With a he­li­copter as your ski lift, not even the sky’s the limit

In Bri­tish Columbia, the fresh­est pow­der — on the high­est peaks — awaits

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RACHEL WALKER

I’m air­borne. Pow­der swirls around my body. I dart through the spa­ces be­tween gi­ant spruce trees. Some­how, my brain cal­cu­lates the pitch of the slope and my bal­ance holds. Sec­onds af­ter hurtling off a small cliff deep in the Cana­dian backcountry, I land, carve a few turns and come to a dra­matic stop.

“J’ai la patate!” I ex­claim, heart rac­ing, adren­a­line surg­ing. “I have the po­tato!”

This is my new motto, be­stowed upon me by my two new French­men friends at Galena Lodge, Fabrice and Se­bas­tian, who told me I had the po­tato (a French id­iom that means be­ing in top form) af­ter our first run.

I’ve come to Bri­tish Columbia in early Jan­uary for a week of he­li­copter ski­ing — a seven-day re­prieve from re­al­ity do­ing run af­ter adren­a­line-packed run down 3,000-foot slopes with an air­craft as my ski lift.

There’s a say­ing, fa­mous among a cer­tain type of skier and snow­boarder: No friends on a pow­der day. These types of skiers (for bet- ter or worse, I con­sider my­self one of them) don’t wait for their friends when the con­di­tions are deep and light, be­cause ski­ing pow­der is as close as you can get to fly­ing. Re­sort lift lines stack up af­ter a big dump. Pow­der hounds guard their stashes of un­tracked, deep snow as if they were state se­crets.

Imag­ine, then, a world where there is not a mad rush to the top of a run and a fre­netic charge down the slope.

This is he­li­copter ski­ing at its essence.

Here, there are friends on a pow­der day be­cause ev­ery day is a pow­der day. There is an un­lim­ited sup­ply of “cold smoke,” the type of snow known to change life tra­jec­to­ries. Add in the he­li­copter to whisk you to the top and sud­denly the only lim­i­ta­tion to ski­ing the best snow known to mankind all day long is your phys­i­cal en­durance.

CMH Heli-Ski­ing of­fers the old­est he­li­copter-ski­ing op­er­a­tion in the world. Fo

unded in 1965 by the late Hans Gmoser with head­quar­ters in Banff, Al­berta, it has ex­clu­sive per­mits to fly he­li­copters and guide skiers in 11 backcountry ar­eas which, com­bined, en­com­pass more than 3 mil­lion acres of Bri­tish Columbia, an area roughly one-third the size of Switzer­land. Heli-ski­ing is es­sen­tially Alpine ski­ing in re­mote, moun­tain­ous ar­eas, mi­nus the chair lift. He­li­copters ferry groups of skiers and their highly trained, avalanch­esavvy, ex­tremely ath­letic guides to the tops of runs. Af­ter drop­ping every­one off, the pi­lot meets the skiers at the bot­tom of the de­scent, loads them up and does it all again.

Each ter­ri­tory in­cludes a lodge owned by CMH, and each lodge has its own per­son­al­ity. Galena, where I stayed, is con­sid­ered “rus­tic,” which trans­lates as in­ti­mate and down-to-earth. There’s a din­ing room and bar, a game room with bil­liards, darts and ping­pong, a ski shop (guests can use com­pany skis at no ad­di­tional cost), and a spa area with mas­sage rooms, a sauna, a steam room and a hot tub. Com­pared to some of the tents I’ve slept in dur­ing win­ter­camp­ing ex­cur­sions, Galena was lux­u­ri­ous. But re­turn visi­tors were quick to point out that some of the lodges are quite posh. In fact, Ski Mag­a­zine once named Vale­mount one of the five most luxe ski lodges in the world.

