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Heli for the Holidays

Heli for the Holidays

Family heliskiing? It's not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it's something of a trend. How one enthusiastic dad, one reluctant mom, and two jaded teenage daughters ditched tradition - and spent ...
By Joe Cutts
posted: 12/11/2007
Pure powder.

The folks at Canadian Mountain Holidays had a problem. Not a bad one, really - everything being relative when you dwell amid the scenic splendor of the British Columbia wilderness and make a living skiing powder with ridiculously happy clients. Nevertheless, Christmas week, when the days are short but the powder is deep, was always a tough sell. Why? Look at the sport's demographics. It's mostly middle-aged and older men who have the time and resources to heliski - guys who've arrived at a point in life when they're looking for a little adventure, a reward for their hard work. Those guys tend to have families. Families tend to have plans for Christmas. Solution? Simple. Bring the kids, says CMH. Bring your wife. Bring gramps. Pack up your holiday celebration and bring it to the mountains of British Columbia for a white Christmas you'll never forget.

As it turns out, CMH is not alone. Mike Wiegele, the other heli giant, now offers family programs as well. Nor is this innovation limited to Christmas. Easter week had traditionally been another soft spot in the reservations book, so it, too, has been opened up, at dedicated lodges, to the family market.

Family heliskiing? If on its face it seems preposterous, I'm here to say it isn't. CMH and other heli operators have long insisted that any strong intermediate with experience in powder can handle - and enjoy - a week of heliskiing. In fact, I'd disagree with that. You don't even have to be a strong intermediate, or even have much experience in powder, as long as you're game and reasonably fit. I will admit I had to see it to believe it. But after watching my wife and kids - and another half-dozen like-minded families - thrive and delight in a week of untracked lines and holiday conviviality, I'm convinced.

Here's how it works. Sometime in late fall, when the leaves are gone and the days are dreary and damp, you finally admit to your girls that the reservations have been made and the flights are booked - that they really are going heliskiing. At home, the Vermont skies are leaden, but it refuses to snow. Or even get cold. Rain cancels the early-season slalom camp. The home hill is still closed in December. Everyone's miserable.

Everyone, that is, except me and the girls. When another warm front passes through, when we notice the rose bushes still haven't gone dormant in this most freakish of Decembers, when things look their bleakest, we go online and check snow depths in the Selkirks and Bugaboos and Monashees and Gothics. Two hundred centimeters at treeline. "Is that a lot, Dad? Yes, girls. Even in skimpy little centimeters, that's a lot.

The girls are tortured with anticipation and full of questions. Is the lodge nice? Will there be lots of other kids? Will we be able to handle it? (Yes on all counts.) Mom, however, is decidedly less enthusiastic. Tortured with anticipation, too, but in a notably different way. She backs out daily. "You go, honey. I'll spend Christmas in Minneapolis, with Nona.

[pagebreak]

Mom, in fact, is the key - the key to the success of our trip, and the key to the aspirations of CMH, which must convince women like her that heliskiing is safe and, more important, something they'd enjoy. In that regard, we're the perfect test family. I have no worries about my girls, twin 13-year-olds who can ski anything Vermont throws at them. It's their mother I worry about. She who gropes for a handhold every time I pull into the passing lane. Who leaves deep fingernail imprints in the armrests of airliners. Who, during a visit to Bermuda, proceeds at a cautious, unwavering 20 mph on her rented scooter, no matter how many cars are backed up behind her. She's not a risk-taker, and the thought of her donning an avalanche beacon and climbing into a chopper is preposterous.

I can admit this now: I didn't care. She could deal. We'd bring snowshoes. They've got cross-country skis up there and lots of trails. I'd make sure sheacked a few fat books and knew where the sauna and hot tub were. But if by some chance - some miracle - she actually enjoyed it, if she had no regrets about a Christmas away from home and extended family and holiday traditions, and if she would do it again, I'd know for sure that CMH was onto something.

