Maybe it’s Thanksgiving break. Maybe it’s pre-season marketing. Maybe it is the Forest Service permitting system for ski resorts. Maybe it’s the insatiable human psyche to move on to the next thing. Whatever it is, for some reason most skiers and snowboarders don’t ride when the snow is at its best.
I’m not talking about ski bums who live to ski, and chase the last scraps of snow in the springtime before going to the southern hemisphere for the southern winter. I'm not talking about backcountry skiers who wait all year for the big alpine descents to come into condition in the springtime. I’m not talking about the CMH Heli-Skiing guests who plan their dream ski trip a year in advance.
I’m talking about the skiers and snowboarders who are chomping at the bit to make some turns in October and November and risk their knees and teeth riding thin snow when there are still elk grazing on the ski runs. I’m talking about the ski areas that blast artificial snow all over the hills in November, but then close in early April when snowpacks are at their deepest.
This year in Colorado was an exceptional demonstration of this phenomenon. The skiing was marginal most of the year. Yeah, we know, Revelstoke got dumped on the entire winter and Jackson Hole and the Pacific Northwest had snowy winters. But that’s not what I’m talking about. In November, it was hardly cold enough to even make snow in Colorado but areas jousted to open first and bag the precious Thanksgiving skiers at the end of November. It was March before the backcountry was really worth skiing in much of the state.
Then in April, on almost the exact weekend that most of Colorado’s ski areas closed, it started dumping, and snowed in the high country for the next month straight. It was painful to watch. Some people were actually complaining that it was snowing because they wanted to go ride their bikes, go climbing, hiking or other warm weather activities. But aside from our calendar-based expectations, it was winter!
I drove by the ski area to take my kids backcountry skiing (photo above) in a kiddie sort of way. The lifts stood silent, base lodge buried in deep snow, trees cloaked in storm after storm of fantastic powder.
My daughter asked me, “Papa, can we go turn on the lifts and go powder skiing?”
How I wanted to. We had a blast, it was great for the kids to suffer a bit boot packing and earning our turns on a little hill, but even the 6-year-olds saw the irony in it.
This year in Colorado was unusual, but not unusual to the extreme. We quite often have our best snow after the ski areas have closed. The best skiing in Colorado is typically from March through May, but most ski areas have limited permits from the National Forest Service; however, I don’t think that’s the biggest reason ski areas close when the skiing gets good.
I think the biggest reason is that like any business, ski areas are beholden to the whims of their customers. Snow doesn’t matter nearly as much as people buying lift tickets and booking ski holidays. I think we cause the problem ourselves by jones-ing for the winter long before winter even gets going, and then being over it before winter even ends; for taking our families on ski trips at Christmas when really we should be taking our ski holiday during spring break; for even buying lift tickets in November when some years there is not a single natural snowflake to be found anywhere south of the Canadian border. Ok, maybe it's not that bad, but you get my point.
If we all just stopped visiting ski resorts before Christmas unless the snow was great, and then packed the ski areas in April, maybe we could change the ski season to match the snow season. What do you think?
With the prevalence of helmets, the most popular eyewear for skiing has quickly become goggles. The most common approach these days is to just leave them on the helmet, and just wear them no matter what the weather is like. But is this always the best option? Not necessarily.
To decide which is best, I watched the group of people I know who spend the most time in the deep snow, bright sun, and variable conditions of mountain weather: The Ski Guides of CMH.
Here’s what I learned:
- Some guides wear goggles almost all the time while skiing, but carry sunglasses for the brightest days, lunch, and relaxing.
- Some guides carry goggles as well as two pairs of glasses, one with dark lenses for bright conditions and one with yellow lenses for flat light conditions - skiing first in flat light is one of the big challenges of guiding, and the right eyewear makes a huge difference.
- And some guides, like CMH Cariboos Manager, John Mellis, love their glasses. I can’t blame him. Glasses just feel better, allow better peripheral vision, and give more sensitivity to the lovely mountain world.
- Johnny wears glasses when the face shots approach neck deep:
- Then leaves them on when the face shots start wrapping around his head:
- And even when the face shots reach meaty double-overhead levels, Johnny still rips in his glasses:
- But sometimes, when it’s snowing really hard, Johnny finally breaks out the goggles:
Here are the problems with goggles:
- If you tend to overheat, even the best-designed goggles will fog up.
- Goggles don’t handle bright conditions as well as glasses.
- Goggles are not as comfortable as glasses.
