Why Heli-Skiing is my Ultimate Skiing Dream
Growing up in a family of skiers, I remember hearing about heli-skiing adventures in Canada from a young age, but I haven’t as yet had the luck to try it myself! For as long as I can remember, in the houses of my parents, my aunt and my grandmother there have hung photos of my relatives carving deep powder on these heli-skiing adventures in Canada. So heli-skiing has long been a dream for me, and it’s been on my Travel Wishlist since I first wrote it back in 2014. My aunt Caroline Stuart-Taylor recently went heli-skiing in Canada’s British Columbia and has written this great account of her trip – which just reminds me even more of how much I want to experience it for myself!
Have you ever been heli-skiing or been tempted to try it out? How does my aunt’s account compare to your experience?
Taking a helicopter to ski Bugaboo Bliss!
The now familiar ‘whump whump whump’ of the rotor blades of the Bell 212 is resounding in my ears as it is expertly landed just three feet from where our group is crouching, anticipating the burst of air and whirling snow to come just before the helicopter lands.
One of our group, the appointed doorman, eyeballs the pilot and with a thumbs-up gets the go-ahead to open the passenger door to let us climb aboard. Our guide, Jeff, loads our skis, poles and rucksacks into the large basket on the other side of the aircraft, then walks carefully back round the nose and jumps into the front passenger seat. Checking that our seatbelts are fastened, he shuts the door and puts on his headphones to communicate with the pilot.
Up we go, fast and direct, sometimes circling to gain height, to our next landing spot, marked out with small red flags, high up at the top of a ridge. Once we have clambered out, we stay close to the big bird until it has left us, again with a whirl of snow and blast of air. Clunk, click, we’re in our skis, our safety packs on our backs, a routine we accomplish quickly as we always need to be off the landing area before another group arrives.
And so the ultimate skiing begins – our guide chooses a line and makes his instructions clear: “Ski to the left of my tracks here, there’s a big crevasse on the right. We’re on a glacier, so be aware.”
We swoop down, some mimicking the shape of our guide’s turns, others making their own rhythm. We’re lucky – it’s exhilarating. The sun is shining, the snow’s great and we’re all happy. Last week the weather wasn’t so friendly with high avalanche danger and warm temperatures ruining the snow below 2,100 metres. For us the weather has cleared, the temperature has dropped a little, the sky has turned blue and although no new snow has fallen, there is still plenty of powder on the higher glaciated slopes.
The snow is fairly shallow – it’s not that lovely deep snow that billows over your head or even into your face, but it’s easy to ski, effortless and absolutely glorious. Cruising down in velvety powder for 50, 60 or more turns, I float down the mountain, like a bird flying close to the ground. The snow flows around me, and I can’t believe that the slope goes on and on and on. Finally I am quietly begging our guide to stop for a rest, because I know there’ll be another glorious long powder run ahead.
We don’t miss last week’s poor snow altogether, which we discover as we drop to a lower pick-up point and the powder turns suddenly to crust. No choice, we must ski it! Fortunately we have been provided with big wide skis – Atomics, at 117 mms underfoot. Some of us have chosen even wider skis at 134 mms, so we can just about cope with the breakable crust which greets us lower down. Luckily we have a helicopter to avert any skiing at an even lower elevation. At the bottom of each run, either the helicopter is waiting for us, or we group together and prepare our skis for the pick-up.
Very soon the helicopter lands close by us and we’re off again, quickly up to the next col, or over to a new area, a new unskied valley, up to the good snow where once more we can look forward to a wonderful floaty descent. Run after run, over and over again, on runs named by the guides including ‘Seventh Heaven’, ‘Straight Shot’, ‘Top of the World’ and ‘Vanishing Point’. We ski many different glaciers including Malloy, McCarthy and Howser glaciers.
Our group comprises us three Brits, a Swiss family of four with two friends and an American father with his adult daughter. It is a fabulous group and we all hit it off really well. When I discover that three of the Swiss have also participated in the amateur Inferno Race in Mürren, as have I many times, we bond! It is delightful to have different generations in our group, and the two Swiss boys are incredibly good skiers who are a joy to watch, skiing like a dream, jumping off rocks and doing synchronised family skiing for fun, colourful in their various brightly coloured ski gear. It’s a terrific group which it is a pleasure to be part of.
