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.
Starting this winter, Western Canada has a weather forecasting website designed specifically for skiers and snowboarders. It is called ShredFX, and it delivers snow and weather forecasts for the region’s ski areas – forecasts that take into consideration the unique weather patterns of individual ski areas and the idiosyncrasies of the mountains themselves.
We can now make a call as to where to ride if we’re looking for pow with just a quick glance at ShredFX. Even the colour legend suggests it was built from the ground up with powder hounds in mind:
- Lots of Rain
- Lots of Rain and Snow Mixed
- Some Snow
- Oodles of Snow
- Champagne (I don’t think they’re talking about the bubbly drink.)
- Oodles of Champagne
A partial screenshot from ShredFX looks something like this:
Looking more closely, ShredFX gives us forecasted precipitation amounts for each of 27 different ski resorts over the next four days. Why only four days? Because mountain weather is so difficult to predict that four days is about as far in the future as a mountain weather can be forecasted. For that matter, 2 days is about as far ahead as we can expect highly accurate mountain forecasts.
Yup, I think ShredFX was designed by people who play in the snow. Indeed, it is a service provided by the Mountain Weather Services, the same resource that provides avalanche professionals (including CMH Heli-Skiing), heli and cat skiing guides, and the movie industry with subscription-based weather forecasts designed for professional users.
With a tagline of “only the gods know better” ShredFX must be pretty sure they are providing an entirely new forecasting product, and I'd agree. A CMH Ski Guide once told me that the Mountain Weather Services forecasts were the first forecasts to have any real usefulness for ski guides in Canada – and up until now these pinpoint mountain forecasts were the exclusive domain of snow professionals.
The ShredFX forecasts are broken down the 3 main regions of western Canada - the Coast, Interior, and the Rockies. Along with the precipitation forecasts are two weather maps: a satellite view of precipitation and an atmospheric pressure map.
While the mountain weather forecasting has gotten better every year, until very recently there has been little done specifically for skiers and snowboarders aside from truly excellent avalanche forecasting services - and avalanche forecasting has a fundamentally different mission than powder forecasting. A few years ago, Joel Gratz, a meteorologist from Colorado started the Colorado Powder Forecast, combining the automated weather forecasts with location-specific climate and terrain knowledge as well as powder-centric weather pattern modeling. The snow riding community was ravenous for such a resource, and Gratz went national, changing the name to Open Snow which now has over 15 million monthly hits.
The significance of sites like ShredFX and Open Snow is enormous. What it means is that the information that was once only available to professional groups with paid subscriptions - and vast experience in intrepreting weather data - is now being made available for free to the public.
It means that recreational users of the backcountry now have one more tool in their toolbag for making decisions, but as with other decision-making tools, we can use them to make good decisions as well as bad decisions. It is for this reason that the Mountin Weather Services backcountry forecasts remain the domain of professionals and are not made public by ShredFX. There is a lot of wisdom in their explanation of why they don’t publish backcountry forecasts:
“The ShredFX, like all public and freely available forecasts, is not suited for applications where adverse weather can get you into trouble. MWS does not encourage backcountry winter travel without thorough and detailed knowledge of avalanche and weather conditions that go well beyond the information contained in the ShredFX. Professional guides certified by organizations like the ACMG, IFMGA and CAA have the knowledge to interpret weather information on a professional level and often retain services by professional meteorologists (like MWS) to keep you safe in the backcountry. Your best bet is to stick with those professionals or a ski resort.”
Here’s another way to put it: Knowing which ski area is likely to get the most snow is great for maxing out the fun, but incorrectly interpreting a forecast calling for oodles of fresh snow in one valley in the backcountry can be dangerous and not fun at all.
The bottom line is that ShredFX is obviously designed as a resource for snow riders looking to have fun. We now have more information at our fingertips that will help us enjoy the wonders of winter to the fullest. Thank you ShredFX!
Ice crystal photo by Topher Donahue.
“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.
Among Heli-Skiing areas, Bobbie Burns is memorable in many ways: the fast-paced skiing and snowboarding, the diverse terrain that includes parts of both the Purcell and Selkirk ranges, the summer program with a headline-grabbing via ferrata and now a one-of-a-kind adventure hike (story in the Robb Report) past waterfalls and glaciers.
But there is also the name. With its CMH siblings sporting an entirely different flavor of nomenclature - Bugaboos, Galena, K2, Revelstoke, Galena, Gothics, Monashees, Adamants, Cariboos and Valemount – just how did the Bobbie Burns get its name?
Well, my research first took me to Sun Valley Idaho where a lifer ski bum and ski legend by the name of Bobbie Burns changed the way the world skis moguls with his SFD (Straight $%!& Down) approach to bump runs, and in the 1970s he invented The Ski, which was the freestyle ski of choice for years. In 2013 The Ski was resurrected by Scott (with a rocker) and took this year’s Ski of the Year award at Fall Line Magazine.
