With the prevalence of helmets, the most popular eyewear for skiing has quickly become goggles. The most common approach these days is to just leave them on the helmet, and just wear them no matter what the weather is like. But is this always the best option? Not necessarily.
To decide which is best, I watched the group of people I know who spend the most time in the deep snow, bright sun, and variable conditions of mountain weather: The Ski Guides of CMH.
Here’s what I learned:
- Some guides wear goggles almost all the time while skiing, but carry sunglasses for the brightest days, lunch, and relaxing.
- Some guides carry goggles as well as two pairs of glasses, one with dark lenses for bright conditions and one with yellow lenses for flat light conditions - skiing first in flat light is one of the big challenges of guiding, and the right eyewear makes a huge difference.
- And some guides, like CMH Cariboos Manager, John Mellis, love their glasses. I can’t blame him. Glasses just feel better, allow better peripheral vision, and give more sensitivity to the lovely mountain world.
- Johnny wears glasses when the face shots approach neck deep:
- Then leaves them on when the face shots start wrapping around his head:
- And even when the face shots reach meaty double-overhead levels, Johnny still rips in his glasses:
- But sometimes, when it’s snowing really hard, Johnny finally breaks out the goggles:
Here are the problems with goggles:
- If you tend to overheat, even the best-designed goggles will fog up.
- Goggles don’t handle bright conditions as well as glasses.
- Goggles are not as comfortable as glasses.
- Goggles tend to restrict your vision more.
- Goggle lenses are not as versatile as glasses.
- For uphill ski touring or boot packing, goggles are too warm.
Here are the problems with glasses:
- Glasses don’t shed the face shots as readily.
- Not all helmets fit well with glasses.
- Glasses don’t keep your face warm.
- Glasses fall off easier when you fall.
- Glasses don't protect your face as well.
If you are going to carry extra eyewear while Heli-Skiing or anywhere in the backcountry, be sure to time your changes without causing other skiers to wait (or worry) for you, and without filling your glasses and goggles with snow in the process. If you would rather keep it simple while Heli-Skiing, just wear goggles and choose a lens in the middle of the hue spectrum - not too dark and not too bright.
Like so many questions about the mountains, the right answer is: It depends on conditions.
Ski technology is red hot. It allows the pros to ski big mountain lines like tow in surfing helps surfers to charge the biggest waves. It gives old-timers (and their knees) an extra ten years of skiing. It made skiing a sexy game in the terrain park and turned skiing cool again.
But in the world of deep powder heli-skiing, is the modern ski technology always better? And are there ways to ski better and safer on the fat, rockered skis that are so much fun, but tend to go so fast?
To find out, I tracked down Dave Gauley, the Assistant Manager at CMH Cariboos and a former ski pro famous for making smooth, casual turns on outrageously steep lines. Here’s what he had to say:
“Fat skis are a bit of a double edged sword, especially for the beginner to intermediate skier. They make it easier to float through almost all snow conditions - except for a few. Most notably in Heli-Skiing is the snow you run into when several lines converge to a shared pickup. Hard packed, bumps, chopped up snow, etc. You are cruising along easily in the pow... then whabam! It's suddenly a bit of an epic to control those big skis in the chop. Strained knees, back etc. are possible if you’re not ready for it.
“This kind of snow on fat skis requires a different approach. What I do is when I see a section like that coming up, is to realize the run is over and I just eat up the vertical by skiing slow with big round turns.
"The other problem with fat skis is the increased speed they generate. Skinnier skis sink more, so the snow pushing off your body slows you down. Not so with the fats.
“For beginner powder skiers, you need to vary the shape of your turn to keep your speed managable. To slow down, let your skis come around a bit more in the turns and come up with a way to dump speed if need be. I use a scrub technique of a quickly throwing the skis sideways like a partial hockey stop to loose a lot of speed quickly - not always easy in the trees. Try to anticipate, and always looking ahead will really help out. Many times in the trees I will straight line sections to get to an open area where i can then dump some speed.
"Another consideration is the weight of these new skis. A pair of K2 Pontoons is pretty darn heavy, probably almost twice the weight of a pair of the Heli Daddy's we were using ten years ago. Combine that with the increased speed, you have quite a bit of potential torque on the knees.
