“Quality.” Replied Joe Flannery, the new President of CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures, when I asked him what CMH is all about. “Quality of snow. Quality of experience. Quality of guides and staff. Quality of helicopters. Quality of lodges. Quality of the alpine ethic.”
Last month I had breakfast with Joe in Denver, Colorado where he was attending the SIA trade show. I was thinking he might give me a laundry list of the changes he was planning with CMH, but before the waiter even poured coffee, Joe made it clear that his role was not to make a laundry list of changes, but rather to get educated about the complex workings and then to ensure the future vitality of one of the world’s most established and respected mountain tourism companies.
He did explain that there were some things he saw no need to change, including CMH operations in the field. “The product doesn’t need to be reinvigorated,” he explained. “The product is the best in the world.”
And Joe knows something about quality. In the three years after he finished undergraduate studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, he went from a financial analyst, to a startup employee, to a product director for Nike. He then spent a decade working for Adidas in Bavaria, the mountainous region in southern Germany, where he headed Adidas’ billion-dollar sports heritage division. After returning to the United States, Joe landed a job as the Global VP of The North Face, and helped the company to grow 300% during his tenure.
During his free time in Europe, the United States, and now Canada, Joe picked up a wide range of outdoor sports including skiing, snowboarding, surfing, rock climbing, mountaineering and cycling. As he puts it, humbly: “I’m a participant in all. Expert in none.”
To lead CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures, Joe moved his wife and six-month-old child from San Francisco, California to Banff, Alberta, to be close to the heart and soul of CMH. “There is so much energy in this company,” he said, explaining his reason for immigrating to take the job, “it doesn’t make sense to be the leader and not be there.”
After a second cup of coffee, he shared a simple three-part plan for, as he put it, “making sure CMH is as successful in the future as it has been in the past.” First, learn as much as possible about the legacy, the present state, and the future potential of CMH; second, dial in the CMH business model to a contemporary, nimble form to match the company’s strong legacy as it moves into the future; and finally, bring greater awareness to the world’s greatest skiing. Joe explained, “We have such a diverse range of guests that we need to customize our voice so it is right for all of them.”
He shared an example of his own learning about the current state of CMH: At the SIA trade show he chatted with Chris Davenport, the visionary skier who has won extreme skiing competitions and skied all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a single year. Chris joined CMH Heli-Skiing for a week earlier this season and explained to Joe that before the trip he didn’t think skiing with CMH was his kind of thing. Chris went on to explain that the experience had exceeded even his expectations: “I was blown away. It was one of the best skiing experiences I’ve ever had in my life!”
“Even a skier as well-traveled as Chris Davenport didn’t realize what CMH was really all about,” explained Joe, “that means we need to tailor our message a bit better.”
By the time we finished breakfast, I had the strong sense of Joe Flannery’s ultimate goal as President of CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures – to tell the world what CMH is really all about.
Joe concluded with a big smile: “It’s going to be a lot of fun!”
Photo: Joe Flannery (on the right) with CMH General Manager, Rob Rohn, checking out the dreamy ski conditions of this season at CMH Galena. Photo by Mike Welch.
Like most good things in Heli-Skiing, the need drives the innovation, and Pre Heli-Skiing, offered in Banff by Vertical Unlimited Ski Hosts is no exception. Last season, CMH veteran Kimbi Farrelly took a British family skiing near Banff before their maiden Heli-Skiing voyage in the Bugaboos. To start with, they didn’t really know which lodge they were going to. Kimbi said, “It was all neatly written up for them on their correspondence, but they obviously did not have the time or desire to read it.”
Personally, I like that British family’s approach - just sign up for the dream ski trip with CMH Heli-Skiing and get on with it. Why bother with the details, eh? But the family gave Kimbi the idea to start a program to help people get ready for their CMH Heli-Skiing trip. We all know CMH will take fantastic care of you on your dream trip, and teach you what you need to know while you’re out there, but Kimbi had discovered a valuable addition to the CMH Heli-Skiing program.
While skiing with the British family around the Banff ski areas, Kimbi found herself teaching them many of the things that would help them get the most out of their ski holiday:
- She explained the kind of terrain they would end up skiing in the Bugaboos, and how the heli-skiing program works in the various terrain.
