In July of 1913, exactly 100 years ago this past July, Conrad Kain guided two guests, Albert McCarthy and William Foster, on the first ascent of Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
Kain wrote in his book, Where the Clouds Can Go, in his typically dry prose, an account of the ascent. In describing their summit push, he reveals much about the profession of guiding - the effort, the judgment, the human element, and about safely venturing into the unknown:
“About 3:45 I lit a fire, cooked breakfast, and at 4:30 we set out, reaching the summit of Mt. Robson ‘King of the Rockies’ about 5:30 p.m. I was half snowblind. I cut 500-600 steps in sheer ice, often breaking in above the knees in soft fresh snow. It was a hard day for me, but I reached the goal and made the real first ascent.”
Later, Kain describes his decision-making:
“The descent was very dangerous, and I would not undertake to follow the route of ascent going down. So we descended to the southwest side."
Today, Kain's ascent of Mt. Robson is revered worldwide by mountain guides aspiring to lead their guests safely through the ultimate mountain experience.
50 years after Kain's ground-breaking ascent, another phenomenon of mountain adventure was underway. This time it was not a singular summit, but rather an awakening; the realization of the quality of skiing to be found in Western Canada.
An Austrian guide named Hans Gmoser, who had immigrated to Canada to escape the deprivation of post-war Europe, was leading ski tours each spring and shooting films of the cozy huts, deep snow, long runs and camaraderie of backcountry skiing. During the off season, he took his films on tour through Europe and the United States, opening the eyes of skiers across the globe to the wonders of Canadian skiing.
Skiers by the dozens joined Hans, and the combination of Hans’ personality and the mountains and snow where they skied, proved irresistible. One guest summed it up perfectly:
“Hans, when I skied with you, I not only learned how to ski powder, I learned to live. It was a precious gift; I have treasured it constantly since. Thank you, thank you more than I can express.”
The growing popularity of mountain sport, partly fueled by Gmoser’s inspiration, demanded that guiding standards were developed. So, in 1963, the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) was formed in collaboration with Parks Canada, with Gmoser as the ACMG’s first technical director.
The same year, Hans began experimenting with Heli-Skiing, and by 1965 had taken the concept into the promised land of helicopter-accessed snow riding, the Columbia Mountains, and founded CMH Heli-Skiing. The remote peaks, deep snow, and ideal ski terrain afforded meteoric rise to the popularity of Heli-Skiing. By the late 60s, without enough Canadian guides to handle the burgeoning popularity of the sport, Hans was actively recruiting European guides to work with him Heli-Skiing in Canada. There was no program for teaching Canadians the skills needed for mountain guiding, so in 1966 the ACMG ran their first guide training, with Hans as the instructor.
Two Swiss guides who worked with Hans, Rudi Gertsch and Hans Peter “HP” Stettler, began laying the groundwork to include Canada in the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA).
Photo of some of Canada's guiding forefathers in the Bugaboos in 2005 to celebrate 40 years of CMH Heli-Skiing. From left: Rudi Gertsch, Hans Gmoser, Hans Peter "HP" Stettler, Kobi Wyss, Peter Schlunegger, Hermann Frank, Lloyd "Kiwi" Gallagher, Sepp Renner, Ernst Buehler, Leo Grillmair and Bob Geber. Photo by Topher Donahue.
In Seizing the Sharp End: 50 years of the ACMG, the 17th edition of The Summit Series books written by Lynn Martel and published by the Alpine Club of Canada, Stettler is quoted saying: “Canada was always very well accepted. We had something to offer that nobody else had, which was Heli-Skiing. It was a lot of work, but I always felt that Canada was important enough of a mountain country with a mountain guiding fraternity to be part of that (IFMGA).”
In the book's introduction, Peter Tucker, the Executive Director of the ACMG, sums up the philosophy of Canadian mountain guides: "But above all, the story of the ACMG is about its relationship with the public and the unrelenting commitment of its members to keeping (guests) safe while providing them with the adventure of their lives, a commitment that is carried out with an impossible-to-describe balance of bravura, humility and wisdom. A promise that is, indeed, the keystone thread throughout the tapestry of this organization."