"Overall, you can't just saddle up and rock a pair of fatties. A completely different approach, and set of eyes for the terrain is required to do it effectively."
For another perspective on the double-edged sword of fat skis, I talked with Lyle Grisedale, the shop tech at CMH Revelstoke. Lyle had this to add:
Fat Skis - I have mixed views on the really big fat skis especially for weaker skiers. They are an asset for weaker skiers in that they are not as deep in the snow and can be turned more easily. On the other hand, when you are not so deep in the snow you also go faster - not good for a weak skier on a steep tree run. Because of the speed, these skiers have to work the ski harder in order to slow down, which is tiring.
If guests are struggling on the fat skis, I often take them off of the fat guys and put them back onto the Heli Daddys or another mid-fat, which are easy to turn and easier to control speed. On big wide open slopes and glaciers, the big fats are fun to rip on, doing fast big turns with little effort involved to turn them.
Rockered Skis - I am not a fan of rockers for weaker skiers. Sure they make skiing easier, but for weaker skiers the rocker causes them to be back on their heels, which is hard on the quads. Also, for skiers who learned to ski 20 or 30 years ago ( a majority of our guests) they where taught to use tip pressure and other skills, and it is really hard to get any tip pressure on rocker tips and this is frustrating for carvers. Technique must be adjusted to a more swivelling or smearing of the ski type of attack. This works well, but is a big adjustment for a carver.
Interestingly, when CMH moved to mid-fat skis, staff spaces decreased as the guests could stay out longer before getting tired. Last winter I found that people were getting tired because they are going too fast on the fattys and are working too hard to control speed and to turn using techniques that are not the same as the techniques that they use on groomed runs.
The people who most enjoy the big fats are the younger skiers who are stronger, fitter, and less fearful of going fast."
Lyle offered these tips to help enjoy the pleasures of a fat ski while minimizing the work and leg strain:
- On steeper treed terrain, make lots of turns to keep speed comfortable.
- Use a good athletic stance with the hips above the feet for quick reactions to changes in terrain and snow texture.
- Upper body should be facing down hill most of the time, but don’t over rotate your shoulders or hips or the fat skis will run away on you.
- Avoid the back seat, otherwise the skis can't be controlled and manoeuvred optimally.
- Equal weight on both skis with a little more pressure to the outside ski produces the best results.
For skiers of all abilities who want to improve and would like their CMH Heli-Ski week to include both epic amounts of powder skiing as well as customized instruction in powder skiing technique, the CMH Powder University programs offer a new-school curriculum for all types of skiers and snowboarders.
Photos of fat ski powder harvest by Topher Donahue.
Renowned architect and mountaineer Philippe Delesalle, the visionary behind the design of the remote CMH Heli-Skiing lodges, has been awarded the 2011 Summit of Excellence Award at this year’s Banff Mountain Festival for his architectural innovations on remote buildings in the heavy snowfall and harsh conditions of the Canadian Rockies.
Philippe emigrated from France in 1951 and took work as a lumberjack, among other jobs, before attending architecture school at McGill University in Montreal. An interest in adventure introduced him to skiing and mountaineering, and while learning to ski and working as a lifty at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, he met Hans Gmoser, the founder of CMH Heli-Skiing. At the time, Hans was working at the remote Mt. Assiniboine Lodge, and would use the ski lifts at Sunshine to begin his 25km ski commute to work.
In 2006 I had the honor of interviewing Philippe while researching Bugaboo Dreams, the book that chronicles the invention of heliskiing. Philippe first met Hans while working at the Sunshine ski lift. During my interview, with misty eyes and a warm expression, Philippe recalled meeting Hans: “This tall guy, who looked like Jesus Christ with a big pack, would come out of no man’s land, ask for a lift, and then disappear back into no man’s land.”
Philippe became one of Hans’ closest friends and adventure partners, sharing epic trips to Mt. Logan in the Yukon, pioneering long-distance ski traverses in the Rockies, and countless adventures in Little Yoho and the Bow Valley near Banff. As Hans’ heliski invention took off, he recruited Philippe to design the remote heli-skiing lodges in the Bugaboos, Cariboos, Bobbie Burns and Adamants.
Philippe describes his philosophy behind his design of the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges simply as creating a place where skiers can “live above the snow, looking out at the mountains.”
