A new Revelstoke heliski outfit serves up virgin slopes in a 600-square-mile domain.
The chopper thumps up Victor Creek and lands on a ridge somewhere above Revelstoke, British Columbia. Eagle Pass Heliskiing guide Norm Winter exits into the Crayola-blue Monashee morning. Winter—who has the sky-matching blue eyes that all mountain guides seem to share, deep-set in a face that's all angles—skis down to timberline, then stops to dig a snowpit and gauge avalanche conditions. Satisfied, he clicks into his bindings.
"There may be some cliffs down here, so be prepared to stop, he says. And then, with a yo-de-lay-heeeeee, he's a blur, disappearing along a rib that dives down, down into big timber below. I chase the last hanging notes of his yodel like they're bread crumbs, following Winter into the white. Later that morning, Dave Scott, another guide who leads his group down here, says that it's unlikely that anyone has ever skied that run before. He smiles the big smile of both a skier and a businessman: "It's a dream come true.
The pulse-quickening jolt that comes from being the first to ski new country pervades a trip to Eagle Pass Heliskiing, a one-year-old boutique operation based 17 miles west of Revelstoke in south-central British Columbia. And with this much unexplored bounty, the pioneering spirit isn't likely to dissipate soon: "We can fit 30 Whistler Blackcombs within our terrain, says guide Andy Freeland.
Eagle Pass is just the latest to join the heliskiing boom in western Canada. There are now 26 heliski companies in British Columbia, operating 38 lodges. Revelstoke, in particular, is flourishing, with Revelstoke Mountain Resort set to open this season with North America's biggest vertical drop (6,000 feet).
But Eagle Pass's guide-owners feel they have something different to offer. The three have spent enough time skiing—Scott and Winter are longtime heliski guides; Freeland's been involved in the catskiing industry—that they had a common sense of what today's heliskiers want: great terrain, small groups (a max of 12 at a time), quick three- and four-day trips (not everyone can swing a week), and personal service. And lots of snow.
They don't call it "Revelsoak for nothing. This is wet country—the kind of place where mushrooms have been rumored to grow in the carpets of homes, and residents of the low valley (Revelstoke's elevation is just 1,500 feet) sometimes find themselves buried for weeks under the famous Columbia River Valley fog. The upside of this, of course, is the 14 feet of snow we're standing atop at 7,000 feet in late January. And those valley clouds can be misleading: A minute after takeoff, the A-Star leaves those dishrag skies behind, dropping us in the soft tangerine light of morning and knee-deep snow. Far to the south lie the chipped teeth of the Selkirks—beautiful but severe. The Monashees are different. These mountains seem designed for heliskiing, not just for their profligate snowfall, but for their shape: thick with great treeskiing down low, thinning to a stubble of firs toward the top.
Ben, our pilot, lands us in a Dr. Seuss book: All around, the subalpine fir and spruce are cartoonishly bent into fiddle-heads by heavy snow. We ski a run called Charlemagne, then return to the same landing zone and try nearby Cashmere. At about 4,200 feet, the alpine trees yield to western red cedars—massive things with man-eating moats encircling their trunks. Luckily, the trees are aesthetically spaced and easy to glide among—though howling and blasting through them feels mildly profane, like roller-skating through a cathedral.
Some heliski outfits drown you in opulence. Others try to impress with how hardcore they are. At Eagle Pass, the abiding theme is intimacy. At day's end, the chopper lands at Griffin Lake Mountain Lodge, an old lakeshore cedar mill that's been laboriously rehabbed: oversized fir beams, pine paneling on the walls. For dinner, everyone sits at a long table covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, though thhere's nothing humble about the food. The place has a broken-in slipper casualness that makes you feel like you're staying at a friend's house—especially as evenings wind down over beers and talk of the day's runs.
The next morning, Ben punches through a golden fog and flies north, burying the belly of the chopper beside a north-south drainage called Bews Creek. The snowpack is unstable, so we can't get on the wildest terrain. But we do venture onto a gentle run called Bew-ty, then work our way up the valley.
"What's this one called, Dave? I ask.
"Doesn't have a name, he says. "I call 'er The Big Easy. It's not hard to see why—a classic heli experience: white apron spread below, two grand of nonstop turns, chopper sharing that blue sky with big walls and a rising moon.
"We've only skied about 10 percent of our area, Dave says. In other words, ski pioneers, that would be your cue.