In 1974, Canada officially became the first non-European country to be accepted into the IFMGA, setting the stage for other countries across the globe to become part of the organization.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the ACMG, and nearly half a century of the world’s greatest skiing, and celebrations include an exhibition at Banff's Whyte Museum titled Pinnacle Perspectives: Celebrating the ACMG 50th Anniversary. One of the biggest reasons to celebrate this anniversary is in recognition of how the IFMGA and its affiliated associations, including the ACMG, have built the guiding profession to exemplify international cooperation and trust in a way that very few professions have ever achieved.
Roko Koell, a long-time CMH Heli-Skiing guide told me once that he thought Hans Gmoser deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for the way he helped the guides and guests from different cultures enjoy the mountains together in seamless harmony. Hans however, whose warm humility in his later years would have never wanted exclusive recognition, would likely suggest that the deserving party for a Nobel Peace Prize would be the IFMGA.
So tonight, when you’re daydreaming about enjoying the deep snow in the Columbias with the security of a mountain guide on your team, pour a toast to Hans, 50 years of the ACMG and the international cooperation of the guiding profession.
I’m speechless. After watching McConkey You have one life. Live it. the new film from Matchstick Productions that digs into the life and death of snowsport megastar Shane McConkey, I tried to put together my feelings into a tidy blog post about passions, innovation, adventure, life, and risk. But my feelings wouldn’t cooperate. I am torn, inspired, blown away, and don't really know how to begin.
The world’s most influential skier.
Those are some of the words his friends and the media used to describe Shane, and with innovations like the rockered ski to his credit, and a background going from pizza delivery boy to ski superstar, those words ring true. But there’s more to it than that.
Shane was one of those human beings that experienced the cultural and technological equivalent of the rogue wave that happens in storms at sea when one wave builds on top of another to create a single wave that is massively out of proportion to the rest of the swell.
Shane’s wave was so enormous (he was the first North American athlete sponsored by Red Bull) in part because his father, Jim McConkey, was part of a cultural and technological wave that launched what became known as Heli-Skiing half a century ago. McConkey begins with footage of Jim skiing in the Bugaboos and Cariboos in the 60s where he helped Hans Gmoser develop what became CMH Heli-Skiing, a recreation icon that today parters with Shane's sponsors Red Bull and K2 to help everyday skiers and superstars alike savor the ultimate skiing experience.
The movie follows the highlights of Shane’s life, benefitting from an incredible collection of home video and GoPro style footage from Shane’s own camera, shot decades before the GoPro was invented. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Shane started skiing when he was 23 months old, and he began with a fairly predictable trajectory of a ski icon, from joining the local ski team at 7 years old to attending high school at the Prestigious Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont where Olympic racers are made, to a ski scholarship at CU Boulder in Colorado. When Shane didn’t make the cut for the US Ski Team because he was too small, he was shattered and his predictable trajectory was interrupted.
He jumped on the wave left by the likes of Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt who’d shown a new generation of brilliant skiers that skiing wasn’t just about racing. He left ski racing with one last memorable slalom run (also caught on film) where he bashes his last gates in his birthday suit. Yup. Buck naked.
You’ll have to watch the film to get the whole story, but the bottom line is that Shane didn’t just raise the bar a little; Shane raised the bar by an order of magnitude. He didn’t just ski off the biggest cliffs, he hucked backflips of the biggest cliffs. Shane was a staple of cutting-edge ski films for two decades, and McConkey highlights many of his best moments (and some of his worst) but it wasn’t the mind-blowing lines he chose, or the committing tricks he pulled in the midst of them that really left me speechless.