Philippe also designed the Lodge at Sunshine Village, the Sapphire Col Hut near Rogers Pass, and the original remote and exposed Alpine Club of Canada huts on the Wapta Icefield. “The most difficult site presents opportunity for the most interesting buildings.” says Philippe. WIth such a vision, Philippe’s architectural mastery was a cornerstone in the entire epic project of remote wilderness heliskiing in Western Canada, and he has created a lasting legacy of functionality and beauty with the design of the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges.
The CMH Heli-Skiing lodges are far more than just hotels; there are no other buildings or infrastructure near the lodges, so they must be complete life support systems that can sustain dozens of people through the most violent storms imaginable and weather many decades of Canadian winters.
For veteran CMH heliskiers, the unique look of a CMH Heli-Skiing lodge out the helicopter window on the approach is both a warm and thrilling sight. For skiers and snowboarders new to CMH Heli-Skiing, the lodge is different than what most people would expect. Rather than overt luxury or imitation of famous ski destination architecture, the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges are like no other buildings anywhere, and Philippe designed them that way on purpose.
He explained, “When Hans said, ‘Build me a lodge.’ he knew I would not give him an Austrian lodge or a French lodge, but a Canadian one.”
At first glance, the rooflines of the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges appear to be overbuilt, but in fact it is an extremely successful design that Philippe introduced to Western Canada. The roof consists of two roofs, a snow-bearing roof and an inner roof separated by a well-ventilated crawl space. This allows the roof to hold the entire winter’s snowpack without shoveling (other than cutting off the occasional cornice that overhangs too far over the edge) because the inner roof can breathe and behave like a roof in a dry climate without ever seeing icing, condensation, or wear and tear from the outside elements.
Now 82 years old, Philippe still skis regularly with his wife Mireille near their home of the last 50 years in Canmore, Alberta. The Summit of Excellence Award is given annually at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival to an individual who has made significant contribution to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies.
Photo of the CMH Cariboos lodge by Topher Donahue.
The snow is piling up in the legendary ski paradise of the Columbia Mountains - another La Niña winter in the making.
Last winter I was fortunate enough to sample three different CMH areas during photography projects. It was also the best winter anyone could remember since the 70s; a La Niña winter - the same climate phenomenon meteorologists are predicting for this coming winter.
I know it is almost cruel and unusual punishment to post these photos right now, when most of us haven’t yet even buckled a ski boot, but I couldn’t resist. Not only do these photos illustrate a La Niña winter of heliskiing in Canada, they also reveal the quality of the snow that brings skiers from all over the planet to taste the world’s greatest skiing.
February 28, 2011, CMH Cariboos:
A short break between storms in the Cariboos had left a carve-able surface on solar aspects, but then another 30cm of low-density snow fell on the crust. Combined with -20C temperatures, the result was fast skiing and a swirling powder cloud that would twist and dance hypnotically after the skier had passed. I tried a few shots from below, but this one, looking down at the skier, best revealed the snow dance.
March 7, 2011, CMH Gothics:
Then it snowed for another week. Our first day in the Gothics dawned crystal clear. Even the most veteran guides and skiers were giddy at the breakfast table. Good stability, deep snow, and the massive Gothics terrain in the southern Monashees awaited. The day was like a dream. Not only did we ski CMH’s longest run, Thierry’s Journey, we skied it three times. After weeks of low visibility flying, the pilot was having a blast too. He dropped us off on tiny summits, plucked us from the deepest valleys, and was grinning as widely as anyone on the mountain. Here, the Gothics chef gets a few hours of dreamtime before going back to the lodge to prepare a gourmet dinner to give the rest of us the perfect ending to a perfect day.
April 12, 2011, CMH Adamants:
An assignment from Skiing Magazine, to tell the story of the the unprecedented CMH Heli-Assisted Ski Touring program, gave me another week in ski-topia. While we all anticipated spring conditions and corn snow, it was not to be. Instead, La Niña delivered deep powder conditions until well after the last week of the CMH season. I didn’t hear anyone in the group whining about skiiing in the Adamants during the winter that wouldn’t end.
At CMH Revelstoke, there is already a skiable base in the backcountry, and check out today’s 5-day Revelstoke weather forecast! S-N-O-W!