- Goggles tend to restrict your vision more.
- Goggle lenses are not as versatile as glasses.
- For uphill ski touring or boot packing, goggles are too warm.
Here are the problems with glasses:
- Glasses don’t shed the face shots as readily.
- Not all helmets fit well with glasses.
- Glasses don’t keep your face warm.
- Glasses fall off easier when you fall.
- Glasses don't protect your face as well.
If you are going to carry extra eyewear while Heli-Skiing or anywhere in the backcountry, be sure to time your changes without causing other skiers to wait (or worry) for you, and without filling your glasses and goggles with snow in the process. If you would rather keep it simple while Heli-Skiing, just wear goggles and choose a lens in the middle of the hue spectrum - not too dark and not too bright.
Like so many questions about the mountains, the right answer is: It depends on conditions.
Last weekend, CMH Heli-Skiing wrapped up the Heli-Ski season in style. On Saturday, Dave Cochrane, the Bugaboos Area Manager, sent our Banff Office this letter that nicely sums up not only Dave’s perspective on the world’s greatest skiing, but also the entire company’s focus on safety and attention to our guests:
Good morning everyone,
Our last guests just got on the bus about 20 minutes ago.
We have had a truly outstanding last week of skiing with good weather, and every kind of good condition you can imagine, from deep silky powder to the best corn you could possibly have or dream about and also a little sticky gluey snow here and there, with very little or no transition from powder to corn.
We had a really fantastic season, with a lot of deep powder through the first half and then smaller storms after that. I can’t recall any bad skiing at all, although I am more than heavily biased for all the good memories. We had a couple of rainy days and didn’t ski, but it literally was seen by all of us simply as a huge opportunity for new snow and we remained positive. As it turned out the rain healed everything with lots of new snow at the ends of the rainy periods as the weather cooled down.
Our staff were really incredible and were instrumental in keeping everything safe and fun for everyone. I am privileged to be able to work with the remarkable people here at the lodge.
I would like to thank you all again for the tremendous hard work to keep us well supplied, safe and running smoothly. Your collective dedication to high quality professional management of all aspects of the support you provide us is really the best and makes running the show up here very easy indeed!
For so many of us it’s a job, but we are fortunate to work with incredible people and like I said before you should all be proud for a job very well done!
Thanks and to many more safe and happy mountain adventures!
Every skier and snowboarder who joined CMH for a trip, from some of the sport’s visionary superstars to first timers who are intermediate skiers, gave us rave reviews. The common story across the range of skill levels and experiences is how the combination of the staff hospitality, comfortable lodging, careful and personable guides - and of course the epic snow riding -make for one of the finest experiences this world has to offer.
Thanks Dave! Here’s to a fine conclusion to the 48th winter of CMH Heli-Skiing!
We all know what it’s like to ride on corn snow – that smooth, easy turning velvet that is so conducive to high speed ripping. We know if we get on it too early in the morning that it tends to rattle our teeth out of our skulls; if we get on it too late it is slurpy mush that sucks on our skis like quicksand. But what is the stuff we call corn snow?
The best definition and scientific explanation for corn snow I found is on fsavalanche.org, where they describe corn snow as: “large-grained, rounded crystals formed from repeated melting and freezing of the snow.” Their page on the subject includes the image below that illustrates how it is the surface tension of the water between the rounded ice crystals that creates the perfect corn snow. After a cold night, the water between the ice crystals is still frozen; when the ice crystals melt too much, the matrix of ice and water loses cohesion, falls apart and turns to slush. The magic time between too hard and too soft under intense sun is often no more than an hour.
Because of the short window of perfection, the tricky part about corn skiing is the timing, and on really long runs, it is almost impossible to get it just right. On a spring descent of Mt Shasta, known as one of the longest ski runs in the United States with over 2100 metres (7200 feet) of vertical, we waited on the summit until the steep upper slopes were just soft enough to ski but still rattled down the first 500 metres of sketchy, still-too-frozen corn. Then we had a thousand metres of glory before the surface melted out from under us and we wallowed in the slush for the last 500.
There is an atmospheric phenomenon that can preserve the corn low in the valley, while the sun bakes the upper slopes, and that is valley fog. The only time I’ve experienced perfect corn snow from top to bottom on long runs is when valley fog insulates the lower elevations. The Wasatch Range, the Cascades, the Columbias and the Alps are all mountain ranges known for frequent valley fog conditions. If you are in any of these ranges in the springtime, and getting frequent valley fog in the mornings, go find the biggest, safe, corn run in the area and enjoy gorging on the stuff.