Next, I came across an 18th century Scottish poet and lyricist with the same name. In 2009 the poet Robert Burns was chosen in a vote run by a Scottish television channel as “the greatest Scot.” His most famous poem, Auld Lang Syne, is a staple of New Year’s celebrations in English speaking countries for it’s theme of paying respect to times gone by.
Third, I found myself researching a Swedish footwear brand, Bobbie Burns, that in their words was “inspired by the early rock-and-roll, skate and punk scene." Their website is complete with images of parkour athletes throwing huge tricks against graffiti-strewn concrete walls.
Finally, I came across a book, “Canadian Mountain Place Names: The Rockies and the Columbia Mountains” by Glen W. Boles, William Lowell Putnam and Roger W. Laurilla. Roger Laurilla? That name brings to mind epic tree skiing in one of the world’s most legendary of ski destinations: The Monashees. For indeed, Roger and I shared a week of epic skiing at CMH Monashees during his tenure as the CMH Monashees area manager. We didn’t see much of each other, however – it snowed nearly two metres during the week we skied together. According to his book, the Robert E. Burns is an old mining claim in the Vowell group on the eastern side of the Columbia Mountains, which is named in honour of the Scottish Poet.
So which one was it that inspired the name of the CMH Lodge? As a disciple of the ski bum lifestyle, I threw out a silent vote for the Sun Valley bump master being the inspiration for the Bobbie Burns Lodge. Also, the rock-and-roll, skate and punk footwear theme does share some aspects of the ski and snowboard culture - especially on a Friday night at the Bobbie Burns Lodge - but the Bobbie Burns footwear brand is 30 years younger than the CMH Bobbie Burns Heli-Skiing area.
As it turns out, the CMH Bobbie Burns Lodge is located next to the Bobbie Burns Creek, which was named after the mining claim. So while our current snowsport and Heli-Skiing culture may share more commonalities with punk footwear and legendary ski bums than with 200-year-old poets, the CMH Bobbie Burns Lodge's namesake is the 18th Century Scottish Poet, Robert E. Burns.
Photo: Approaching Mach 1 while Heli-Snowboarding at CMH Bobbie Burns by Topher Donahue.
Why is it that some of CMH Heli-Skiing's most experienced guests book early-season trips each year? They're going to throw snowballs at me for telling you this, but here's the top 5 reasons why:
#1 Snow Quality
While the Columbia Mountains are vast, northerly (Revelstoke sits at 51 degrees latitude), and receive immense amounts of precipitation (the snowiest mountains in Canada), they are not terribly high (Sir Sanford, the biggest peak in the Columbias is 3,519 metres or 11,545 feet) so the average winter temperatures are not as cold as you might expect. This means early season offers the shortest days to keep the snow cold at the moderate elevations and thus (now for the important part) quite often the lightest, fluffiest snow.
#2 The Vibe
Many of the early and late season skiers are seasoned heli-skiers and snowboarders who have learned the secrets of the early season. It’s typically an easy-going but hard-ripping crew you find at CMH Lodges in December and January.
#3 The Atmosphere
Mike Welch, the area manager of CMH Galena, put it best when he described why December is his favourite month: “The snow is bottomless. Twenty centimetres fall every night. The days are short. It’s kind of dark all day. I love the whole ambiance! We come home wet. Our gloves are soaked. Our zippers are frozen. I just love it!”
#4 The Psyche
There is no place more exciting to be as a snow rider than a CMH Lodge in the early season when that first massive storm cycle of the Heli-Ski season rolls in. The guides, staff and guests are fresh off summer fun and everyone is rip-roaring-ready for ski season. Sure, deep powder in mountain paradise with helicopter access is dream-worthy anytime of the year, but early season in Canada is when the amp gets turned up to 11.
#5 The Cost
Last but not least; it’s a simple matter of supply and demand. There are only so many seats on the helicopter, and more skiers and snowboarders want to go Heli-Skiing in February and March. This means you can get in on an early season CMH Heli-Skiing trip for about a third less than the cost of a peak season trip.
Photos of early season conditions in Galena and the Monashees by Topher Donahue and Fred Huser.
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.
You can always pick out the CMH Heli-Skier in transit; they’re wearing hiking boots or something sturdy on their feet for the winter mountain world, are wearing a technical jacket, sometimes have ski boots thrown over their shoulder, and tote a small carry-on for the plane; and they’re usually smirking a little over how much fun they’re about to have – or just had.
Travel with CMH Heli-Skiing is easy. Sure, the roads through the Canadian Rockies can close down during the biggest storm cycles, but we've been experts at mountain travel for almost 50 years. 99% of the time, you can roll into Calgary, turn off your travel brain, and enjoy letting us take care of delivering your ideal ski vacation.
