Get Back: Heli-ski Touring
FIVE HELI-SKI OPERATORS WHO PROMOTE HELI-SKI TOURING
by Steven Threndyle
When it comes to backcountry skiing, Canmore, Alta. lawyer Jamie Mcvicar has pretty much done it all: skied multi-day hut-tohut tours on the Wapta Traverse; partied on New Year's Eve in Rogers Pass, then skied hard on New Year's Day; spent a vacation at the historically rustic Mount Assiniboine Lodge; he's even gone heli-skiing and catskiing to feed his powder addiction.
Last March, Jamie Mcvicar took his backcountry chops to an entirely new level, tagging along with a group of eight backcountry skiers who were sharing CMH Adamants Lodge with a group of heli-skiers. Instead of going heli-skiing, however, Mcvicar's group would be heli-ski touring.
To some degree, heli-assisted backcountry skiing can be filed under the term “high-performance guided skiing.” The advantage that it offers over traditional backcountry touring is simple: at the beginning of the day, a helicopter whisks you away from your lodge and up to an alpine summit – no skinning or climbing required. Your guide leads you down a remote alpine bowl, and hundreds of turns later, you're at the bottom and ready to whip out the skins for a day of guided touring.
At day's end, the helicopter picks you up and takes you back to your lodge – in some cases, dropping you off above the lodge so that you get yet another descent. It's not quite true “heli-skiing,” but it's certainly more productive than touring from a single-lodge base every morning and affords getting first tracks if that's what you go for in the backcountry.
“Some of the cat-skiing trips [at Chatter Creek Lodge] were organized by Glen Roane, a friend from Canmore. Glen had done a few assisted ski trips with CMH and convinced me to give it a try. I was looking for a change from the annual cat-skiing trip and wasn't a fan of the cost or the frantic pace of heli-skiing. So last year I joined his Glen's trip to CMH Adamants,” said Mcvicar.
During a winter in which unseasonably warm rains lashed the Rockies and Selkirks, especially at lower elevations, the Adamants delivered surprisingly good skiing after a slow start to the week.
Mcvicar said, “After a couple of days of marginal skiing, something magical happened on Day Three. Just before four in the afternoon, the clouds broke and the guides sounded the bell for heli-skiing. In two hours, we ripped off a half-dozen short runs for over 3,000 metres. Finally in the alpine, we were able to experience a pretty stellar snowpack and good powder. I was mightily impressed with how fast the heli-machine was cranked up.”
He continued: “The next three days got progressively better, with the last day being particularly outstanding. It was one of those experiences that made the entire trip worthwhile – a bluebird day, flying in the helicopter past Mount Sir Sandford to our first impeccable, long run. We were completely alone in a huge alpine bowl, circumnavigating a small peak in the middle. It was a key factor in me signing up for this year. I can say that we were probably the only people ski-touring at that point in the year in Western Canada; at least the only ones touring in stellar conditions!”
With the world's most highly developed helicopter-skiing industry, it's not surprising that British Columbia is the primary location for heli-assisted touring. Canadian Mountain Holidays offers heli-assisted tours at the Bugaboo Lodge, Cariboo, Bobbie Burns and Adamants Lodge.
Perhaps the most creative helicopter-skiing operation in B.C. is Bella Coola Heli Sports, where the massive ice sheets of the Coast Range overlap with the drier air masses of the central Interior. The result is an outrageous variety of terrain, with some of the longest, steepest heli-skiing on the planet. Tim Wilkinson, sales manager for Bella Coola Heli Sports, does a great job of selling the features of heli-touring to his clientele, which, unlike traditional heli-skiing, hails mostly from Canada.
As of late December, Bella Coola Heli Sports had sold five weeks of heli-touring packages. Last year, Wilkinson said, “We had some super-experienced Austrians come heli-touring with us. They were blown away. They are from the Tyrol, and they said, “We have big mountains too, also with lots of snow. But what amazed us was the absolute lack of people. In Europe, you always see people, no matter where you go in the Alps. But in Bella Coola, we didn't see anyone else all week!”
Several years ago, I spoke to Andy Freeland when he was guiding with Eagle Pass Heliskiing, a small “boutique-sized” outfit located east of Revelstoke, B.C. where the Selkirk Mountains rise out of the Shuswap Highlands near Three Valley Gap. Freeland said his nascent company – it was its first season of operation – was offering a program called “heli-ski backcountry touring,” which sounded like a contradiction in terms.
Sure enough, later that evening, I met a group of skiers from Calgary, Alta. who were paying big bucks to be helicoptered from their low-elevation perch near the Trans-canada Highway all the way up to an entirely different touring zone in the alpine literally every day. “We're only a five-minute heli-ride from the alpine,” he said. Eagle Pass Heliskiing offers heli-ski touring during the months of April and May, which offers the best weather window for reliably skiing in the alpine.
Located “out in the sticks on Highway 6,” Kingfisher Heliskiing's tenure is located deep in the Monashee Mountains near Cherryville, B.C. It offers
two options for daily heli-ski touring; you can meet a group at the staging area (the perfect alternative for a day of touring if you are staying at nearby Silver Star Mountain Resort) or you can bunk in at the rustic luxury at the Gold Panner Inn and do a multi-day tour, skiing in a different part of the Monashees every day.
Group size is capped at five skiers, so there's plenty of opportunity to spread out and get first tracks. All safety gear is provided in the cost, including transceivers and ABS avalanche-safety packs. Groups start the day with a heli-bump and can normally get in another two or three runs before heading back to the staging area off Highway 6. Kingfisher advises that “your ski skill level should allow you to descend black-diamond and double-black-diamond runs at your local ski hill with confidence, making parallel turns.”
Perhaps the most convenient heli-ski-touring option is available at Selkirk Tangiers Helicopter Skiing based right at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. These are day trips (three skiers are required to successfully run a trip) and your day “includes a helicopter lift into the Selkirk Mountains and then out at the end of the day, and a whole day of ski-touring with your certified guide.”
Ski-touring gear is available for rent in the Revelstoke Mountain Resort Rental Shop. Split-boarders are welcome, too, but you have to bring your own gear. Beacon-rescue practice and training are included as well, and you're being shown the terrain by a certified mountain guide. The cost is a relatively reasonable $654 per person.
At the end of the day, you might indeed wonder if heli-ski touring is
worth the extra expense. Mcvicar's observations are worth considering before slapping down your plastic. “I find all mechanized skiing obscenely expensive. It's hard to square all of that money with paying $25 a night for an ACC Hut and dragging in your own chow. Of course, then you're having to eat your own chow, stink like a hibernating grizzly and have to crap outside while sitting on a block of ice. It's certainly worth having a hot tub and access to a massage therapist, as offered by CMH. It comes down to having top-notch food, drink and amenities at night with access to some pretty varied and remote terrain that I would likely never experience on my own.”
But the real advantage is the helicopter itself. Mcvicar summarizes, “There's a vast amount of terrain to choose from each day and the first lift. That precious lift saves starting the day with an hour or two of trudging uphill, nervously contemplating a stomach distended by an obscenely rich breakfast floating atop a gallon of coffee. That first run leaves you invigorated and ready for a full day of effort.”