It was the fact that Shane always came across as a regular guy. A regular guy who just liked to see how big he could go if he did everything right. And big he went. He didn’t give a whit about the latest snow-gangster fashion or what his fellow skiers did. He just went out and figured out how to make something outrageous into something that was for him normal and repeatable. In 1996 he founded the IFSA, International Free Skier’s Association (also known as I F&$#!$g Ski Awesome) helping boost the prestige and mainstream appeal of creative free skiing.
He discovered BASE jumping in the early years of the sport, and mastered it, logging close to a thousand jumps all over the world, with and without skis and was a veteran of BASE jumping's thrill and tragedy. He was there when a woman’s chute didn’t open properly on a demonstration jump off of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Shane stood next to her husband, watching his face as it happened. (Perhaps one of the reasons the film hit me so hard is that I was sleeping on El Capitan that morning, and awoke to the sound of her hitting the ground - a sound I'd buried in my memory for years until they talked about that sound in the film.)
Shane didn’t just try ski BASE, he mastered ski BASE, which allowed him to ski lines that ended on massive cliffs and did it so well that it seemed almost normal – at least for him – and did it successfully for years. We all know this was what cost him his life in the end, but one of the things that I hadn’t realized was that it wasn’t ski BASE that got him, it was ski BASE with a wingsuit, which added to the complications and risk. As usual, Shane was raising his own bar.
Perhaps the details of his final jump don’t really matter. What matters is that “everyman’s superman” did a lot more than be a superman – he helped the rest of us feel like superheroes. When I’m slashing down a face of steep powder, feeling like a hero instead of the hack skier I am, it is thanks to Shane McConkey who walked away from his ski racing pedigree and even his extreme skiing peers to create both technology and a mental approach to skiing that makes many thousands of everyday skiers all over the world feel like superheroes.
McConkey does about the best possible job of doing the impossible: capturing the beauty, the tragedy, and the brilliance of Shane McConkey’s life in under 2 hours. From intimate interviews with his loved ones, to footage of his journal where he drew pictures of the first rockered skis and mused on the potential of ski BASE, the experienced team at Matchstick Productions deserve all the accolades they will certainly get. Order it here.
McConkey premiered in London on October 1st, and the story of the premier was captured by Pure Powder. I’m sure the tears and beers flowed freely.
Photo of Jim McConkey jumping a plane in 1962, during the first explorations into the Columbia Mountains in what is now CMH Cariboos Heli-Ski terrain, with CMH Heli-Skiing founder Hans Gmoser. Courtesy CMH Archives.
“It’s a thing of beauty.” Said Dave Cochrane, the manager of CMH Bugaboos, when I asked him what he thought about the new ski baskets that were installed on Alpine Helicopter’s fleet of Bell 212 helicopters in the last few years.
It may be hard to believe that something as dialed as the CMH Heli-Skiing system would need to change something as simple as the ski basket, but the story of the ski basket, like much of the Heli-Skiing story, is long and colorful. The heli-ski ski basket has gone through an evolution every bit as significant than the evolution in snowboard, ski and snow safety technology.
To begin with, the ever innovative ski guides and pilot Jim Davies attached to the skids a simple ski rack designed for an automobile, and strapped the the skis and poles to the rack with bungie cords. (Photo at right. Note the extra gas can strapped to the side of the helicopter - there were no fuel caches in those days.) While this method would never fly (so to speak) in the modern world of safety-obsessed Heli-Ski companies and oversight from Transport Canada that has to approve every detail of air transport, it was a workable solution in 1965.
After the car ski rack was retired, the first real ski basket turned out to have a serious safety flaw. They began using a basket built to fit the helicopter - but the basket had no lid. Jim Davies explained that they figured it would work fine because when they were lifting the group to the top, the airspeed and rotor wash would tend to pin the skis in the basket, and in those days nobody ever flew back to the lodge. Instead, they always skied to the bottom of the valley or to the lodge at the end of the day, so there were never skis in the basket while the helicopter was flying downwards.