- She went over the techniques for tree skiing, like the buddy system and leap frogging.
- She showed them how to find a lost ski in the deep powder.
- She showed them how to put on skis in difficult terrain and deep snow.
- She coached them on how to approach difficult terrain.
- She taught them how to get up after falling in deep powder.
- She gave them pointers for how to conserve energy throughout the day and week.
- She emphasized the importance of listening to the guide’s instructions.
- She explained how to dress for a day of heli-skiing in various temperatures and conditions.
- She showed them how to bundle their skis and poles together for the helicopter.
By the end of the day, Kimbi had designed the beginnings of an entirely new ski program.
After 12 years of working for CMH as a ski shop manager, in almost every CMH area, and accumulating over 8 million vertical feet of heli-fun, Kimbi knows what will help CMH guests get the most out of the vacation.
“Not only is this great for first timers,” she explains, “but it is also an add on for the returning guests that want to bring their families, or for groups of friends who want to get their ski legs underneath them; a lot of heli-skiers don’t have the time to prepare before their vacation and this is a great way to get the ski legs moving again.”
There are also some benefits that even the experienced CMH powder hounds would appreciate. Kimbi provides private shuttles from your hotel, and will take you on a tour of Banff’s “hidden stashes and secret spots that all the locals ski!” (Sign me up for that part alone...)
Besides Kimbi’s substantial fun hog credentials, she is also a certified Nordic and Alpine ski instructor. Everything Kimbi teaches will be explained by CMH guides as well, and repeated whenever needed, but joining Kimbi for a warm-up allows you to spend more of your concentration and ski energy simply enjoying the world’s greatest skiing.
For more information about Pre Heli-Skiing, visit Vertical Unlimited Ski Hosts or call CMH Heli-Skiing reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252.
The 2012 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival will kick off tomorrow. While the festival has become a prestigious global showcase for the greatest creative minds in outdoor adventure, we’re proud to announce that the featured lineup opens with a film honouring Banff local, the great historian of Canadian mountaineering and skiing, Chic Scott.
In the opening film at the festival, The Gift, mountaineer and photojournalist Andrew Querner has created a moving discussion on the fragility and importance of history and community. Chic’s perspective as a historian of mountain sport is powerful, and Andrew’s experience as a mountaineer and photographer helps to convey the rich history of mountain sport.
We’re especially excited to see Chic featured in a film. In 2009, Chic completed Deep Powder and Steep Rock, the Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser. The book is the biography of Hans Gmoser, who passed away in 2006. Hans was the founder, and to this day remains the spiritual leader, of Canadian Mountain Holidays.
The Gift was filmed at the Alpine Club of Canada’s Wheeler Hut, BC in January of 2012. Near Rogers Pass, just east of Revelstoke in the heart of Canada’s snowiest mountains, the hut is a fitting place to meditate on the culture and community of mountaineering.
With flickering of firelight in the hut reflecting in his eyes, Chic explains his passion for history, “Mountain climbing is an interesting sport because if you ask the man in the street, ‘Who are the great climbers?’ and then you ask the hard core climbers, ‘Who are the great climbers?‘ you’ll get two totally different answers; whereas, if you ask the man in the street and the professional hockey players, ‘Who are the great hockey players of all time?’, you would get the same answer.”
He further explains his motivations for writing the history of his sport: “Everybody knows the guys and gals who get up Everest, but the climbers out there who have practiced their passion for decades, the best of them are largely unknown.”
The Gift from Andrew Querner on Vimeo.
Chic was a member of the first Great Divide Ski Traverse in 1967, the epic traverse from Banff to Jasper along the icefields and glaciers that cover the continental divide as it winds through the Canadian Rockies. The traverse was completed with wool and cotton clothing and a cotton tent, the best equipment available at the time, but some things haven’t changed since then. Chic’s musings on “mountain time” still ring true. How, after being in the mountains, the worries of life tend to lose importance and life happens in the present, not in the future and not in the past. “You have a simple purpose. Life becomes simple in the mountains.”
Decades later, motivated by a French book on world mountaineering that short-changed Canada by only dedicating one paragraph to his mountainous country, Chic embarked on the biggest project in his career. “Canada probably has more mountains than any nation on Earth, and yet (in that book) there’s one paragraph on Canada. So, I wanted to set the record right.”