Leo Grillmair, shown in the photo at right Heli-Skiing in the Bugaboos in 2005, is one of the founding guides of CMH Heli-Skiing. He explained to me once that the best corn snow forms when temperatures reach 10 degrees C during the day, and fall to minus 10 degrees C at night.
For beginners, corn snow is the very best, most forgiving, most comfortable snow condition for learning to ski or snowboard.
In a ski area, corn snow behaves a little differently because of all the ski traffic, but still there is often a good corn cycle when conditions are right. The best tactic for getting it right in a ski area is to take it easy.
- Don’t shoot for first chair unless your area has a lot of south facing terrain - give it an hour or so extra.
- Find the aspects that have been in the sun for a couple of hours.
- Ski the side of the run where there is less tree shade and the snow has warmed uniformly.
- Avoid entirely shady terrain until very late in the day.
- Wear a carving ski/board rather than a fat powder tool.
However, without a doubt the best way to feast on corn snow, cooked to perfection, is with a helicopter. Interestingly, for the last few years at CMH Heli-Skiing, corn snow has been a largely absent part of the CMH Heli-Skier diet. Nobody’s complaining, because epic powder conditions from the first to last day of the Heli-Ski season in the Revelstoke region has more than made up for it, but still, there is nothing quite like a perfect corn feast with a Bell 212 helicopter and a group of savvy mountain guides to dial the timing and serve it up just right.
Photos of CMH Adamants corn smile and Leo Grillmair portrait by Topher Donahue. Corn illustration courtesy Forest Service National Avalanche Center.
You don’t meet more excited 27-year-olds than Daniel Riley. Maybe he’s excited because of his first Heli-Skiing trip. Maybe he’s excited because Vail received enough snow to re-open after closing for the season. Maybe he is excited because he survived a bomb exploding under his feet in Afghanistan, leaving him with no legs, three fewer fingers, and shrapnel scattered throughout his body.
“My heart is about the only thing that didn’t get hit.” says Daniel, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Daniel is one of 1600 American soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees. To say it changed his life is obvious, but how it changed his life is exceptional: losing his legs turned Daniel into an athlete.
Daniel skied a couple of times before his injury, but says he wasn’t a skier. Mono-skiing is now Daniels passion and since his injury in 2010 he’s pursued surfing, cycling, running, swimming, and skiing, has competed in triathlons and has plans to try rock climbing. I met Daniel for coffee in Boulder, Colorado, where everyone and their grandma is an athlete. When I asked him what sports he pursued before the injury, he just shrugged and said, “Not any, really.”
Within the first minute of meeting Daniel told me proudly that he’d skied over 50 days this winter, the highlight being a trip to CMH Gothics. While talking about the six months in the operating room and his 30-some surgeries he said: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even count the number of surgeries I’ve had. The number of days I’ve been skiing is a much more important statistic.”
So how did Daniel go from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, to months in the operating room, to intense rehab, to the slopes of Vail, to what he calls “the pinnacle of skiing” – a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing in interior British Columbia?
The answer is Vail Veterans, a sponsor-funded organization started in 2004 by Cheryl Jensen (whose husband, Bill, was President of Vail Resorts) and David Rozelle, Professor of Military Science at the University of Colorado. The program began on a whim, when Cheryl and David decided to host a few injured veterans at Vail. The therapeutic effects of skiing were obvious and Vail Veterans was born.
During therapy, Daniel was given the opportunity to join Vail Veterans. With nothing to lose, he gave it a try. On his first day, using a sit ski, he remembers: “I was falling down every six feet – I wasn’t really getting it. But by the third day they had to drag me off the mountain.”
A few months later, Daniel had another chance to ski Vail - this time in fresh powder. "That's what really got me," he said, before happily sharing footage of his first powder day - complete with spectacular GoPro wipeout footage:
His close friend Chris Fesmire, who discovered skiing with Vail Veterans a few years before Daneil and went heli-skiing with Daniel's group, explains in sobering terms how skiing has helped him: "The Vail Veterans program saved my life. Without mono-skiing I'd be dead in a gutter."
Skiing the Gothics was full circle for Daniel, who was born in British Columbia and moved to the United States as a teenager. In the Gothics Daniel met one of the CMH staff from the same small town on Vancouver Island where Daniel grew up. Like so many others realize about CMH Heli-Skiing, Daniel said, “It’s not just about the skiing – it’s also the lodge, the people, the whole experience.”