A recent article in National Geographic on the world’s Top 10 Ski Runs and Lodges brings to mind snow-laden luxury accommodations below mountains laced with fantastical ski lines. We’re proud that Western Canada’s very own Whistler/Blackcomb and the Fairmont Chateau Whistler tops the list, and even closer to home, Banff/Lake Louise and the Fairmont Banff Springs (though not exactly slope-side) is number five.
Interestingly, the article, while it contains “ski runs” in the title, doesn’t mention a single ski run, nor does it include heli-ski areas. The reader can only surmise that the writer intended “ski runs” in the most general sense, and not singular spectacular ski runs. Which for me, as a skier, was a bit of a disappointment. I was truly curious what the iconic National Geographic's list of the world’s top 10 ski runs would include.
Photo of the CMH Monashee Lodge and behind it the kilometre-tall ski run known as Elevator - a ski lodge and ski run that many have called the best in the world. Maybe next time National Geographic will include heli-skiing in their selection...
It's obvious why the article didn't include heli-skiing - heliskiing is so much better than resort skiing as to make comparisons seem absurd. What can compare with the CMH tenture? It is bigger than the rest of North America's ski areas combined!
Also, I can see why the writer chose to weight the article towards lodging rather than skiing. It’s much harder to give both lodging and skiing equal weight in such a selection. Even within CMH there are sometimes heated conversations, especially among the 3,921 guests who have skied over a million vertical feet with CMH, debating which is the best CMH area. Most understand that the whole discussion is subjective, and many ski at different areas every time, but each CMH area has its committed fans who have skied millions of vertical feet exclusively at their favourite CMH area.
So, if you asked CMH heli-skiers and snowboarders to pick their favourite ski run and lodge, which would they choose? The skiing is great everywhere, so some pick their favourite area based partly on the view from the lodge, and pick the Bugaboos or Adamants; others choose based entirely on the volume of steep tree skiing they can shred in a week, and might vote for Galena, Kootenay, or the Monashees; still others choose based on the variety of terrain they can encounter and might pick the Cariboos, Gothics, Bobbie Burns or Revelstoke; some like the most private luxury and mountain experience and would pick the private heli-skiing areas of McBride or Valemount.
Really, such a thing is utterly impossible to judge fairly.
But it’s fun to consider. So, just for the fun of it, what is your favourite CMH ski run and lodge?
This summer I ran into mountain guide Andi Kraus during a CMH Summer Adventure in the Bobbie Burns, a program that rivals the early days of heliskiing in terms of excitement and unprecedented adventure innovation. We flew on ziplines, hiked on ice, and explored the tundra. One sunny day, Andi turns to me and says, “You know, Topher, McBride is the best secret in heli-skiing.”
I had to find out a little more, so I tracked down Andi this fall. Andi knows a thing or two about skiing secrets. He was born in the German Alps, in a town where Olympic gold medalists have learned to ski. He began skiing at age three and eventually worked as director of the local ski school and coach for the racing club.
Later, mountain guiding took Andi to places far from his Bavarian home, including the Himalaya and Canada. Fifteen years ago Andi began guiding for CMH and has never really looked back. He has guided skiers in most of the CMH Heliskiing areas, but considers himself a McBride guide.
TD: What impresses you most about the mountains in McBride?
AK: I really like the roughness of the mountains in McBride - the massive alpine faces combined with long avalanche paths. There are no roads or logging - just pure nature all the way from the high alpine down to below treeline.
The Cariboo Mountain Range in general is just made for skiing. The U shape of the valley's give you endless opportunities to find routes and pickups along the way. I like the complexity of the terrain from open glaciated alpine down into awesome tree skiing below treeline. The variety in terrain and incline gives you an endless ski playground.
TD: From where you are heli-skiing on most days, how far is it to the nearest ski tracks beside your own?
AK: McBride is the biggest area within CMH and since we are a private area we only see our own tracks most of times. McBride is located in the North Columbia north of CMH Valemount and Cariboo lodges. Sometimes we hear their helicopter but we never see their tracks.
TD: How is guiding in MB different from the other CMH areas?
AK: Since we are the only group operating in this massive area, we have the possibility to pick and choose without worrying about conserving snow for other skiers on any particular day. We have great terrain knowledge like the other CMH heliskiing guide teams, but a bit more flexibility, and easy communication and understanding within the guiding team since there are only two of us and the pilot.
