In this 2003 skimag.com exclusive, SKI Magazine senior editor Joe Cutts checks out Canadian Mountain Holidays' newest lodge—and the steep and deep of the Canadian Monashees.
You know what people say: Helicopter skiing ruins skiers for anything else? My friend Jamie is a case in point. He used to be content with the offerings at Stowe or Mad River Glen or Sugarbush, where he attended Green Mountain Valley School race academy. But a few years ago, after a trip to the Kootenay Mountains located in interior British Columbia, he began babbling of nothing else.
Since then, Jamie's been pretty much an annual heliskiing regular. He spends a lot of time—too much time, in fact—thinking about his next heliskiing trip. And, for a number of reasons, he settled on CMH's Monashee Lodge as the site of this year's trip.
He'd heard what a lot of people have heard: that of all the heliskiing terrain in Canada, which still reigns as the heliskiing capital of the world, the Monashees offer some of steepest and most beautiful terrain going. Also, CMH had just opened a new lodge in the Monashees, an overdue upgrade that truly made it a four-star experience.
Jamie called me in June. He had five guys going and one spot to fill. I balked at the price, but only for an instant. I was turning 40, I'd never been heliskiing before, and I thought if I was ever going to do it, I wanted to do it while I was still enjoying some vestige of my youth. I told him I was in, and we planned to leave on the first day of spring.
This may be the hardest part of the trip, next to leaving at the end. CMH funnels all its visitors through Calgary, Alberta. For East Coast visitors, that can be a day-long slog in itself. Many arrive in the evening and make a trip into town (about a $30 cab fare) for a steak dinner at Hy's Steakhouse—they're in cattle-town Calgary, after all. The next morning, a CMH bus departs at 6:30 for the 7-hour drive to the Monashee Lodge (other CMH destinations are closer).
None of us was disappointed that the trip took longer than expected due to heavy snowfall. But our driver, Garth, powered through the slop while we watched "Happy Gilmore" on the video monitors—certain that we all were "going to a happy place." From Revelstoke, the Columbia River was our constant companion as we made our way upstream to the lodge.
To be honest, we came expecting the worst. Not because CMH's Monashees program had a bad reputation—quite the contrary—but because we'd been watching both the weather and the avalanche reports in the weeks leading up to our trip, and they were extremely discouraging. In fact, the week prior to our visit was one of the worst this winter. The weather and the instability of the snow kept visitors penned up for most of the week. As we arrived, we passed those dispirited souls in the lobby. There was no mistaking the looks of bemused resignation on their faces. They knew that any heli trip is a gamble. However, usually you win. But these poor people had rolled the dice and crapped out. We all hoped we wouldn't have a similar fate.
If you're going to be penned up for a week, the Monashee Lodge is a great place to serve your sentence. CMH is proud of its newest lodge, and rightly so. The $10 million Monashee Lodge, which opened in December 2002, is a rustic-elegant masterpiece, situated by the Columbia River, with mountains scraping the sky on either side. While the fire crackles in an immense fieldstone hearth, massive beams frame the great room and dining room. The amenities include a rooftop sauna, a steam room and Jacuzzi (with stunning views of the river and mountains); a four-story climbing wall; simple, spare, spacious rooms, classically appointed and with large windows framing the riverscape; a business center with Ethernet access (from where I write this); laundry facilities (no small perk when you're sweating up your base layer daily); a "quiet room" and more. What's missing are TVs, and that's not a bad thing. The lodge is a modern facility in every sense, but from the outside, it already appears to have been there for decades, evoking a vaguely Arts and Crafts aura with its low-slung profile and long horizontal lines.
Our first night, we dialed in our skis. (Don't bother bringing your own, if you don't want; CMH provides.) We sat through safety briefings, and practiced avalanche search techniques with our Barryvox transceivers. We scheduled our massages, sampled our first dinner (excellent), and got to know a few of our lodgemates. Most of all, we grilled the guides with questions. Would it be as bad as last week? Would we be able to fly? Had we plunked down thousands of dollars to sit around in a very nice lodge all week? They could only shrug and attempt to appease us without getting our hopes up. The weather looked more promising. We'd received 16-20 inches in the past two days (in the higher elevations), and the trend was moving toward colder temperatures, which was a good thing for snow stability. In other words, "Maybe," they told us.
Luck seemed to be on our side. Our first day, March 23, dawned cloudy and cooler. It was cold enough that the rain that dimpled the surface of the river would be snow at the higher elevations. The fog cleared and our chopper pilot, Jamie, would be able to fly, so he carefully took us through our helicopter-safety training. As we weighed in, wearing our ski gear, we checked the group assignments to see who we'd be skiing with, and waited.
By 10:20, Jamie was ready to take off and ferry the first group into the clouds upstream. He headed eastward, around a ridge and out of sight. We were in Group 4, which meant we would be the last group of 11 skiers to be taken to the slopes. (CMH uses one Bell 212 Jetstream to service all 44 guests in the lodge.) Our guide would be Roger Laurilla, a CMH veteran who manages the lodge and all of the guides.
Within 100 yards into our first run, it was evident that luck was on our side. Despite some rain the previous few days, enough snow had fallen in the higher elevations to generously cover the crust that lurked far below. Bottomless powder prevailed and we happily reveled in it.
The big bowls above treeline were off-limits because they were still too unstable to ski. But the trees were sublime: We yelped and hooted our way through widely spaced trunks on terrain ranging from moderate to steep to occasionally very steep. I was reminded of scenes from Warren Miller Films, where skiers bounce from pillow to pillow among the trees while snow falls heavily. Except this time, I was the star. I was the one wiping the powder off my goggles so I could see where to make my next turn.
The day had its glitches. On two occasions, squalls blew in with heavy snowfall, limiting visibility to the point where Jamie had to land the chopper and wait for a letup. This cost us ski time, but there are worse things than lounging on a mountainside, surrounded by the Engelman spruces, while heavy snow muffles the sound of your idle chatting.
When the visibility improved, we took several more powder-filled runs. Unfortunately, another mishap cut our day short. Over the radio, we heard one of the guides report that one of the members of his party, Chris, had taken a bad fall and twisted his knee.
An hour later, we found ourselves waiting near the landing zone at the bottom of our steepest, best run of the day (Big Red) when three guides arrived with Chris in a sled. What a bummer! The first day of his trip and it looked like he was done for the week. We all knew it could've happened to any of us. I made a mental note to buy him a drink that night to ensure good karma. Maybe I could inoculate myself against such a mishap.
We were back in the lodge by 5:00 p.m., soaking in the hot tub and sipping beers. It wasn't the longest day, but it was certainly one of the best, with the promise of six more days to come.
Check back with skimag.com as Cutts will be submitting day-by-day reports of his trip to CMH.