The big day arrives, a Friday, four days before Christmas. The dogsitter is lined up, the thermostat lowered. Grandmothers expecting the usual Christmas visit have been gently let down - and reassured that heliskiing does not, in fact, involve leaping from hovering helicopters. Our taxi honks in the driveway, and it's time to go.

We arrive in Calgary late at night and tired, but now we can let CMH take over. It'll eat up most of Saturday to get to the Gothics Lodge. The chartered bus rumbles through Calgary's perimeter sprawl, out across the prairies, into the mountains. On board, families who will grow to be good friends over the course of the week still mostly stick to themselves. The girls read trashy magazines and peek about the cabin, sizing up the otherkids - a good half-dozen, including three mop-headed boys with mp3 buds stuffed in their ears. One of the boys strums a Fender Stratocaster. He'll need watching, I think. Not even nervous Mom can help but enjoy the scenery. It's a six-and-a-half-hour ride in good weather, every bit of it gorgeous. For the last hour, from Revelstoke north to the Gothics Lodge, we shadow the Columbia River between forested mountainsides.

Gothics isn't CMH's most lavish lodge. (After you've seen Monashee Lodge, 20 miles north, you get a little spoiled.) But it's plenty nice, and the girls, Mom included, are thrilled. It sits beside a tributary - Goldstream River — about 10 miles upstream from the Columbia, surrounded by wooded slopes, utterly isolated. There are three wings: employee quarters, guest rooms and a central wing with a ski shop, fitness room, game room, sauna, hot tub, dining room, bar, guides' office and fireplace lounge. The guest rooms are simple and comfortable, their bathrooms stocked with environmentally friendly soap. Parents take up all the doubles, so the girls, to their delight, each get single rooms, which soon rival their rooms back home for appalling messiness.

After settling in, we're assigned skis, poles and transceivers for the week, then report to safety training outside the lodge, where we meet our guides and pilot, who spend an hour preparing us for the worst while reassuring us that nothing untoward is likely to happen.

Afterward, I notice that Mom's smile is a little less strained, which is strange. After all, they've just shown us how to climb out of a helicopter if it happens to be lying on its side and explained to us how many minutes a buried avalanche victim is likely to survive (provided they aren't dead of trauma). They had us practice our search-and-recovery technique by burying transceivers in the snow - and even I had a moment's pause when it occurred to me that in the unlikely event of emergency, it might be one of my girls we're looking for. Rather than spooked, though, Mom feels empowered. She's reassured by the obvious care and planning that goes into safety around here. At the same time, she's just plain pleased with herself now that she knows her way around an Ortovox.

[pagebreak]

We retire to the dining room for a splendid dinner, seated family style with our guides, then turn in early.

It snows another six inches or so overnight, and we wake to the charming sound of one of the house staff striding the halls with a tinkling bell. It's a CMH tradition. Both girls are up and dressed before I am. (I can't remember the last time that happened.) Mom heads for the morning stretch class. The girls and I figure we're limber enough and go straight to the coffee and breakfast buffet.

The guests have been divided into three groups by ability. Mom has identified herself as a never-ever heliskier, so she's separated from the girls and me, who are in Group 3, the last to depart the lodge. Soon we're on the front porch, watching the chopper land, its micro-blizzard of prop-wash blasting over Mom's group as they huddle on the helipad. I breathe deep, savoring the faint whiff of Bell 212 exhaust, and we watch Mom clamber aboard and disappear into the sky. Ten minutes later, it's our turn. The chopper returns, the girls and I scramble aboard, and we rise above the lodge, banking upward toward the mountains. Below us, the working landscape of logging cut-blocks and mining roads gives way to pristine snowfields as we near our first run, called Crossroads. It's too loud to talk much. The girls and I can only exchange grins of excitement.