Daniel is now a board member of Vail Veterans, and they could have no more committed fan of the program. He concluded, “The program changed my life for the better. Now I want to do that for the next guy.”
Photos of Daniel catching air at CMH Gothics, celebrating life with fellow wounded warriors, and considering life's potential with Chris Fesmire courtesy of Daniel Riley/Vail Veterans.
The story of food at CMH goes back to the 1960s and the very beginning of Heli-Skiing. At that time the Bugaboos was the only place in the world to go Heli-Skiing, and all the food had to be brought in, mostly canned, at the beginning of the season while the road was still open. Once the snowdrifts closed the road, a crate of fruit once a week was the only fresh food resupply.
Over nearly 50 years CMH Heli-Skiing has found it necessary, in order to provide such excellent and responsible cuisine in such outrageous locations, to take the CMH story far from the mountains into the world’s most progressive fisheries, ranches, farms, vineyards, coffee roasters, cheese-makers and olive oil producers. To put it simply, not every food supplier is up for the task of providing high quality, responsibly-sourced foods to some of the planet’s most remote world-class kitchens.
Yesterday I talked to Christoph Weder, the mastermind behind Heritage Angus Beef, a conglomerate of Canadian ranchers committed to raising cattle at higher standards than even the “organic” certification requires, and the source for all the beef prepared in CMH Lodges.
You’ll never meet a more committed cowboy than Christoph. He calls himself Dr. Moo after an education, both practical and institutional, that has given him a PhD in Animal Range Science and made him the proud owner of Spirit View Ranch, a free-range cattle outfit in Northern Alberta and one of the 20 ranches that make up Heritage Angus. His efforts have garnered several national awards including the Alberta Beef Producers Environmental Stewardship Award.
“The people who buy our beef,” explained Dr. Moo, “want more than hormone and antibiotic free beef - they want ranching done with consideration for wetlands and natural habitat, and without overgrazing and inhumane treatment of the animals; they want fair trade for the ranchers and animals that spent the most possible time foraging and the least possible time in the feedlot.”
Dr. Moo’s recipe for excellent Canadian beef is working, and now Heritage Angus sells beef to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Czech Republic, Holland and France as well as the US and Canada. Heritage Beef’s blog, The Trail, is an insight into what it takes to provide the best possible beef as a Canadian rancher - from counting herd losses due to wolves one week, to touring the finest restaurants in Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities the next.
He explains his approach, in which he distills a lifetime of education and passion into a simple philosophy: “If you’re going to raise beef, raise the good stuff. If you’re going to eat beef, eat the good stuff. If the good stuff is expensive, eat a little bit less.”
Like so much of CMH Heli-Skiing, the network of passionate individuals and complex systems that makes it tick goes largely unseen, but once you dig into the story, it makes perfect sense. Christoph “Dr. Moo” Weder’s story isn’t so different from the story of CMH. In his blog he writes:
“It’s a busy schedule running a branded beef program, being a father, husband and also running a ranch… I spend many, many hours of the week in the office 15 feet from the kitchen table talking to customers and working with the partners of Heritage Angus… sometimes more than I would like, so when the opportunity comes to get in the saddle and get out with the cows I am all over it. September is some of the prettiest times of the year to be out on the range…. its a time for reflecting back over the past summer and for seeing if all the best laid plans turned out…. I love to see how well the calves have grown how the grass held up and what the cows look like as we head towards winter. Being a real rancher and being a partner with nature is something the ranchers of Heritage Angus are all very proud of. …. Heritage Angus Beef is not a spin doctored brand… it is real ranchers and real families that are proud of being part of something good.”
Hans Gmoser, the founder of CMH Heli-Skiing, or today’s mountain guides and CMH staff, could just as easily have written something very similar about running the world’s biggest Heli-Ski operation, and the pleasure of getting “in the saddle” after a hectic day in the office or the sentiments of being partners with nature and being real families that are proud of being part of something good.
Dr. Moo ended our conversation with this: “The partnership we have with CMH is one we’re really proud of, and it’s fitting with their international guests who get to visit these far-away mountain lodges and experience some really good Canadian food.”
Photos of CMH Cariboo Lodge and well-nourished CMH guests by Topher Donahue. Spirit View Ranch photo courtesy of Christoph Weder.
