Heli-skiing course helps novice wilderness skiers master the steeps

4 years ago

"Never been glade skiing in the wilderness before? Just don`t look at the trees and you`ll do fine," instructs the man I`ve just met, who has my life in his hands for the next seven days.

Perched on a windswept ridge-line, I digest his advice while the Bell 212 helicopter that just deposited us on the roof of British Columbia`s Cariboo Mountains swoops away between snow-capped peaks that rise like white-caps on an ocean of clouds.

Forcing visions of a head-on hardwood collision from my mind, I point my fat skis toward the fall line of a wide, untouched slope smothered by a blanket of powder. Further down lies an obstacle course of snow-encrusted fir trees that take on whimsical shapes.

I`m awkwardly carving drunken S-shapes in the snow, tumbling often into waist-deep, featherlight powder. Then cautiously weaving through the silent forest far below, forcing myself not to look at those darn trees. The whoosh of my boards, yelps of joy from my companions, and our guide`s "whoop whoop!" yodel, directing us toward our pickup location are the only sounds that break the silence of this timeless wilderness. No wonder they call your first heli-skiing run "the point of no return."

Helicopter-assisted skiing and snowboarding in western Canadian mountain ranges like the Cariboos, Selkirks and Bugaboos is as good as it gets. Easy access to massive amounts of terrain, unmatched snow conditions and some of the best operators in the business have made this rugged region legendary among powder hounds. So what`s a powder pup like me with barely an off-piste run to my name doing off the grid, playing with the big dogs?

Until recently, heli-skiing was generally considered an extreme sport only accessible to well-heeled, elite skiers. Like most mountain mortals I watched those Warren Miller movies showing daredevils plunging down impossibly steep and deep wilderness runs in exhilarating dances with gravity with awe and envy.

Then I heard about an innovative new weeklong intro to heli-skiing course offered this season by industry leader Canadian Mountain Holidays. Designed to make heli-skiing more accessible to average resort skiers with deep pockets and a willingness to get outside their comfort zones, "Powder 101" aims to help them make the transition to a new world of deep powder wilderness skiing. Suddenly, learning to carve my snowy signature down untracked slopes blanketed with the fluffiest champagne powder on Earth seemed achievable for a groomer grinder.

Since CMH practically invented the sport of heli-skiing in North America, and has been the undisputed industry leader for over 40 years, and has exclusive access to a wilderness area half the size of Switzerland, I figured I`d be in good hands on my first foray way, way out of bounds.

"If you`re comfortable on intermediate runs at most resorts, willing to tackle the occasional black diamond run, and have a real sense of adventure, you`re ready for Powder 101," the CMH representative assured me.

Fast-forward a month and here I am living every skier`s wildest dream - riding in helicopters, cruising down untouched glaciers where a single "run" would hold entire ski areas in other parts of the world, and carving first tracks though pristine backcountry filled with evergreen forests half buried in the fluffiest snow on Earth.

All under the expert supervision of senior CMH guide J.F. Lacombe, a warm, exuberant and incredibly patient French-Canadian who has been leading groups into these mountains with CMH for nearly 20 years. He recently helped design the Powder 101 intro program, which features two guides, on-slope instruction and a more relaxed pace.

"This week I`m going to show you all how to safely ski with a partner in the mountains and forests and recognize some of the hazards inherent in wilderness skiing," Lacombe explains to my group of Powder 101ers during mandatory avalanche training on our first morning at CMH`s Cariboo Lodge.

Safety, of course, is of paramount concern in heli-skiing, where fatalities do occasionally occur. No matter how well trained and prepared we are, equipped with avalanche beacons, shovels and probes, the real risk remains that we might inadvertently trigger one of these deadly tsunamis of snow, ice, rocks and debris that every winter snuff out lives in the wilderness. Or plunge into tree wells - dangerous areas of deep, loose snow surrounding the buried trunks of trees that can literally swallow up a wayward skier or snowboarder, possibly causing serious injury or death.

"My biggest concern from a safety perspective prior to coming was the risk of avalanches, the idea of flying in the helicopter, and as we got into the training, the tree wells," admits Powder 101er Brian Nilstoft, a pharmaceutical industry executive from Delaware on a long-awaited family adventure with his brother Erik and retired father, Clas, a ski racer in his youth who now lives in Aspen.

"There was a lot of trepidation and anxiety. Two weeks out I called my dad and said I`m really nervous. He said he was nervous too," Nilstoft adds.

Initial concerns quickly turn to childlike delight as our novice group (ranging in age from 35-79, roughly a third of whom are female) gradually gets its backcountry groove on. With Lacombe`s expert guidance, I quickly learn to relax my burning quads and find the rhythm of floating on deep powder, leaving what resemble jet streams of snow in my wake.

Executing small vertical movements instead of wide carving arcs, turning both skis into a single platform while bouncing up and down slightly to pressure the snow, maintaining level shoulders facing the fall line to better negotiate the tight turns required while skiing trees, and resisting the urge to sit back when the going gets steep - it all starts to make muscle memory sense after a couple of days.

