Get Back: Heli-ski Tour­ing


SkiTrax - - Contents -

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.”

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