To Heli and Back

Our writer tries heli-skiing for the first time 


 

Photo by Brad White 

High above the Monashee Mountains near Revelstoke, B.C., vast snowfields stretch to the horizon, encircled by snow-toqued peaks and trimmed here and there with green robes of towering spruce. The terrain glitters in the morning sun, and, like a kid eyeing a tray of crystalline rock candy, I wonder which run we’ll sample first. 

Suddenly, the Bell 212 helicopter I’m riding in banks, causing the wind to hammer into the window with a loud chatter. I leave my stomach in the bluebird sky and brace for impact, but the copter settles effortlessly onto a downy pillow of white. 

It’s my first time attempting heli-skiing, and, while I’m ready for any and all adrenalin surges caused by the snow under my skis, I’m not prepared for the wild inaugural ride to the back of beyond. 

Our group of six skiers and two snowboarders files out and hunkers down in the fluffy flakes under the whir and roar of the machine’s blades. A guide with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the heli-ski operator that invented the sport 50 years ago, unloads the gear. Mission accomplished, the chopper lifts off and zooms down the valley, effectively marooning us high in an alpine bowl blanketed with feathery, knee-deep snow. There’s only one means of escape.

“Ski on either side of my tracks,” instructs CMH Revelstoke’s area manager and guide Steve Chambers before gamely leading the way.

I point my skis downhill and let gravity work its magic on the aptly named Vortex, carving turns in snow so light, it billows behind me like smoke. The rhythmic thump-whump, thump-whump of our turns and the force of our ski yodels (“Woohooooooo!”) shatter the morning stillness. Before the day is done, we’ll line up even more tracks down that mountain’s maiden flank. 

“Well, that didn’t suck,” deadpans Chambers.

“I could get used to this,” chimes in snowboarder Dan Pigat, another first-timer who becomes a heli-convert by day’s end.

We climb back into the awaiting chopper and, three minutes later—enough time to guzzle some water and slap feeling back into my frozen fingers—prepare to repeat, down a different slope with just as much virgin snow. 

With heli-skiing, it’s all untracked powder, all the time; the helicopter gives the pilot a bird’s-eye vantage for sussing out the best conditions in the company’s

gigantic 1,222-square-kilometre tenure near Revelstoke. Untouched powder is the main selling point for a resort skier like me, who’s accustomed to new snowfall getting tracked out after one or two runs. 

Chambers says anyone who’s a strong intermediate skier can heli-ski. To that I’d add: 1. Must like deep snow, 2. Must save up (single-day trips provide a more affordable gateway into the expensive sport) and 3. Must be in good shape. After the day’s five runs, my legs are burning tubes of jelly. 

It also helps to bust through the heli-ski myths that deter would-be participants. Prior to the trip, I told my niece, a good skier, that I was going heli-skiing. “I don’t think I could do that—I wouldn’t be able to jump out of the helicopter,” she replied, without a trace of irony. (That sort of thing only happens in movies.) 

Newbies also picture the cliffs and glaciers that lurk past the ski-area boundary and worry about getting caught in an avalanche, skiing into a crevasse or diving head-first into a tree well—unlikely outcomes that are addressed up front in a safety video and Q&A session. The guides choose terrain appropriate for the group’s ability. It’s the backcountry, though, and there are obstacles that aren’t encountered on groomed resort runs. Lumps in the snow can signal rocks, tree stumps or death cookies (hunks of compacted snow) from an old avalanche. Chambers is adept at pointing out such hazards. 

To reduce avalanche risk, a support helicopter crew checks snowpack stability daily from various locations, and CMH equips all guests with avalanche transceivers, two-way radios and backpacks with a shovel and probe. We practice using the equipment before boarding the helicopter.

At midday, we ski down to our lunch spot next to a frozen alpine lake, where we enjoy cups of hot potato and leek soup and feast on turkey and cranberry baguettes while seated on “chairs” (our backpacks atop snow) under a weak winter sun. Then, it’s back into the helicopter to fly off in search of more steep shots and pillow drops. We find the money run on High Roller, the final run of the day. 

I begin a rollicking descent between snow-encased  trees and over meringue puffs that cover rocks, landing in powder that reaches my thighs. It’s just as light as the morning’s runs, but, in deeper snow, the skiing isn’t quite so effortless. Still, we whoop it up through the glades, hot-dogging around giant spruce sentinels like racers on a slalom course. I catch my breath on the final traverse alongside a creek, following the tracks ahead until I see my ride back to Revelstoke.

My ski day may be over, but I’ll get one more adrenalin hit as the chopper bears us east back to civilization.

Getting There: WestJet flies to Kelowna (two hours from Revelstoke) 16 times a day from six Canadian, three U.S. and three international cities.

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