The views of the peaks of the Bugaboo range in British Columbia are spectacular and it’s hard to believe we’re 40 miles from the CMH lodge and in the other direction another 25 miles to any civilisation! The size of the mountains and the glaciers stretching as far as we can see is breathtaking. Flying in the helicopter is exciting in itself, and coupled with amazing skiing, it has to be the perfect skiing experience. I talk of skiing because I ski, but snowboarders come to this magical place too.
For anyone who loves the joyful, floating sensation of skiing fresh powder snow, heli-skiing really is the best way to get lots of it, in spectacular surroundings. People often ask me “Do you really jump out of the helicopter?” There’s a myth that we put our skis on in the helicopter and leap, jumping 20 feet into deep powder at the top of mega powder runs! In our dreams we might, but in reality we aren’t allowed near the helicopter without comprehensive safety training. We learn how – when we’re getting in or out of the helicopter – it’s safer to stay close to the big throbbing machine, and to be careful to hold on to hats and gloves and make sure there’s nothing loose that could fly away or worse still get caught in the fast-moving rotors.
With wide skis making it easier for resort skiers to head out in search of powder away from the groomed pistes, there is an even greater need to look further afield to find a way to reach that untracked powder. And heli-skiing provides the perfect solution. But I warn you, whoever says that heli-skiing is a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that every powder skier should have is wrong. When you’ve done it once, you’re highly likely to be hooked and then it’s just a question of when, not if you will do it again.
Tired and exhilarated, the groups return to the lodge for tea and a spread of healthy snacks. The hot tub awaits from where you might see a glorious sunset and enjoy the stars. A sociable dinner follows, with memories shared of great skiing, and spectacular falls perhaps. After dinner, 10pm is the new midnight, the Australian guests say, so many of us trot off to bed to be sure to be fresh for another full day tomorrow.
I like the concept of being in a remote lodge, some accessed only by helicopter, away from the world, enjoying a sport I love. The rooms in the very comfortable lodge are named after mountains, glaciers and passes. My room is ‘Austerity’, a mountain which at 3,347 metres (10,978 feet) was first climbed in 1911 by three Americans including Howard Palmer, a leading figure in the American Alpine Club.
It’s a full on schedule and there seems to be little time to open a book or to peruse the fascinating library / museum at Bugaboo Lodge, where artefacts such as Hans Gmoser’s climbing equipment and clothing from the 1960s are displayed and where I spot some branded CMH heli-skis – very skinny skis – perhaps from the ‘80s. I think we have it easy now by comparison with our wide skis.
Dave Cochrane, one of our mountain guides and also the manager at Bugaboo Lodge, who has been with CMH for many years, tells fascinating stories about the heli-ski operation – how it developed and how in the early days the company sometimes learnt lessons the hard way. He tells us how CMH’s founder, Hans Gmoser, argued against bathrooms in the first lodge CMH built in the 60s because, as he said, they ‘weren’t necessary’. He said they could build a block close to the lodge where everyone could share facilities rather like at a campsite. Hans lost this battle and all of CMH’s lodges became very comfortable with stunning views and en-suite bathrooms.
Bugaboo Lodge sits in the centre of the Purcell range of Canada’s Columbia mountain range, at the head of the valley tower the majestic Bugaboo Spires. This was the first of many lodges built and run by CMH. Recently the company, Canadian Mountain Holidays, celebrated its 50th anniversary, five decades since a young Austrian, Hans Gmoser, had emigrated to Canada for a better life, and took his first clients heli-skiing in the Bugaboos. Not from the comfortable lodge we stay in today, but from the logging huts which in 1965 had been recently abandoned when the area had been fully logged. No modern comforts here, the clients were asked to help chop logs for the fire and melt ice for water for everyone.
What was the same, however, was the spirit of adventure, the excitement of the helicopter rides and the adrenalin for the powder ski runs in the middle of the vast wilderness of the Columbia National Park. Hans had found the perfect spot to begin his business, which now boasts 12 lodges and both a winter heli-skiing and summer heli-hiking season, on over 3 million acres of mountains (one-third the size of Switzerland).
Pure Powder is the UK agent for Canadian Mountain Holidays. www.purepowder.com. Phone +44 207 736 8191. Photos from our week in the Bugaboos by Fabiano Chies and Kurt Baumann.