Powder Quest: Helicopter Skiing

Snow crystals pelt my face, as I kneel on a ridge surrounded by craggy peaks, no civilization in sight. Chop, chop, chop. The helicopter rotor pounds just above my head and vibrates through my body.

It’s my third drop-off of this brilliant heli-skiing morning with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) in the Selkirk mountain range of British Columbia (BC), Canada. The helicopter lifts off. I click into my bindings and jam down an untouched dune of powder, tight on the guide’s tail. My cheeks ache and my teeth are cold, from the stupid grin that’s pasted on my face.

I’ve been at this for just a few days, but I admit I’m already hooked. Like many addictive substances, it’s taken but a taste. I have no past and certainly no financial future. When all is said and skied, I will have spent nearly $10,000 for a week of heli-skiing, including CMH’s fees and my travel expenses. I don’t care; I want more.

CMH is expert at plying its vice, hooking you and then feeding your new craving. I’m in the Galena Lodge with 43 other junkies, roughly a dozen of whom have skied enough vertical feet with CMH to earn the true addict’s attire — a free CMH ski suit.

Free, ha! The suit is awarded after having skied a million vertical feet, which takes on average between seven and 10 heli-skiing trips, costing about 7K apiece, base price. The company guarantees you’ll get 100,000 vertical feet in a week, but they know on a good week you’ll exceed this milestone and then the meter is running; $77 per 1,000 extra vertical meters is the rate for the 2004 season. Cha-ching.

But those are just numbers — completely irrelevant to any junkie. You cannot put a price on this thrill. At Galena, one of CMH’s lodges that is restricted to expert skiers, we’ve been racing down radically steep tree runs and alpine bowls in six to 18 inches of powder. These are not manicured slopes; corduroy is for clothing, not skiing. Some days the powder is too dry to form a snowball; other days it has the consistency of mash potatoes or it has a wind-packed crust. Sometimes all of these conditions occur in a single run.

We’ve hopped and dropped down nine to 12 very long runs a day, some that have included cliffs and frozen waterfalls, a few with unavoidable drops. Our guides call these obstacles “features” or my favorite understatement, “small vertical inconveniences.” Our pilot, “Sluggo,” and his “machine” (as he calls it), a Bell 212 helicopter, has ferried us through fog and snow to mountain tops and tree ridges.

The copter rides are as much of a thrill as the skiing. It is a nimble beast, able to land on a 12-foot wide snow patch on a narrow ridge or in a tight gully. When we’ve finished a run, Sluggo brings the machine down over the top of us as we crouch, shielding our faces from the rotor blast. The guide is on one side of the landing zone, ready to toss skis in an outboard basket and we’re on the other. The copter lights, its skid less than four feet from us. We pile in and take off for the next slope. The ride? It’s smooth and L-O-U-D — imagine the din inside a Coke can that’s being drilled.

Danger is part of the game, and part of the attraction of most addictions. Avalanche certainly isn’t an abstract concept here. Just in our small group of 11, we have one person who was almost completely buried (one glove was sticking out) in a slide a few years back and another person who had friends killed in an avalanche years ago.

On our second to last day of skiing, our group knocks loose what the guide calls a “mushroom.” This is no innocent fungus — it’s a 6-foot solidified chunk of snow cornice that careens down the slope. It hardly breaks even after it collides with the tree our guide has jumped behind. We’re shaken, but no one is hurt and no one even considers going in. “Slough,” loose snow sliding down the hill, is de rigueur and occurs on many runs.

When we’re not skiing, we’re eating — gourmet food at every meal, including sumptuous dishes like roasted duck and paella. The cozy, simple Galena Lodge is designed for skiers, with boot-drying rooms, sauna and Jacuzzi, but no TV and no private phones (amenities differ at each CMH lodge). Massages are available for muscles that won’t unknot. Our days begin at 7:15 a.m. with a stretch class, then breakfast and then the first group departs at 9:00 a.m. We won’t return to the lodge until about 5:00 p.m. — lunch will be ferried to a snowy meeting place.

It is a boy’s club out here. I’m one of just four women skiers at Galena this week — about average for this lodge, according to manager Mike Welch. The profile of a typical guest: a middle-aged male 40 to 55 with plenty of disposable income and decades of skiing experience. It’s also an international crowd. During my ski week, there were skiers from Germany, France, Scotland, Switzerland, America, Hong Kong and Canada. In the last few years, there’s been an influx of snowboarders, but skiing still dominates. Two boarders ride with the top-notch skiers in my group — we tease them unmercifully, but the “dudes” do well with the tight trees and challenging traverses.

Getting here isn’t easy, no matter where you’re from. CMH guests fly into the Calgary Airport, then bus either directly to lodges or to helipads where a chopper flies you to a remote lodge. The travel time from Calgary to Galena (a remote lodge) is seven hours (other lodges aren’t quite so far), not including the 10-minute copter ride for the final leg.

CMH’s 12 lodges are scattered throughout the mountain ranges of BC. They offer a wide variety of ski terrain, some suitable for strong intermediate skiers. However, you must be able to ski the trees, since those are the runs available on days with poor visibility. In my week, we were able to ski every day. However, no-fly days do occur.

Heli-skiing is offered in many of the western United States, Canada, Alaska and other places. Some operators offer weeklong trips; others take skiers out for day shots. But BC is considered by many as the premier powder location. CMH enjoys a stellar reputation and the bookings to match — many lodges fill up a full a year in advance.

The adventure began at Galena on Saturday, as we selected equipment (powder skis are included in the price of your week) and then viewed safety videos on the helicopter, avalanches and beacon usage. Every skier wears an avalanche beacon, and after the video we went outside and practiced with the devices, burying beacons and trying to find them. In our ski groups, two skiers are designated as “pack men” on each run, and we all take turns being a pack-man/skier herder. Each is carrying a shovel and probe, and one is carrying a radio for communication with the guide leading the group. They stay at the back of the pack and try to make sure everyone ends up at the same place, not so easy in the trees.

CMH’s guides are pros, some with future comedy careers. They keep us safe and amused ­ one guide’s best joke lasted three runs. When they’re not telling jokes, they’re whistling or calling, giving us an audible way to follow them through the forest. Humor aside, they study snow conditions and terrain to pick the safest routes, and they’re continuously exchanging information about snow quality. One guide flies out in a smaller chopper to assess conditions at various sites and report back.

So here’s my final report: I just reveled in six days of skiing nirvana. I can’t pay my credit card bill, my knees are popping, and my back aches. Oh … and I’ve already signed up for next year.

Helicopter lands on top of heli-skiing group

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