But I'm dismayed to see how steep the first pitch is - too steep for Mom, I fear.I stand near the guides to monitor their radios. If Group 2 is having a problem with a client who can't handle the powder, I figure I'll hear it. ("Uh, Group 3,sit tight; we're going to make a quick trip back to the lodge. Or something like that.) But so far, so good. And after all the waiting and anticipation, we're finally here, stepping into our bindings and zooming off in untracked, thigh-deep powder amid the silent spruce forest.

Skiing in snow this deep is a new experience for the girls. As I expected, there are some rough spots and moments of frustration during the first couple of days, but after that they're seasoned heli pros. As for Mom, we don't see her again until we return to the lodge. And when we do, we're astonished: She's absolutely beaming. Sure, she came back to the lodge at the earliest opportunity, not wanting to push her luck, but she did it. I can't believe it: my wife, the heliskier.

It's interesting to see how CMH retools its standard program for family weeks. For starters, the Gothics offer some of CMH's least frightening terrain, and naturally, head guide Claude Dechesne, an affable Quebecois, steers family-week groups toward pitches they can handle. But he's also imported two female guides, Lillianne and Lindsay, from other CMH lodges. The male guides are all great, as usual, but the female guests are delighted to have some of their own in charge. More importantly, Lillianne and Lindsay are marvelous role models, and we're delighted to expose our girls to such strong, capable women.

CMH also doubles the usual guide-to-guest ratio during family weeks, so each group has two guides instead of the usual one. Normally, at the top of each run, a guest is designated to wear a radio pack and serve as sweeper in case anyone encounters difficulty. But with two guides, that duty can be left to a pro.

It turns out I was wrong to worry that my wife would be the tentative skier who slows everyone down. Her group includes two other game but similarly inexperienced women. One of the guests, Christian, has even brought his 7-year-old daughter, Ashleigh. During the week, Claude will bring his own 7-year-old, Annemarie, up from home. It's partly because CMH knows that having to work during the holidays is tough on guides who have families, but it's nice for Ashleigh to have a playmate. She and Annemarie become fast friends and heliskiing buddies. Both are stronger skiers than the average 7-year-old, and while both will experience moments of difficulty, they won't slow down their group. Moreover, the faster groups can always leapfrog the slower ones, allowing them to take their time while the helicopter picks up whichever group is ready.

[pagebreak]

And yet, while concessions are made for the less experienced, our group also includes a number of very strong skiers, and they're well provided for. As each day progresses, slower skiers tend to drop out and return to the lodge. By lunchtime, only the die-hards remain, champing at the bit for steeper, longer runs, and guides are more than happy to oblige. I came here resigned to skiing mellow runs and enjoying quality family's separated from the girls and me, who are in Group 3, the last to depart the lodge. Soon we're on the front porch, watching the chopper land, its micro-blizzard of prop-wash blasting over Mom's group as they huddle on the helipad. I breathe deep, savoring the faint whiff of Bell 212 exhaust, and we watch Mom clamber aboard and disappear into the sky. Ten minutes later, it's our turn. The chopper returns, the girls and I scramble aboard, and we rise above the lodge, banking upward toward the mountains. Below us, the working landscape of logging cut-blocks and mining roads gives way to pristine snowfields as we near our first run, called Crossroads. It's too loud to talk much. The girls and I can only exchange grins of excitement.

But I'm dismayed to see how steep the first pitch is - too steep for Mom, I fear.I stand near the guides to monitor their radios. If Group 2 is having a problem with a client who can't handle the powder, I figure I'll hear it. ("Uh, Group 3,sit tight; we're going to make a quick trip back to the lodge. Or something like that.) But so far, so good. And after all the waiting and anticipation, we're finally here, stepping into our bindings and zooming off in untracked, thigh-deep powder amid the silent spruce forest.

Skiing in snow this deep is a new experience for the girls. As I expected, there are some rough spots and moments of frustration during the first couple of days, but after that they're seasoned heli pros. As for Mom, we don't see her again until we return to the lodge. And when we do, we're astonished: She's absolutely beaming. Sure, she came back to the lodge at the earliest opportunity, not wanting to push her luck, but she did it. I can't believe it: my wife, the heliskier.