Then one day a tired skier wanted to go in early. As the helicopter quickly lost eleveation, the skis were lifted out of the basket by the airflow, and flew through the rotor. The skis were chopped in half like a carrot hit by a machete, and the skis carved a dinner plate-sized chunk out of the rotor. The pilot, none other than the original Heli-Ski pilot Jim Davies, mustered his considerable skills and managed to land the wobbly and aerodynamically compromised machine safely at the lodge.
The next basket was built to handle the speed, power and safety of modern Heli-Skiing, and it served the industry well for decades - until we changed the dimensions of the tools we use to ride the pow.
Fat skis and snowboards came along, pushing the well-designed little basket to overflowing, and requiring the most recent basket design change (above) which accommodates our larger boards without sacrificing aerodynamics and weight. The new basket required years of design innovation and approval from Transport Canada, and each one costs upwards of $15,000. But it seems the new ski basket can handle the high standards of safety, equipment and efficiency that we’ve all come to expect from the modern world of CMH Heli-Skiing.
In 1963 - 50 years ago this year - CMH began experimenting with what would become known as Heli-Skiing, and took the word’s first commercial Heli-Ski guests up a mountain with a helicopter for a ski lift. At the time, the best machine for the job was a Bell 47 B-1. The pioneers of Heli-Skiing strapped their skis to the skids with bungie cords and shuttled the group to the top, two passengers pusing the payload capacity of the reliable little helicopter to the limit.
The Bell 47 line were technological marvels for the time, setting helicopter records for distance and elevation.
- In 1949 it made highest altitude flight to 5,650 metres (18,550 feet).
- In 1950 it became the first helicopter to fly over the Alps.
- In 1952 it set a distance record of 1,959 kilometres (1,217 miles).
- In 1958 it became the first helicopter to be used for television news camerawork.
Its 178 horsepower engine had about the same power as a small car, but at the time there was nothing better for mountain flying than the Bell 47 B-1.
When Hans Gmoser, the founder of Heli-Skiing, was first approached by a couple of different skiers about the possibility of using a helicopter for a ski lift, he didn't immediatley jump on the possibility, but he didn’t forget the concept. Hans brought up the idea with Jim Davies, a skilled mountain pilot who had helped Hans with ski exploration in the Cariboo and Rocky Mountains using a fixed wing.
According to Hans, he asked Jim, “Do you think you could use a helicopter to take skiers up a mountain?"
And Jim replied, “I know I could.”
That’s how it began. But there were a couple of false starts including a trip in 1963 to the Goat Glacier near Canmore, Alberta where the helicopter worked great but the snow was hideous breakable crust, and a trip in 1964 out of Golden, British Columbia where windy conditions blew the little helicopter far from their destination, clear into the next province of Alberta, before they found a place to safely land and ski.
In 1965 Hans decided to try Heli-Skiing in a place called the Bugaboos, where a remote sawmill camp provided lodging, the endless mountain range of the Columbia Mountains provided the terrain, the now-legendary storm cycles of Interior British Columbia provided the powder – and the Bell 47 B-1 provided the power. The third try was, as they say, a charm; the snow was dreamy, the guests were ecstatic and wanted to go again the following year, and Heli-Skiing was born.
Helicopter technology changed dramatically in the late 60s and early 70s, so the Bell 47 was soon exchanged for larger, more powerful machines, but these pictures of the little helicopter servicing the very first commercial Heli-Skiers will forever speak to the world's greatest skiing and the unprecedented adventure of learning to use a helicopter for a ski lift half a century ago.
Photos courtesy CMH Archives.
For decades, the CMH Heli-Skiing tagline has been the world’s greatest skiing. Of course such a statement begs to be refuted, but once people have skied with CMH, they quite often tend to agree.
One thing, however, that nobody argues with, is that CMH Lodges throw down the world’s greatest après ski!
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why; indeed, the perfect après ski is a little different for each person. But somehow, CMH gets it just right for virtually everyone.
Perhaps it is the number of fellow powder hounds – enough to have diversity but few enough to have intimacy.
