Who goes heli-skiing? You've heard the stereotype: That it's only for well-to-do, aging men. In reality, this appears to be absolutely true. Of the 44 guests in the lodge this week, there are just three women, and only a handful of men under 40. The humor is decidedly male, which is to say immature, borderline sophomoric, centering mostly on various body parts and functions and the films of Chevy Chase and Mike Myers. An almost palpable haze of testosterone hangs in the air—or maybe that's just from all the Kokanees Jim's drinking.
The token women roll their eyes and gamely put up with us. In our group, Million-Foot Dave's wife, Saint Leslie, has skied 60 days at Whistler this year and can handle anything the Monashees can dish out-as well as whatever raunchiness we can throw at her. She claims she even prefers the company of men, which may just be for our benefit.
Typically, there are a number of Europeans guests in a given week, and this is true on our visit. Apparently, the Euros are deeply enamored of Canandian heliskiing, as much or moreso than North Americans. You'd think with the Alps in their backyard, they'd be happy to ski closer to home. In fact, we hear that CMH's European agents have offered to buy every available week at every CMH lodge, but the company has declined.
Getting in isn't easy, even if you try to book long in advance. CMH has been careful not to grow too fast, so demand is greater than supply. The best advice: book your trip through one of the third-party agents who represent the company. You can also do it yourself over the phone, as Jamie did for our trip, but it isn't easy or a sure bet. In fact, it's a little like trying to score tickets for a Grateful Dead concert: Every year, on a day in late November, the phone lines open at 8:30 Mountain Time, and the remaining prime weeks, those that haven't been presold to the third-party agents, are quickly snapped by whomever is able to get through. Jamie used two phones, and only got through after two hours of constant redialing. By then, only two weeks remained at the Monashee Lodge. With a group of six, we were lucky to get what we needed.
Day 3 dawned to light snowfall, exactly as forecasted. After a day of high alpine, most of us were eager to get back in the trees, which is what you do when it snows, since the visibility there is better both for the skiers and, more importantly, for our pilot, Jamie. We were not disappointed. On this day, our guide was Hammer-that's his last name, but an appropriate moniker, given the way he skis. The word means the same in German as it does in English.
Hammer is a tall, thin Austrian, a former boardercross competitor with a righteous mullet: short in front, long in back, something you don't see on a lot of Europeans. Even in the falling snow, he skis without a hat, his blond curls bouncing behind him as rips through the trees, pausing occasionally to count us. Run after run, we dart and dodge through the spruces, minding the tree wells, trying not to get separated from the group or to accidentally ski below Hammer when he has paused. Wherever the opportunity presents itself, we pop off huge pillows and drops, sometimes sticking the landing and skiing out, sometimes not ... it doesn't matter with such deep snow. Air can be had with impunity, which isn't something an Eastern skier can say back home, where the landings are just a little firmer.
Though we can see how the guides might prefer to ski in the high alpine zone, where sight lines are endless and it's easier to keep track of any strays in the group, we all agree the trees are best. It's lower elevation, so the bottom 10 percent of each run is crusty this time of year. But mostly it's just pure bliss. There's no wind to pack and stiffen the powder, so the snow is deeper and softer, and picking lines through the steep, perfectly spaced trees is a more individual process. No two lines are the same, and creativity is rewarded.
Among the highlightss, while we waited for the chopper ride back to the top of our third run, we saw the group behind us coming down a slide path toward a series of ledges. First behind the guide was Jill, a former U.S. national freestyler, who was skiing beautifully until the first drop threw her a bit off balance. The resulting tumble, head-over-heels for 50 yards or so, drew hoots and hollers from our crew. She eventually made a good recovery, skied out, and took a bow for us.
Meanwhile, California Kirk's problems continued. After battling the traverses the day before, he had switched to skis, only to have one of his boots blow up. We saw him at the LZ, waiting for a ride back to the lodge.
The rest of us agreed it was the best day of the week so far. I couldn't recall a better day of skiing in my life. We logged 27,000-plus vertical feet, all of it in the trees with a steady snow falling, but not holding us back. By the end of our third day, most of us were whipped, but happy. And with more snow in the forecast, the following day held the promise of yet more powder-choked tree-skiing.