Photo: Jennifer Statham
Skiers: The skiers and boarders on CMH's Powder 101: Girl's School
Date: April 12, 2013
Area: CMH Gothics
Anyone who’s spent a bit of time with CMH Heli-Skiing falls in love with the beyond-epic tree skiing in the Columbia Mountains of Interior British Columbia. Powder so deep and soft that you can’t even tell where the last storm stopped and the new storm began. Pillow drops so fluffy and forgiving that even timid powder skiers find themselves happily catching air. Old growth forests with massive trunks perfectly spaced to inspire rhythmic fall-line runs. It's that good.
But there’s a problem with tree skiing and those constant snowstorms: you sometimes don’t get to see the spectacular terrain you’re skiing through.
Unlike Heli-Skiing in treeless mountain ranges like those in Alaska where you can't Heli-Ski when its storming, in Canada the contrast provided by the trees allows pilots to see well-enough to fly even in moderately heavy snowfall. Sure, occasionally it snows too hard for them to fly safely, and when the pilot says it's snowing too hard to fly, we don't argue. Instead, we rough it in the spa until the weather improves. More often than not, the skilled Heli-Ski pilots we work with from Alpine Helicopters, and their reliable, well-maintained helicopters, keep us skiing while it snows.
Yeah, the tree skiing with CMH is as good as skiing gets, but sometimes I crave a sense of place. It’s hard to believe, but there are weeks at CMH when it snows the entire time, and we ski all day every day. At the end of such a week I'm tired, happy, and satisfied as a skier, but as a mountain lover I do sometimes wish the snow had stopped long enough to give us a look around.
Luckily, mountain weather is ever-changing, and during the average week with CMH Heli-Skiing there is a load of fresh snow as well as spectacular mountain vistas. The average week entails both full-throttle tree skiing as well as expansive alpine ripping.
I spent one week at CMH Monashees when it never did stop snowing (yeah, it was some of the most fun I've ever had with skis on), and another at CMH Galena where it snowed all but a few hours (not sure if my skis were on the ground or in the air half the time). One morning at Galena the clouds parted for a few timeless minutes and I shot the following panorama of the Galena ski terrain. While the epic skiing we did that week certainly lives in my memory, this view enhanced my experience there immeasurably:
So next time you’re skiing with CMH, and the weather starts out clear, savor it; you might spend the rest of the week deep in the hemlock, spruce and fir forests, choking on face shots and giggling madly, with hardly a glimpse of the vast mountain wonderland surrounding you.
Photo of deep powder tree skiing with CMH by Topher Donauhe.
Heli-Skiing made the front-page on CNN last weekend with a story about Heli-Ski exploration in Pakistan. The plot is irresistible. Brice Lequertier, an Everest veteran who has skied from the summit, leading a team of world-class snow riders on an exploratory Heli-Skiing expedition to Pakistan’s famed Karakoram Range, home to the highest concentration of 8000-metre peaks on earth:
We’re turning even the most severe environments in the world into a playground, and I guess the only limit to what a Heli-Skier can do is the altitude limit that a helicopter can fly and land safely. The sky isn’t the limit, but it’s close.
I cued up the video excitedly, ready for a new frontier of skiing, but I must admit, it isn’t what I expected. The journalist from Walkabout Films who narrates the story is enthusiastic and attractive, the mountains are beautiful, the filming is well done, and the scale of the mountains is mind-blowing, but for some reason the piece leaves something to be desired.
To begin with, the skiing shown in the video, while inarguably hardcore at extreme altitude, is hardly inspiring. The skiers and snowboarders, who I have no doubt are great riders, make easy terrain look really difficult.
Maybe it is the unusual high altitude snow that makes the skiers appear to be having difficulty making simple turns, or maybe it's the lack of oxygen in their legs, but for whatever reason it looks like a ski video from the world’s highest bunny hill.
Maybe it's the green army helicopter they use that made it all seem a bit more like a military exercise than having fun on skis and snowboards in the mountains.
Maybe it's just bad timing for snow quality, and at other times the region could deliver great powder skiing on the world’s highest mountains with the potential for insane vertical.
Maybe they're saving the sick footage for the feature film.
Whatever the reason, the video didn’t really make me want to book my next Heli-Ski vacation to the Karakoram; but it's still fun to see Heli-Skiing make the prime time.
Looking up at CMH
terrain from a beautiful spring day in downtown Revelstoke
Photo: Jorg Wilz