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Heli-Skiing Guide: Get Your Rotor Running

Adventure
posted: 11/24/2001

When all the bits and pieces fall into place, heli-skiing can be a mind-bending, life-transforming experience.

Some experiences are worth almost anything -- any amount of travel, any amount of money, any amount of inconvenience, hassle, lame excuses, bald-faced lies, lost time with family, strife at the office. We're not talking sex here. We're talking about outrageous, transforming, sensory-overloading experiences that whip our internal chemistries into massive, power-blended pleasure-adrenaline daiquiris -- complete with ginseng, B-complex vitamin boosters, and little paper umbrellas printed with grass-skirted dancing girls. Dennis Tito, the Californian who dropped $20 million on a Russian rocket ride into orbit last spring, knows exactly what we're talking about. And for those who love mountains and snow, we're talking, of course, about heli-skiing.

On a seven-day heli trip, you will stand in no lift lines. You will have your calves bruised by no fixed-grip chairlifts. You will lug your gear across no icy parking lots or base-village plazas mobbed with tourists. Instead, you will ski some 100,000 vertical feet in possibly the finest dry powder or silky corn that you have ever encountered in your life -- entirely unblemished by the passage of other skiers. You will stay in a remote lodge deep in a wilderness of massive, unforgettable peaks, where you will consume all the poached salmon and Côtes du Rhôneyou can handle, swapping stories with all manner of fascinating people: Swiss mountain guides, Japanese sports photographers, New York nightclub managers, German industrialists, British defense-industry journalists, and possibly members of a marauding band of ski-crazy American women known as Chicks on Sticks. And here's the humdinger: You will get to the slopes by helicopter.

If you've never been in a helicopter -- and if you have no debilitating phobias linked to flying or internal-combustion engines -- then the experience of flying in one may very well, in itself, be worth the price of admission. There you are, jammed into a loud, whirring, shuddering, unbelievably complex contraption, staring through a Plexiglas window at the ground you are about to leave, trying not to let on to your fellow passengers that you're nervous as hell about the fact that your life is now in the hands of a guy in a Battlestar Galacticahelmet who appears to be flicking switches at random.

The pitch of the rotor's whine suddenly changes, and then, without warning, you are no longer connected to the ground. It is as if someone has come in with giant shears and cut the tether of gravity that binds you to the earth. You just float off. And then you are circling up into the vast whiteness of the mountains. From the helicopter, you see lots of things: rivers, wildlife, snowfields that hold the promise of 2,000-foot powder runs, the lodge shrinking off into the distance.

With heli-skiing, like most things in life, the mind-blowing experience of a lifetime is not guaranteed. I spent a week last April with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), skiing British Columbia's Bugaboo Mountains, and even at an outfit as established, efficient, and well-organized as CMH, which has been running heli trips in the Canadian Rockies since 1965, dozens of variables need to fall into place -- weather, avalanche conditions, snow quality, route selection, fitness, caloric intake at breakfast, skill level, psychological preparedness, group dynamics, the microclimate in your polypro underwear. And if these elements don't converge in the right way at the right time, the skiing can be less than ecstatic. Avalanche danger can keep you on relatively low-angle slopes. Sun and wind can conspire to make the snow too stiff or too gloppy. Crappy weather -- even rain -- can ground the helis for days at a time (and in some areas, like Alaska, nasty fits of maritime weather can stretch those down days into weeks). On mtrip, admittedly, I played a lot of chess.

None of which is to mention the difficulty of actually putting a heli trip together. The cost is no joke: Last year, my trip to the Bugaboos was priced at C$4,082 (US$2,644), and that was before airfare and all the Kokanees I could knock back at the lodge bar (though CMH has a generous refund policy for groups that don't hit their vertical-feet-skied target). And there are the expected hassles: securing the vacation time; explaining to loved ones that helicopters do not, in fact, plummet regularly from the sky without warning; getting your sorry, desk-sitting butt in shape so you don't spend half your ski week complaining about your shredded thighs.

And then there are the avalanches. One day at CMH, as we flew up to our first drop-off point, a commotion broke out in the chopper when someone yelled, "Avalanche!" The pilot spun the helicopter around a couple times so we could all watch a colossal mass of wet snow and ground debris roaring through a broad, steep chute below us, taking out trees and bounding out across a snow-packed road at the valley bottom. It was a massive avalanche, easily the largest I had ever seen, and I couldn't help but think about what would happen to a group of skiers standing in its path.

When we reached the landing zone, or LZ, I found out that my grim fantasy was all too close to reality: That very chute was the site of a monstrous slide that killed nine people in 1992 -- the worst disaster in CMH's history and one that spawned the ironclad waiver that all CMH clients must sign today. The slide was so huge, a CMH staffer told me, that in the aftermath five helicopters were parked side by side across the debris field in the avalanche runout area. No one has skied the chute since.