It's interesting to see how CMH retools its standard program for family weeks. For starters, the Gothics offer some of CMH's least frightening terrain, and naturally, head guide Claude Dechesne, an affable Quebecois, steers family-week groups toward pitches they can handle. But he's also imported two female guides, Lillianne and Lindsay, from other CMH lodges. The male guides are all great, as usual, but the female guests are delighted to have some of their own in charge. More importantly, Lillianne and Lindsay are marvelous role models, and we're delighted to expose our girls to such strong, capable women.

CMH also doubles the usual guide-to-guest ratio during family weeks, so each group has two guides instead of the usual one. Normally, at the top of each run, a guest is designated to wear a radio pack and serve as sweeper in case anyone encounters difficulty. But with two guides, that duty can be left to a pro.

It turns out I was wrong to worry that my wife would be the tentative skier who slows everyone down. Her group includes two other game but similarly inexperienced women. One of the guests, Christian, has even brought his 7-year-old daughter, Ashleigh. During the week, Claude will bring his own 7-year-old, Annemarie, up from home. It's partly because CMH knows that having to work during the holidays is tough on guides who have families, but it's nice for Ashleigh to have a playmate. She and Annemarie become fast friends and heliskiing buddies. Both are stronger skiers than the average 7-year-old, and while both will experience moments of difficulty, they won't slow down their group. Moreover, the faster groups can always leapfrog the slower ones, allowing them to take their time while the helicopter picks up whichever group is ready.

[pagebreak]

And yet, while concessions are made for the less experienced, our group also includes a number of very strong skiers, and they're well provided for. As each day progresses, slower skiers tend to drop out and return to the lodge. By lunchtime, only the die-hards remain, champing at the bit for steeper, longer runs, and guides are more than happy to oblige. I came here resigned to skiing mellow runs and enjoying quality family time, but I get more than my fill of steep stuff in the afternoons.

You expect a fun, interesting crowd when you go heliskiing, and we're not disappointed. We make friends with Andrew and Yeye, proper Brits who live in Mary Shelley's old house in the Knightsbridge section of London. They're here with their college-aged son and daughter, Max and Rose. The mop-headed boys belong to Pam, a slim, attractive San Diego woman. Back on the bus, we figured she divorced well, and that the chill dude with the three-day stubble must be her boy-toy. Turns out they're college sweethearts and experienced adventure travelers. Dennis used to make mix tapes for parties and got to thinking there ought to be a better way - a digital way - to do it. In 2004, he sold his digital music file-management company, Musicmatch, to Yahoo for $160 million. As far as I can figure, he invented iTunes before Apple did, then cashed out just in time. His new venture: Internet radio.

Pam and Dennis's three boys are Jake, Charlie and Sam, ages 18, 15 and 13, and they'll be fast friends with my girls by week's end. (Charlie's the kid with the Strat, and I decide he's OK after hearing him riff on "The Wind Cries Mary.) There's Hillary, here with her dad and older brother, Holden. She's a 15-year-old racer who rips powder like the Kirkwood local she is. There's Ky - here with his dad - who cracks me up with his dead-on Borat. ("Very nize!) And Dillon, also here with his dad. By the second or third night, the kids have abandoned their parents and staked out their own table for dinner. Only the guides are deemed cool enough to sit with them. The kids are a tightly knit, roving pack that owns the lodge. They're having the time of their lives - at least I know my daughters are - and they don't have time for parents.

On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus, who has a German accent similar to that of Stefan the guide, pays a visit with gifts. On Christmas morning, we ski as usual - just another day in paradise. In the afternoon, we call the grandparents. We send emails to Uncle Jamie, just so we can gloat about how much powder there is. No one misses the Christmas traditions that normally seem so sacred.