Perhaps it is CMH Heli-Skiing’s special flavor of hüttenzauber, or alpine hut magic, that has remained a part of the CMH experience for nearly 50 years.
Perhaps it is the combination of remote locations and exquisite comfort.
Or perhaps it is the snow riding that makes the CMH après ski so enjoyable.
Most likely it is a combination of all of the above, distilled photographically into the following five photos.
Springtime in the Bugaboos, with après ski on the deck overlooking in the Bugaboo Spires:
A mid-winter dirty martini sitting atop the 3-D ski area table of the Adamants in the commons area of the Adamants Lodge:
Après ski with the Nomads South at the Halcyon Hot Springs pools overlooking the Arrow Lake after a world-class day of riding both Galena and Revelstoke terrain:
Getting the giggle on after hitting the shot ski – anywhere CMH:
Digging into a sushi après ski served up on a Burton snowboard. I doubt Jake ever dreamed we’d be eating sushi off his invention in a Heli-Ski lodge deep in Interior British Columbia:
Any of you million-footers out there have any great memories of CMH aprés ski that you'd like to share?
A staggering amount of the 15,000 square kilometres that makes up CMH Heli-Skiing is ski and snowboard terrain. However, thick forests, massive cliffs, broken icefalls, and summits guarded by all forms of alpine barriers keep us from carving turns down some of it.
But every millimetre of those 15,000 square kilometres makes for a great view. For me, as a photographer, the incredible visuals provided by the CMH terrain are as fascinating, thrilling, and memorable as the deep powder itself.
Surprisingly, however, it is hard to capture that vastness and diversity of terrain with a photograph. Only a few photos manage to bring home a little taste of that crisp alpine air, those deep valleys, the tenacious clouds, and the enormous snow riding potential and limitless beauty of CMH terrain.
These photos are five of my best efforts at turning this wilderness the size of a small country into a postcard-sized matrix of pixels.
CMH Adamants is named after this collection of summits; summits so rugged and remote that mountaineers have only recently begun to explore the steepest faces. Even fewer professional skiers have visited the areas steep couloirs and plunging faces:
The Bugaboos was the first, and is the most famous of the CMH Heli-Skiing areas, yet it remains one of the least-known of North America’s natural wonders. Here, the prisitine wilderness of East Ereek dances with mists during a CMH Summer Adventure:
Many people have said that the Cariboos are made for skiing, and metre by metre, the Cariboos may be the most versatile ski mountains in North America. In this photo, the steep couloirs that lace the range’s biggest peaks are begging to be ripped:
Even ski guides call the Monashees, when conditions are right, the best skiing in the universe. Thousand-metre slots through the trees can be found by the hundreds dropping into the range’s deep valleys and many of the area’s hard-core Heli-Ski fans have decide there is nowhere else they’d rather ride:
The Gothics, just north of the now famous powder epicenter of Revelstoke, is one of those areas where you can ride 2000-metre alpine runs one day, and steep trees the next. The views into the Monashee and Selkirk mountains are stunning enough to give pause to even the most agro powder hounds:
The wintertime snow riding is often called the world’s greatest skiing, and the award-winning summertime adventures are the kind of experiences that imprint a person’s heart and soul with beauty, so it’s easy for the lodges of CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures to blend in with the scenery.
However, the location and the alpine hospitality delivered at the CMH lodges are so authentic and spectacular, that sometimes I wonder if CMH would become even more famous if the lodges were marketed as remote lodging destinations rather than base areas for world-class mountain experiences as they are today.
For those of us who enjoy the warm personality and dream-like mountain environment of the CMH experience, the lodge is just one aspect the comfortable outdoor immersion that the CMH winter and summer programs provide. Yet we all know that the charismatic lodges of CMH are a huge part of what makes a vacation at CMH so refreshing, memorable and enjoyable.
Looking back at my photo collection from a decade of pointing my cameras at CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures, the following 5 photos stand out as capturing the personality of the CMH Lodges.