When skiers reg­is­ter, CMH asks them to as­sess their skill level. This is key, since lodges are as­signed ac­cord­ingly. Once they ar­rive, each skier and all their gear is weighed. Groups of 11 peo­ple are formed on the ba­sis of weight (so as not to ex­ceed the chop­pers’ car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity), skill, and, of course, in­di­vid­ual pref­er­ence. Those who came with friends nat­u­rally want to ski with friends. How­ever, the guides re­serve the right to re­ar­range groups based on abil­ity. As Aure­lian, a Swiss banker, said: “Every­one can get down the ter­rain, but it’s a ques­tion of how fast and hard they want to go.”

Like most, I said I wanted to go fast and hard. I was put in an eclec­tic, in­ter­na­tional group of French, Por­tuguese, Aus­tralians and Cana­di­ans. Al­though all were tech­ni­cally im­pec­ca­ble skiers, they were not champ­ing at the bit as I was. My wild-eyed ap­proach sug­gested I might fit bet­ter with a dif­fer­ent crew. The guides recog- nized this and let me ski with the faster groups for the rest of the week. It was the best of all worlds as I got to ski with al­most ev­ery guest at Galena. I also made friends, was able to prac­tice my French (heaven for a for­mer French ma­jor like me) and skied hard, log­ging 143,216 ver­ti­cal feet over seven days.

A good chunk of those ver­ti­cal feet were logged high above Galena’s sto­ried forests. A bit­ter cold front set­tled in the val­ley dur­ing my stay. Morn­ing tem­per­a­tures at the lodge were about mi­nus-10 de­grees Fahren­heit and the skies were clear and sunny. The cold weather con­trib­uted to rel­a­tively re­li­able snow sta­bil­ity — mean­ing the risk of avalanches was pretty low — so the guides took us to the tops of the gi­ant peaks and let us schuss down steep, open bowls and through nar­row chutes be­fore lead­ing us into the for­est. Re­turn guests re­marked that they had never be­fore ac­cessed so much above-tree­line ter­rain. There are few sights that can com­pare to sun­rise from a pris­tine peak in the heart of a mas­sive western range.

The truth is, I ex­pected the sub­lime ski­ing and the scenic moun­tain vis­tas — why else would any­one shell out thou­sands of dol­lars to heli-ski? What sur­prised me were the con­nec­tions I made. Come with your friends and of course you’ll have a bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to co­or­di­nate a group of 11 friends who all have the time, money and skill (not to men­tion the de­sire) to spend a week he­liski­ing in Canada. Which means you have to be pre­pared to go it alone, as I did. I thought I might be lonely or, worse, an in­ter­loper. In­stead, the bonds that formed on the slopes car­ried over: Be­fore I knew it, I was play­ing in a ping­pong tour­na­ment, crack­ing jokes and split­ting bot­tles of wine.

I left with new friends from all over the world. I’m plan­ning on vis­it­ing Ian and Paul, who be­came my din­ing com­pan­ions, when my fam­ily and I head to Bri­tain next sum­mer. Per­haps I’ll ski again with the French­men who told me I had the po­tato. Same goes for the Swiss cou­ple, the Aussies and the Amer­i­can con­tin­gent.

We’ll rem­i­nisce about that one per­fect run that started among burned snags, rem­nants of a lon­gago for­est fire, and then pitched into a rock gar­den. Or we’ll re­call the trail that gal­loped through old-growth spruce be­fore charg­ing to the he­li­copter land­ing, where we ar­rived breath­less and ec­static. Or, bet­ter yet, we’ll meet again in the Cana­dian backcountry, where we’ll climb out of a he­li­copter and click into our bind­ings be­fore carv­ing new mem­o­ries that will sus­tain us un­til the next time.

RACHEL WALKER

A he­li­copter op­er­ated by Cana­dian heli-ski­ing pi­o­neer CMH hugs a peak in Bri­tish Columbia’s Columbia Moun­tains.

PHO­TOS BY RACHEL WALKER

FROM TOP: A CMH Heli-Ski­ing he­li­copter rests dur­ing a lunch break; Se­bas­tian Thiry of Mar­seille, France, shows his joy af­ter a run at Galena Lodge in Bri­tish Columbia; part of a group takes a breather while watch­ing oth­ers take a run.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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