankin-Evelyn. He started this venture ten years ago and has made significant progress in developing the area into what it is today through curating a strong culture around the bc lifestyle. With the blank ski canvas that the Smithers area provided, Hall took leaps in creating the first human-powered ski resort. Prioritizing minimal environmental impact and involving the voices of the community were no small tasks when entering uncharted ski resort waters.

Hall preps for a quiet day on the slopes. [Photo] Abby Cooper

“We are surrounded by amazing terrain, but it’s not always the easiest to access,” Hall explains. “Over the last 20 years I could see the growing interest in backcountry, and I just started thinking about how it would be possible to support that interest by building a dedicated backcountry ski area, a place where like-minded folks could learn, share and have fun.”

Smithers, B.C. is nestled in a valley 200 miles from the Alaska border and sports its own airport and collection of mountain ranges just a few kilometers from town. A 360-degree view from town includes the rugged Babine Mountains, which, despite their alluring appearance, are hardly visited on foot due to tough access. The neighboring Coast Range covers a whopping 1,600 kilometers but is farther from Smithers than the Bulkley Range where Hall chose to locate his resort. The Bulkley area is known for its predominantly symmetrical peaks laced with glaciers and isolated by rivers from other nearby ranges.

A view of the Passby Mountains from Hankin-Evelyn. [Photo] Abby Cooper

“Reasonable access from town, no previous or potentially conflicting interest, a variety of terrain that would lend itself to various user skills/abilities, snowfall amounts and aspect,” Hall says he was searching for. “A year of long, tough slogs into the area, and I realized the potential of the Bulkley area,” he adds.

Thick forest coats most of the mountains in northern B.C., making it unskiable except for the most adventurous soul. This creates tricky uphill travel in the absence of clearing. Hall currently relies on passionate backcountry users who volunteer their time to cut new ski runs, haul up supplies in the summer heat and spread the stoke. But in the beginning, Hall needed to be more creative.

Natural firebreaks and cut blocks are common forestry techniques in this region of B.C. Knowing this, Hall chose to collaborate at his project’s inception with local authorities to direct those existing efforts into ski runs.

Hall descends one of his cleared runs. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Working with Forestry Rec. Officer Kevin Eskelin, Hall drafted a proposal and management plan for his future resort. Through this process, Hall was able to get 3,770 hectares set aside as a non-motorized zone. And with the successful allocation of government funds, Hall and his team commenced clearing for trails.

“We cut 13 ski runs, opened up access to five alpine bowls, reactivated old logging roads for access, built a day-use shelter in the sub-alpine, fixed up an old fire lookout (overnight use permitted) and got the whole area mapped and signed,” Hall recalls.

Run markers help visitors navigate the northern B.C. landscape. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Prior to those initiatives, Hall hired a biologist to study the area. He wanted to limit impact on existing ecosystems and ecology. And these ideas were not just for this project alone.

“I had hoped this model would be a template for spurring other communities to build backcountry ski areas,” Hall says. “I envisioned road trips where you could travel and ski tour around B.C. with opportunities to meet like-minded folks.”

But while this vision of growth is a goal for Hall, there are still only a few resorts in North America that market themselves at backcountry-specific. The defunct lift-serve ski resort Hidden Valley—located in Colorado’s Estes Park—offers cleared ski runs that uphill travelers can enjoy. On the East Coast, Ascutney Mountain in Vermont has a similar story to tell as a longtime ski resort that was reenvisioned as a backcountry zone once lift operations ceased. In West Virginia, southern skiers can experience this lifestyle at White Grass Resort, and Scottish Lakes High Camp in Washington State offers manicured descents in the Cascades with a lodge, sauna and snacks waiting after a lap. But similar backcountry destinations to Hankin-Evelyn in northern B.C. have yet to gain a solid foothold.

The remote Smithers, B.C. location allows for an uncrowded resort experience. [Photo] Abby Cooper

I can understand the appeal of a backcountry road trip that Hall speaks of, especially as someone who would live in such close proximity to his proposed tour route. But even if Hankin-Evelyn remains the only resort if its kind for another 10 years, I am happy to spread the word about this little slice of touring heaven where the people are friendly, the vibe is supportive and the powder is plentiful.

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