Galena Lodge in January. 5cm/hour snowfall:
Bugaboo Lodge in August. The view from the helicopter on the way to dreamland:
Cariboo Lodge in February. The only civilization for farther than the eye can see – even from the summits of the biggest peaks:
Bobbie Burns Lodge in July. The most diverse and accessible smorgasbord of remote adventure options on planet earth:
Gothics Lodge in March. The Germans call it hüttenzauber or, loosely translated, “alpine hut magic”:
These are lodges where world-class ski and snowboard athletes celebrate some of the most fun adventures they’ve ever had in the mountains; lodges where 90-year-old great-grandparents breathe the fresh alpine air and hike in the tundra; lodges where adventure travellers live their most memorable experiences; lodges where thousands of people from all over the world have spent the kind of days that make them feel most alive.
Photos by Topher Donahue.
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.
Heli-Skiing is different from other kinds of skiing in a number of ways. The obvious ones, like the volume of untracked powder you get to shred each day and the vast selection of ski terrain at your ski tips, speak for themselves.
Once you get out in these mountains, with a helicopter as your ski lift, a few other differences become obvious – like the clothes you wear in a ski resort aren’t necessarily optimal for Heli-Skiing.
Finally, talk to your fellow Heli-Skiers. CMH Heli-Skiing guests are an experienced lot. It’s not uncommon to be at a CMH Lodge with guests who have as much Heli-Skiing experience as some guides. They are a wealth of wisdom in how to get the most out of your precious time in the unique world of deep powder heli-skiing.
- Close the gap. I’m not talking about gap jumping. I’m talking about the gap between your jacket and pants. While the low-riding pants and high-riding jackets look great in the lift line, there are no lift lines in Heli-Skiing. This fashion statement acts more as a snow-melting system in deep backcountry powder. Even if you don’t fall, the deep powder will quickly fill your pants, melt down your leg, and eventually make it’s way into your boots. You don't want that water in your boots - you never know where it's been. Ski guides prefer high top pants with suspenders or snug belts and long shirts that will stay tucked in all day.
- Don’t wear white. Even if you’re extra attentive to staying close to your group, when skiing in the trees wearing white makes life more difficult for your tree skiing buddy. We ski in pairs in the trees, and a flash of colour is easier to keep track of than a flash of white in a white world. In a worst-case scenario, if you do get separated from your group, the helicopter pilot will be called upon to find you from the air. I’m sure you can visualize what a white skier in the middle of some of the world’s snowiest mountains looks like from the air…
- Under-dress, then add a vest. The helicopter is heated, and there is usually not much waiting around, so you don’t need to dress like you would for a long, cold chairlift ride. However, Canadian winters can be quite cold and there are occasionally delays, so you want to dress warm enough. What to wear is a debate every Heli-Skier has every day. My favourite piece of Heli-Skiing kit is a light vest with synthetic insulation. I can wear it at the beginning of the day to stay warm, and then stick it in my pocket or in the tiny pack provided for each CMH guest. Wearing too much is a common mistake made by Heli-Skiers. This results in excess perspiration which fogs up your goggles, dehydrates you, and detracts from your enjoyment of the world’s greatest skiing.
- Monitor and adjust your temperature. If you feel that you are about to get cold, make sure you put on your hood, zip up your zippers, tuck in your sweater and loosen your boots at the pickup to increase circulation BEFORE YOU GET COLD. If you’re getting hot, take off your hat and vent your jacket BEFORE YOU OVERHEAT.
- Wear a hard shell rather than a soft shell or an insulated jacket. While insulated jackets and soft shells are great at the ski area, they don’t allow enough versatility for a week of Heli-Skiing. In a typical week of Heli-Skiing in Interior British Columbia, you’ll see both brilliant sunshine and heavy snowfall - sometimes in the same day. Even the best soft shells tend to get wet easier and stay wet longer than hard shells.
Photo of a well-executed wet-sock-grab at CMH Bugaboos by Topher Donahue.