Speed, I soon discover, is also my friend on powder, unlike on groomed runs, where rapid acceleration often ends in a crash. The faster I go, the better I`m able to maintain my balance and float on top of the powder, which acts as a natural break if I exceed my velocity comfort zone and risk overtaking Lacombe. Heli-skiing cardinal rule No. 1: the guide must always remain well out in front of the group to plot the safest course through avalanche zones and avoid potentially deadly encounters with cornices, rocks, crevasses and hidden cliffs.

The satisfaction that comes with learning the basics of backcountry skiing is rivalled only by the camaraderie that rapidly forms within our group.

"Each of us has a responsibility to look out for our partners and for the entire group," says Lacombe one day over a slopeside lunch delivered by chopper when I ask him what, besides the spectacular scenery and singular adventure, makes heli-skiing so special and rewarding.

"There`s this sense of shared accountability that you wouldn`t necessarily encounter at a ski resort. These mountains have a way of bringing people together, and also of bringing them down to Earth," he says.

For 69-year-old Evans Ward, a Vietnam veteran on his first heli-skiing tour of duty, this week is ultimately about teamwork.

"Heli-skiing is a totally unique experience. There are no lift lines. You`re out there all by yourselves. On top of incredibly beautiful mountains, watching out for each other, which produces instant group camaraderie," he says, joking that the last time he was in a helicopter he was being shot at.

"This is a whole lot better," Ward adds, smiling.

What, indeed, could be better than having at your exclusive disposal nearly 2,600 square kilometres of the world`s most challenging ski-able terrain dumped on by up to 15 metres of snow per season. A helicopter standing by to deliver you daily to snowfields of your dreams. A luxury wilderness lodge to call home that offers gourmet cuisine, a well-stocked wine cellar and pampering spa facilities. Most refreshing of all, a genuinely friendly staff that goes out of their way to make you feel like you`re spending a week at a family-run lodge. Everyone from senior guides to cleaning staff pitches in to serve dinner and dine with the guests. Staff even come skiing with us when time and helicopter space permits.

"If you`re an avid skier, heli-skiing is something that you just have to do," says another Powder 101er, Caro-line Goetzke from Melbourne, Australia, as she wipes snow from her goggles before our final run of the week.

"You can look at so many photos of this enormous expanse of skiable terrain that you just can`t fathom until the helicopter lands and you`re standing on top of a mountain," she says, gazing across the valley at the summit of Mount Robson at 3,954 metres, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies.

I can still hardly fathom what a transformative experience this week of heli-skiing has been for me. I never dreamed I would be able to "write my name on the face of the Gods."

Never imagined experiencing such beauty in such an exhilarating way.

And when the Europeans, Americans and Australians gush over dinner at the lodge about this breathtaking expanse of great Canadian wilderness, I can`t stop from beaming proudly.

It`s a wonderful backyard to call my own, even if I still can`t occasionally see the forests for the trees on glade runs that just a week earlier I would only have experienced flashing by me on TV.


- Canadian Mountain Holidays offers 11 heli-ski areas in British Columbia. Each location offers world-class heli-skiing, with access to both wide-open glacier skiing and tree (glade) skiing. All lodges provide comfortable rooms with fully stocked private baths, gourmet cuisine and spa facilities.

- CMH`s Cariboo Lodge is located in British Columbia`s Cariboo Range, which offers a wide range of both extensive alpine runs and phenomenal tree skiing. Consistently high levels of snowfall in the North Thompson Valley ensure that the Cariboos enjoy prime heli-skiing conditions until late in the season.

- Powder 101: The Intro is CMH`s new course designed for skiers ready to make the transition to powder skiing. Each intro group consists of up to 10 skiers. These trips are designed to introduce strong intermediate skiers to deep snow skiing and move them past the initial hurdles of skiing in wilderness terrain. This program is not for beginner skiers. You should be a newcomer to deep snow skiing and at least a strong intermediate skier.

- Trip costs: Seven-day Powder 101 trips are available starting from $6,100 per person, which includes all meals and transport to and from Calgary.

- When to go: Heli-skiing season in Western Canada normally runs from December until the end of April, and occasionally into May.

- Getting there: CMH trips begin and end in Calgary, from where guests are transported by bus and helicopter to the company`s remote wilderness lodges.

- Peak preparation: Proper conditioning is vital to making the most of your heli-skiing holiday. Hire a personal trainer, hit the gym, and start a serious exercise and stretching program at least eight weeks before your trip.

While you`re in the mountains, take part in the lodge`s daily stretching/warm-up sessions.

- Recommended gear: Outfitting yourself in the right all-weather gear is essential to getting the most out of your heli-skiing holiday. Two industry leading Vancouver-based technical clothing manufacturers, Arc`teryx and Westcomb, provide premium-quality, stylish, highly functional all-mountain apparel lines guaranteed to make your days carving fresh wilderness tracks as comfortable as possible.

- You also may want to pack a handy hands-free video camera to document your alpine adventures, Then post the proof online for all of your jealous friends and family back home to see.

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