The house staff, as usual, consists of cool, capable, good-humored young Canadians who are fun to be around. I do notice that having wives and kids here cuts into the usual boys-around-the-bar camaraderie late in the evenings. Minor complaint.

The kids play ping-pong and throw darts in the game room. The guides have built an igloo for them. There's an evening of broomball and mulled cider on the fire pond. The kids dash from hot tub to a hole in the ice for polar-bear plunges. It's astonishing how quickly seven days can pass.

In the end, my family agrees: best Christmas ever. Mom finds a rhythm - a few runs in the morning, a massage and a book in the afternoon. She'll only rack up 23,492 of her guaranteed 100,000 vertical feet, but we couldn't be more proud of her. Would she go back? Absolutely.

The girls each double her vert. They'd ski even more, but life back at the lodge is so much fun that they're content to return after seven or eight runs each day. Months later, they're still in touch with their heliskiing buddies. I ask them to ask the California boys what they thought. Sam writes: "The powder was amazing, and everyone was so friendly. Going back to Tahoe next year definitely won't be as exciting. Jake writes: "It was one of the most extreme, exciting and exhilarating things I've ever done, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

[pagebreak]

As for me, I get all the powder and steeps I want - but something far more precious, too. At some point along the way, my little girls have turned into young women, and as teenagers, it's their obligation to affect attitudes of nonchalance and world-weary ennui. But at Gothics Lodge and on the slopes of the Canadian Rockies, I'm treated on several occasions to the sweet, broad, unguardedd grins that I so miss from the adorable old days. For a week, we're all kids at Christmas again, playing in the snow.

Are you and yours heli ready?
Both CMH and Mike Wiegele Heliskiing, the other heli giant, stress that any strong intermediate skier with a reasonable amount of powder experience is capable of heliskiing. CMH defines "child as aged 12—17, but will consider children younger than that on a case-by-case basis; call them to describe your child's ability and discuss it.

In addition to normal heliskiing operations, based out of its central campus in Blue River, B.C., Mike Wiegele offers a new intro-to-heliskiing venue at nearby Saddle Mountain. Wiegele also recently began offering kids' camps during spring break, with instruction and leadership provided by celebrity guides - typically former Canadian Ski Team members. For information on all Wiegele programs:  

GETTING THERE: Most guests fly to Calgary, arriving Saturday, then ride a CMH charter bus to their final destination. Airline service from Calgary to Revelstoke or Valemount is also available through Powder Air (canadianmountainholidays.com; 800-661-0252

me, but I get more than my fill of steep stuff in the afternoons.

 

You expect a fun, interesting crowd when you go heliskiing, and we're not disappointed. We make friends with Andrew and Yeye, proper Brits who live in Mary Shelley's old house in the Knightsbridge section of London. They're here with their college-aged son and daughter, Max and Rose. The mop-headed boys belong to Pam, a slim, attractive San Diego woman. Back on the bus, we figured she divorced well, and that the chill dude with the three-day stubble must be her boy-toy. Turns out they're college sweethearts and experienced adventure travelers. Dennis used to make mix tapes for parties and got to thinking there ought to be a better way - a digital way - to do it. In 2004, he sold his digital music file-management company, Musicmatch, to Yahoo for $160 million. As far as I can figure, he invented iTunes before Apple did, then cashed out just in time. His new venture: Internet radio.

Pam and Dennis's three boys are Jake, Charlie and Sam, ages 18, 15 and 13, and they'll be fast friends with my girls by week's end. (Charlie's the kid with the Strat, and I decide he's OK after hearing him riff on "The Wind Cries Mary.) There's Hillary, here with her dad and older brother, Holden. She's a 15-year-old racer who rips powder like the Kirkwood local she is. There's Ky - here with his dad - who cracks me up with his dead-on Borat. ("Very nize!) And Dillon, also here with his dad. By the second or third night, the kids have abandoned their parents and staked out their own table for dinner. Only the guides are deemed cool enough to sit with them. The kids are a tightly knit, roving pack that owns the lodge. They're having the time of their lives - at least I know my daughters are - and they don't have time for parents.