But there area a few things you can do to that can help ensure that your trip goes perfectly:
- Contact CMH to discuss your best transportation options. The timing of your arrival and departure can make the difference between a relaxing ski trip and a stressful one. CMH Reservation agents are familiar with the itinerary options and can suggest the travel plan that will fit your schedule and give you the most enjoyable trip.
- Carry your ski boots on the plane. But don't leave them in the luggage bin! Many million-foot guests of CMH will carry their ski boots as their “personal item” on the plane. If your luggage doesn’t arrive, which is thankfully less common in this age of computerized luggage tracking, you’ll at least have your boots. Borrowing some ski clothes is easy, we have plenty of skis and snowboards, but ski boots fitted perfectly to your feet are the one thing that would be more difficult to replace quickly.
- Fill out the lodge luggage tags as directed. When you get to Calgary, or wherever you meet the CMH concierge, you’ll be directed to put your name on a luggage tag labeled with the lodge of your destination. This is because we have 11 heli-ski areas and we want you to arrive at your area with your gear. We’ll deliver your luggage to the door of your room in the lodge, but to do this we need to know it’s yours.
- Use CMH transport when possible. While renting a car and being on your own schedule is tempting, we can do more for you if you travel with us. If roads do close, we sometimes arrange a helicopter transfer from a different location, and if you’re somewhere else in a private car, you’ll miss it.
- If your schedule allows, give yourself a little extra time to catch flights after your trip. Many of our European guests need to catch an evening plane out of Calgary on the last day of their trip. We arrange an early flight from the lodge to accommodate them, but it is far more relaxing to fly the following morning and have the last day of your trip to travel stress-free and reminisce about the ski paradise you just experienced.
- Travel light-ish. Remember that some of our areas are helicopter access only in the wintertime, and everything you bring will need to be flown into the lodge. You should bring whatever clothes and personal items you need to have a comfortable stay, but don't bring the kitchen sink - we supply those already.
Photos of Heli-Ski travel, CMH Cariboos style, by Topher Donahue.
Any list of the world’s 5 best ski towns doomed to be unfair. In many ways, the best ski town in the world is the one you’re in. But some, like my number one choice (shown in this photo), are the kind of ski towns where ski dreams meet reality.
To make this list for the Heli-Ski Blog, I considered the conversations I’ve had with the most experienced group of skiers I know: the guests of CMH Heli-Skiing. As a group, CMH Heli-Skiers have skied everywhere and know a thing or two about the best the world has to offer. At aprés ski in a CMH Lodge, waiting for a heli-pickup, or riding the bus from Calgary to the Revelstoke region, CMH guests talk about skiing. These are the ski towns that I’ve heard spoken of with the most reverence. To pick this list, I weighed the skiing heavily, followed by the culture and lifestyle of the area, and limited my list to no more than one ski town in a given country.
Number 5: Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA
There’s nowhere in the United States where you get a more American skiing experience than Jackson Hole. Think cowboys and National Parks, big trucks, wolves and moose before even stepping into your skis. From Teton Pass, where a car shuttle and boot pack trail give access to world-class powder skiing, to the endless backcountry runs in Grand Teton National Park (photo right), to the progressive Jackson Hole ski resort where out-of-bounds skiing (with the right safety gear and training) is considered standard fare; the skiing during good snow cycles is about as good as snowriding gets.
Number 4: The Arlberg, Austria
It’s hard to pick one area in the Northern Alps. From Garmisch Partenkirchen in Southern Germany, to Innsbruck, Austria, a town many consider the winter sports capital of the world, there may be no region on the planet with better ski infrastructure or more ski-soaked culture.
I had to pick the Arlberg. Considered the birthplace of modern Alpine skiing, the Arlberg was also one of the places where skiers experimented with using a helicopter as a ski lift before CMH opened the world’s first Heli-Skiing business in 1965.
Number 3: La Grave–La Meije, France
Much of Europe is famous for impeccably groomed pistes, comfortable lodging, and well thought-out transportation. A few European areas, including the legendary Verbier in Switzerland, are known for out-of-bounds skiing and would be worthy of inclusion in this list. I had to give the love to a little lesser-known jewel of the off-piste lifestyle: La Grave, described here in an Outside Magazine article, is an almost mythical area famous for one thing, and one thing only. Skiing.
Home to the biggest lift-accessed off-piste skiing in the world, La Grave offers 2150 metres (7000 feet) of vertical and unrestricted backcountry access. There are no luxury hotels in La Grave, and only a single tram and a couple of surface lifts, but the town's classical stone construction and epic skiing make it a ski town unlike any other. If you go to La Grave, hire a guide, and get ready for the most thrilling lift-serviced skiing you’ve ever done.