The result, Pushing the Limits, The Story of Canadian Mountaineering, took Chic six years of full-time work during which he conducted 95 interviews with leading mountaineers across Canada and completed one of the most comprehensive and artistic histories of mountain sport ever written.
Chic concludes The Gift with an unusual and insightful perspective on history:
“People don’t realize that yesterday is history. History is right behind us."
Image of Chic Scott in front of the Wheeler Hut from the film, The Gift, by Andrew Querner.
In 2009 Chic Scott penned Deep Powder and Steep Rock, The Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser. The biography is a must read for any ski buff or adventure enthusiast, and included with each copy of the book is “Hans Gmoser, Filmmaker”, a DVD compilation of Hans Gmoser’s films.
In many ways, Hans was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking, but his contribution to film has been overshadowed by his legendary invention: heliskiing. He carried his camera with him everywhere, skiing with it, climbing with it, living with it - and then sharing his films with audiences all over North America and Europe. (Shown below with his camera on the first ascent of Denali's Wickersham Wall.)
The first film in the trilogy included on the DVD is from 1966, a film called “The High Road to Skiing” and chronicles a group of ski instructors on holiday in late April in the Bugaboos (the second season of CMH Heli-Skiing) after several feet of new snow. 1960s era knit ski sweaters, nonchalantly triggering an avalanche (before avalanche transceivers were invented) set the scene perfectly. As usual, Hans’ narration is priceless:
“Have you ever heard your ski instructor tell you you should keep your knees so close together that you can pinch a ten dollar bill between them? I think the only way Rod (one of the skiers using a slightly wider stance) could hold a ten dollar bill between his knees, is if he had a whole stack of them.”
“The snow is so light, once you kick it up it seems to hang in the air forever.”
“It’s almost like a dream, flying through this world of clouds, mountaintops and beautiful powder snow.”
And about the sawmill camp where heliskiing was born he had this to say:
“Even though this camp is rough and frugal, the people don’t mind it, because the skiing is the ultimate - and this is what they came for.”
The second clip is from 1959, a film called “Vagabonds of the Mountains” which tells the outrageous story of Hans and a team of six friends making the first Canadian ascent of Mt. Logan.
The adventure turns out to be one of the more epic adventures in North American mountaineering history: combining a fast ascent of the second highest peak on the continent with a previously untouched ski traverse and culminating with a disastrous whitewater finish where their makeshift rafts are lost along with 1300 photographs and all their gear. Luckily, the team escapes unharmed, and Hans’ films survived, as he kept them on his person, and saved this exceptional documentary for perpetuity.
“What we really treasure is those memories which we have brought back; and I’m sure those memories will let us remain calm and confident when we encounter all the pressures and difficulties of our future lives.”
The final clip on the DVD is from Hans’ 1958 film, Ski Trails, which he shot to promote his ski touring program in Yoho National Park near Banff.
Hans’ poetic narration accompanies his footage of ski touring where he utilizes creative camera techniques that would be impressive even today - shooting into the sun, playing with low angles on the skiers, and following shadows of skiers on the snow. The film is a testament to Hans’ incredible communication skills in an array of mediums - all the more impressive when you think that merely seven years earlier, Hans emigrated from Austria with very little english.
“Out of a deep, dark valley, leads a ski trail, winding along a creekbed through the early morning forest. Then, all of a sudden (with added excitement in his voice) it opens onto the first sunlight which you can see on the highest peaks through the morning mist. You, yourself, are still in the deep shadow. It is a cold, clear morning.
“On such a morning you have a tremendous desire to climb up there, into the sun, and to look out over this beautiful country. With each step you take, the horizon widens and more and more of the peaks glisten in the morning sun, casting dark shadows into the deep valleys.
“Then at last, you too step out into the light and your shadow moves across the clean snow.”
With footage of breaking trail up a steep hill in deep, fresh snow, Hans continues:
“Perhaps it is difficult for you to imagine that one’s desire could be to plod through the deep snow. But let’s be frank, in spite of all the arguments against it, don’t we all have a desire to do something difficult and thereby lift ourselves above the dull everyday?”