On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus, who has a German accent similar to that of Stefan the guide, pays a visit with gifts. On Christmas morning, we ski as usual - just another day in paradise. In the afternoon, we call the grandparents. We send emails to Uncle Jamie, just so we can gloat about how much powder there is. No one misses the Christmas traditions that normally seem so sacred.

The house staff, as usual, consists of cool, capable, good-humored young Canadians who are fun to be around. I do notice that having wives and kids here cuts into the usual boys-around-the-bar camaraderie late in the evenings. Minor complaint.

The kids play ping-pong and throw darts in the game room. The guides have built an igloo for them. There's an evening of broomball and mulled cider on the fire pond. The kids dash from hot tub to a hole in the ice for polar-bear plunges. It's astonishing how quickly seven days can pass.

In the end, my family agrees: best Christmas ever. Mom finds a rhythm - a few runs in the morning, a massage and a book in the afternoon. She'll only rack up 23,492 of her guaranteed 100,000 vertical feet, but we couldn't be more proud of her. Would she go back? Absolutely.

The girls each double her vert. They'd ski even more, but life back at the lodge is so much fun that they're content to return after seven or eight runs each day. Months later, they're still in touch with their heliskiing buddies. I ask them to ask the California boys what they thought. Sam writes: "The powder was amazing, and everyone was so friendly. Going back to Tahoe next year definitely won't be as exciting. Jake writes: "It was one of the most extreme, exciting and exhilarating things I've ever done, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

[pagebreak]

As for me, I get all the powder and steeps I want - but something far more precious, too. At some point along the way, my little girls have turned into young women, and as teenagers, it's their obligation to affect attitudes of nonchalance and world-weary ennui. But at Gothics Lodge and on the slopes of the Canadian Rockies, I'm treated on several occasions to the sweet, broad, unguarded grins that I so miss from the adorable old days. For a week, we're all kids at Christmas again, playing in the snow.

Are you and yours heli ready?
Both CMH and Mike Wiegele Heliskiing, the other heli giant, stress that any strong intermediate skier with a reasonable amount of powder experience is capable of heliskiing. CMH defines "child as aged 12—17, but will consider children younger than that on a case-by-case basis; call them to describe your child's ability and discuss it.

In addition to normal heliskiing operations, based out of its central campus in Blue River, B.C., Mike Wiegele offers a new intro-to-heliskiing venue at nearby Saddle Mountain. Wiegele also recently began offering kids' camps during spring break, with instruction and leadership provided by celebrity guides - typically former Canadian Ski Team members. For information on all Wiegele programs:  

GETTING THERE: Most guests fly to Calgary, arriving Saturday, then ride a CMH charter bus to their final destination. Airline service from Calgary to Revelstoke or Valemount is also available through Powder Air (canadianmountainholidays.com; 800-661-0252

nguarded grins that I so miss from the adorable old days. For a week, we're all kids at Christmas again, playing in the snow.

 

Are you and yours heli ready?
Both CMH and Mike Wiegele Heliskiing, the other heli giant, stress that any strong intermediate skier with a reasonable amount of powder experience is capable of heliskiing. CMH defines "child as aged 12—17, but will consider children younger than that on a case-by-case basis; call them to describe your child's ability and discuss it.

In addition to normal heliskiing operations, based out of its central campus in Blue River, B.C., Mike Wiegele offers a new intro-to-heliskiing venue at nearby Saddle Mountain. Wiegele also recently began offering kids' camps during spring break, with instruction and leadership provided by celebrity guides - typically former Canadian Ski Team members. For information on all Wiegele programs:

GETTING THERE: Most guests fly to Calgary, arriving Saturday, then ride a CMH charter bus to their final destination. Airline service from Calgary to Revelstoke or Valemount is also available through Powder Air (canadianmountainholidays.com; 800-661-0252

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