Avalanche safety is a priority at all heli-ski operations, and CMH is no exception. CMH guides at each lodge have decades of guiding experience between them, and they spend much of their time each day assessing snow stability and route safety, sometimes making hard decisions to put an end to a day's skiing when something about the conditions creeps them out. In addition, clients are fitted with beacons and given basic avalanche-rescue training before skiing. A spare helicopter is kept on hand both to ferry lunches and tired skiers and to lend assistance in the event of an emergency.

Later that same afternoon, after witnessing the avalanche, we were given a remarkable display of CMH's safety procedures at work. The warm weather had been triggering slides all over the place, so the guides kept us on north-facing, glacier-cooled runs until the rising sun made the prospect of skiing at all too dangerous. Before we flew home, though, they took us to a little knob above a snow-covered lake in a beautiful high-mountain cirque, where we feasted on heli-ferried chili and sandwiches. After lunch the chopper pilot flew our lead guide, Georg, up to investigate a massive overhanging cornice -- 40 feet high at its tallest point and nearly 500 feet across -- above a snowfield on a nearby peak. We watched them circle, then hooted with excitement when we saw them drop a series of charges on the cornice. Five minutes later, the explosions brought the entire cornice down, setting off a huge slide that roared down what had looked like beautiful ski terrain. "A picture's worth a thousand words," said one of the guides. "This will save us a lot of jawing about why we're not skiing that."

But the fireworks weren't over. Twenty or so minutes later, as a couple of other skiers and I made our way back to the helicopter around the edge of the lake, I heard a fierce hissing from the other side of the cirque and looked up to watch a slide coming down a steep slope directly opposite us across the lake. All that snow came piling down on the ice, and its weight sent a wave of snow and water rushing toward us. We scrambled up to safety on some rocks, then marveled as the wave hit them seconds later, heaving up toward us and sending jets of water spraying through the cracks beneath our feet. We were safe, but the path we'd just been walking was now a gaping crevasse.

On my third day of heli-skiing with CMH, the experiential cocktail -- that adrenaline daiquiri with the paper umbrella -- hit critical potency for me. Having dropped down a series of moderately sloped pitches from the LZ, my group of 12 was standing at the entrance of a north-facing gully called Luftwaffe, which curled through a pair of steep sidehills and rolled precipitously out of sight down to an open slope below. The snow, corned to perfection by the spring sun, was deep but firm, and from the top of the gully we could watch passing cloud shadows play across the rocks and snowfields of dozens of Bugaboo peaks. Dan, our guide, gave us all a big, mustachioed grin, turned, fired off a handful of crisp turns down the center of the gully, and disappeared from view. Several of my fellow clients followed, tucking their turns in alongside his tracks.

I spotted my opening. Heaving into my pole baskets, I shot across their tracks, arcing up onto the sidehill and plunging down the side of the gully, emerging into a steep, open bowl filled with sunshine and spongy, wind-loaded powder. Suddenly, I was on autopilot, moving as fast as I ever have through untracked snow, yet feeling my legs sweep back and forth below me in giant, effortless curves -- a fantastical, sped-up sensation, fueled equally by the rebound in the snow, the kick in my powder boards, and the joy of existing entirely, without distraction, in the moment. Perfection, at speed. I swooped to a stop by the group, looked back at my tracks, and beheld the still-smoking contrails of 10 or 12 of the best turns I have ever made in my life.



Click on the Heli-Skiing Outfits link below for SKIING's list of the hottest heli-ers out there., heaving up toward us and sending jets of water spraying through the cracks beneath our feet. We were safe, but the path we'd just been walking was now a gaping crevasse.

On my third day of heli-skiing with CMH, the experiential cocktail -- that adrenaline daiquiri with the paper umbrella -- hit critical potency for me. Having dropped down a series of moderately sloped pitches from the LZ, my group of 12 was standing at the entrance of a north-facing gully called Luftwaffe, which curled through a pair of steep sidehills and rolled precipitously out of sight down to an open slope below. The snow, corned to perfection by the spring sun, was deep but firm, and from the top of the gully we could watch passing cloud shadows play across the rocks and snowfields of dozens of Bugaboo peaks. Dan, our guide, gave us all a big, mustachioed grin, turned, fired off a handful of crisp turns down the center of the gully, and disappeared from view. Several of my fellow clients followed, tucking their turns in alongside his tracks.

I spotted my opening. Heaving into my pole baskets, I shot across their tracks, arcing up onto the sidehill and plunging down the side of the gully, emerging into a steep, open bowl filled with sunshine and spongy, wind-loaded powder. Suddenly, I was on autopilot, moving as fast as I ever have through untracked snow, yet feeling my legs sweep back and forth below me in giant, effortless curves -- a fantastical, sped-up sensation, fueled equally by the rebound in the snow, the kick in my powder boards, and the joy of existing entirely, without distraction, in the moment. Perfection, at speed. I swooped to a stop by the group, looked back at my tracks, and beheld the still-smoking contrails of 10 or 12 of the best turns I have ever made in my life.



Click on the Heli-Skiing Outfits link below for SKIING's list of the hottest heli-ers out there.

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