Number 2: Akakura Onsen, Japan
The Revelstoke of Asia, this ski region surrounding Nagano was blown wide open by the 1998 winter Olympics. I remember having a hard time focusing on the races in Nagano because of the surrounding steep mountains coated in a generous blanket of powder snow kept catching my eye.
Akakura Onsen is known as the most central village to the best skiing, with access to several ski resorts. One area, Myoko Kogen, also allows off-piste skiing, while many of the other Japanese ski resorts do not. Add Japanese Onsen (hot springs) and cuisine to the equation, and you’ve got a recipe for what could be the world’s healthiest ski destination.
Number 1: Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada
Let’s see. North America’s tallest lift-serviced ski area. Canada’s snowiest mountains. Arguably the world’s most diverse and vast backcountry ski terrain. The spiritual centre of CMH Heli-Skiing, the world’s first Heli-Ski service. Well-managed backcountry hut systems. A world-class avalanche forecasting service. Industry-leading ski guide culture. Canadians. Need I say more?
While I hummed and hawed over the other four, it was easy to choose the number one ski town in the world. For some reason, similar to Akakura Onsen, much of the ski world just recently learned about Revelstoke. But the word is out, and the combination of Revelstoke’s easy-going-yet-go-for-it-safely Canadian ski culture, the endless terrain, the epic snowfall and diverse ski options are taking the ski world by storm.
“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.
We experimented with one-day heliskiing too. In fact, the world’s very first attempt at commercial Heli-Skiing in 1963, exactly 50 years ago this spring, was a one-day trip. It was led by CMH Heli-Skiing's founder Hans Gmoser, so we know a thing or two about how it happened. On our very first day, we strapped a car's ski rack onto the skids of a helicopter and flew out of Canmore, Alberta, onto the nearby Old Goat Glacier, to try using a helicopter as a ski lift.
Granted, there were a few problems. First, we were using a Bell 47 helicopter, which could only carry 2 skiers at a time. Second, we tried Heli-Skiing in one of the driest areas in the Canadian Rockies so the snow was terrible. And third, everyone was wearing long, skinny, straight skis which made the terrible snow really difficult to ski.
It cost 20 bucks a person to be one of the world’s first Heli-Skiers.
Two years later, in 1965, we finally got it right in the Bugaboos. While the helicopter was still too small and the skis to skinny, we were in the right place - and we spent a week Heli-Skiing instead of just a single day.
Fast-forward 50 years, and Heli-Skiing has become a mature industry, but the problems with one-day Heli-Skiing have remained. We experimented again with one-day Heli-Skiing just a few years ago, and the problems are as plentiful now as they were that fateful day on the Old Goat Glacier in 1963.
At first glance, considering the expense of Heli-Skiing, the one-day idea seems like a good one. But when you dig in a little more, the reality tells a different story. Here are the five big problems with one-day heli-skiing trips, and the reasons that CMH Heli-Skiing does not offer one day trips:
- Training: Every Heli-Ski operator worth their googles trains guests in helicopter, avalanche, and skiing safety. A minimal training session takes an hour, and a good training session takes closer to two hours. In a three-day ski trip, spending an hour or two learning safety protocol doesn’t eat into much of your skiing time. In a one day trip, especially during the short winter days, the training cuts into your ski time dramatically.
- Burn per turn: How much money you spend per glorious, choker, blower, over the head powder turn goes down significantly the more days you can afford to ski. The best value heli-ski vacations are more than one day. No exceptions. If you are considering a trip with a “cheap” Heli-Ski outfit, do the math. For dollars per face shot, “cheap” Heli-Skiing is often the most expensive. Check out this article about one-day trips and other myths about Heli-Skiing.
- Conditions: No mountaineer travels to a mountain destination with only a single-day window to bag the ultimate mountain goal. In one day, you’re more than at the mercy of the mountain’s conditions – you’re a slave to them. CMH Heli-Skiing’s weeklong Signature trips were designed to take into account the fickle nature of mountain weather and conditions, as well as give people time to adjust to the rhythms of the wilderness.
- Friendships: For the guides and staff of CMH Heli-Skiing, this is the biggest reason we don’t offer one day heli-skiing. We don’t want to meet new people every day and then watch them leave before we even get a chance to become friends. And our guests don’t want to leave either. Everyone has more fun in the mountains after we get to know each other.
- Life: One day of surfing. One day of golf. One day of sailing. All one day does is get you ready for the second day. Even the best skiers amongst us have more fun Heli-Skiing the second day. If you’re going to throw down for the ultimate ski experience, you owe it to yourself to make it worth the cost, the time, the travel and the potential of Heli-Skiing.
CMH Heli-Skiing’s spring trips are some of the highest value options in the entire recreation industry. Join us this spring for a three to seven day trip that you’ll never regret.
Photo of one of the world's first commercial Heli-Ski flights from the CMH archives. Photo of the rewards of multi-day Heli-Skiing at CMH Gothics by Topher Donahue.