“Climbing up every morning, it becomes, actually, every bit as enjoyable as the ski down - in a very different way though. Everything is quiet around you, and as you push your skis through the soft, new snow, you are once more in perfect harmony with the beautiful land in which we live. Every morning you feel as if all this had been created the night before - all is fresh and new."
On one section, where it was too steep to continue upward on skis, Hans shows footage of a skier carrying his skis up an extremely exposed looking section: Hans says, in his light-hearted and honest form of humor, “This is quite awkward, particularly if you tilt the camera a little bit.”
This collage of three of Hans Gmoser’s classic films was produced by Guy Clarkson, a mountain guide and filmmaker, in cooperation with The Banff Centre, Canadian Mountain Holidays, and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. Chic Scott’s book can be ordered here, and includes the historic DVD collection.
You may be inclined to think that with the great skiing to be found in Banff National Park, that the area might lend itself well to some really great Heli-Skiing. You're not alone. Hans Gmoser, the pioneer of Heli-Skiing, thought the same thing and did a trial run at Tent Ridge just south of Banff before founding CMH. Turns out, the greatest heli-skiing on the planet is to be found on the western side of the Canadian Rockies and not in the Banff area. And here's why:
Last year Ken France, Area Manager at CMH Kootenay, wrote this blog article about the science of the snowpack in and around Revelstoke, BC. In the article, Ken describes the influence of the Pacific Ocean on the Caribou, Monashee, Selkirk and Purcell Mountain Ranges. Bascially, Ken walks us through a snow storm coming in off the ocean and losing most of it's moisture in the Coast Range and continuing East where the snow continues to fall, but in a much drier form.
Over in Banff, on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the snow is just that much drier after losing the moisture. The 'sweet spot' appears to be right in the Interior Ranges in BC, just before the storms move east to Banff and the Alberta Rockies.
Heli-Skiers appreciate the natural spacing of the trees in the Interior Ranges. The moisture on the coast is great for tree growth - but this also means that the forests are very dense and not ideal for Heli-Skiing. But trees also provide an important visual reference for our pilots and guides. When the snow is falling hard, our pilots and guides naturally head for the trees and find some fantastic skiing in those naturally spaced forests.
Besides the fact that Parks Canada does not allow for recreational motorized vehicles in the National Park (this includes ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles in addition to helicopters for skiing, snowboarding, and hiking), the flying conditions in the BC Interior Ranges are much better suited to heli-skiing. As Ken says, "Flying at 6,000' instead of 9,000' (like in the mountainous regions of the US and the Himalaya) dramatically increases performance." It's simply more efficient and economical to fly in BC.
When you combine the deep snow of the Interior Ranges with the lack of commerical operations and inhabitants with the natural features of the terrain of these mountains, it adds up to the world's greatest skiing. I asked Marty von Neudegg, CMH's Director of Marketing what makes the phyiscal geography of the Interior Range so perfect for skiing. Marty says 'The Interior Range offers wide open glaciers with consistant pitch and steep 1200-1400 metre tree decents unimpeded by cliff bands. And everything in between! The sheer variety of geography in this range makes it a skier's nirvana." Topher Donahue in Bugaboo Dreams says 'the terrain of the Cariboos is an amalgamation of all the different kinds of features that make up great skiing: the long, powder-cloaked old growth forests, steep serpentine ridgelines, friendly glades, rock-edged couloirs, undulating glaciers, planar mountain faces and chaotic combinations of all of the above."
Accessiblity (or lack thereof)
If these ranges were accessible by road and by car, they would be filled with ski resorts and lift lines. As it stands, helicopter access is the way to go. It keeps the numbers low so the impact is low. Banff National Park is a unique area of land preserved specifically for the use of all and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gorgeous Canadian Rockies have something for everyone - from skiers to shoppers and everyone in between. The Interior Ranges of BC have something for anyone willing to make their way into them, and great reward for those that do.
So, next time you consider heli-skiing in Banff, think again. Your best bet is to look west. It may be a little less accessible, but the best things in life often are.
Lack of snow getting you down? Subscribe to CMH's YouTube channel and let the great ski movies get you through the summer doldrums!
Photo: Heli-Skiing in the Interior Ranges of BC. While the coastal ranges of BC get more annual precipitation, it often falls as rain or wet, heavy snow. In the Interior Ranges it falls as the light, airy powder of which skiers dream.