Also, Kevin Christakos, the McBride manager, and I work really well together. The other CMH operations have great guiding teams with great communication skills as well, but a small team makes everything simpler.
TD: For more relaxed skiers, is it hard to keep up with the pace of private groups, or is it easy for individuals to take their time on a run?
AK: It is easy to for different skill levels to fit in. This is the beauty in the private groups, you pick and choose your own pace and terrain.
TD: For aggressive skiers, do you have more latitude to play around than with typical heliski groups? Provided you stay under the guide’s watchful eye, of course.
AK: Yes, absolutely. For example, we have a group that has come to McBride many times, and they are all fast skiers, so in a week we ski between 90,000 to 100,000 meters, 24-25 runs a day. Of course weather and snow changes things, but those numbers are an average what we ski with those guys. They ski steep and deep, fast and slow - what ever they want.
TD: Anything you’d like to add?
AK: CMH McBride is a hidden gem - lots of people don't know about it or ignore it. I think McBride has a great skiing future. There is no other area in CMH where you can still establish so many new ski runs as in McBride - and this is what I love about it: looking at terrain and seeing a ski line and when conditions are right, to go and ski it.
The biggest tenure in CMH. Just one group of skiers. Private luxury lodge with a private chef. Andi might be right: private heli-skiing with CMH in McBride could be the best kept secret in heli-skiing.
Photos of CMH McBride heli-ski terrain by Andi Kraus.
Even before I started writing about snow sport, I was frustrated by the fact that snowboarding and skiing have two different names. It makes the whole discussion around the two colossally worthwhile ways of playing in the snow so very awkward.
Take for example the phone conversation that begins many a day on the slopes:
You want to say, “Hey bro, wanna go skiing tomorrow?”
Immediately it’s hard to know what to say. He rides a snowboard, but you ski. What do you say?
If you say, “Do you want to go snowboarding?” when you’ll be on skis, that doesn’t sound quite right either.
Then there is the whole discussion around the sport that is unnecessarily difficult. Take for example the snow sports industry. One time I was at the SIA Tradeshow, and ended up in a conversation with a representative of a famous snowboard company. I mentioned “heli-skiing”, and he immediately held up his hand, corrected me with “heli-snowboarding” and gave me a disapproving look.
It seems like things are changing, and many powder hounds, one boarded or two, have come to the conclusion that besides the physics of the ride, experientially there is really little difference between the two. Sure, skis are better for moving around in the backcountry, and snowboards are better in crud, but both are simply bitchin’ ways to play in the snow.
It was a snowboarder who showed me the light. My friend Karl, a snowboarder, called me one day to see if I wanted to go shralp some pow. “Do you want to go skiing?” he asked. Then, throughout the day, when we scored an especially nice run, he’d say, “The skiing on the left was totally untracked, let’s ski that again.” And at the end of the day, “Killer ski day, thanks for driving!”
Later, I had a conversation about it with Karl. “Why do you call it all skiing?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “It’s all the same.”
Years later, I met another group of people who felt the same way: the CMH staff. For them, it is all quite simply, fantastically, skiing. And why shouldn’t it be; when you’re going out and frolicking in bottomless fluff on some of the most spectacular ski mountains on planet earth, why get too caught up in the nomenclature.
In snow like the above photo, at CMH Cariboos, half the time you can’t even tell what someone is riding on anyway. Any of you snowboarders or skiers out there have an issue with calling it all the same thing?
It's time for another vintage ski movie installment from Dick Barrymore. In the last post we checked out the start of CMH and the building of the Bugaboos. This segment covers the building of the Cariboos Lodge. Also, in honor of Andy Mahre coming back to film another Warren Miller segment in the Monashees, this segment features his dad, Steve, and Uncle, Phil, skiing with us back in the day. Tyler Ceccanti from the K2 Factory team will be skiing as well for the upcoming film shot.
Watching the Mahre brothers ski you realize a couple of things. One, ski racers, no matter what era, just can flat out ski. Two, DNA sort of helps...you can see where Andy Mahre gets his skiing chops.
So check out the movie. Enjoy the classic soundtrack and classic ski fashion.