Next month, K2 athlete Collin Collins will be joining a group of CMH Heli-Skiers for four days of Steep Shots and Pillow Drops in the Selkirk Mountains south of Revelstoke. They will be based out of the CMH K2 Rotor Lodge in Nakusp and will be some of the fortunate few to help usher in the inaugual season of CMH K2.
Collin Collins is one of the new breed of skiers, park trained and backcountry savvy, with the cat-like ability to take his jibbing skills into the untouched wonderland of British Columbia’s most famed Heli-Ski terrain. To get an idea of what that combination is like, I tracked down Collin and this is what he had to say:
TD: It sounds like you're pretty good in the park. How do you apply those sorts of skills to the backcountry?
CC: Well, it's always a different scenario depending on the terrain I'm skiing, but I definitely love to bring tricks to natural features when the conditions are right, so I'm always looking for some nice cliffs and cornices, and longer lines where I can bring everything together; some good turns, steep shots, and air time! I grew up without a park, so I learned to ski the whole mountain and turn everything into my playground. I tend to build a lot of backcountry jumps too. It's really fun to learn new tricks and play in the park, but I've always loved skiing powder more than anything.
TD: How hard is it to stick a trick off of a soft lip in the backcountry as opposed to a hardpacked park edge?
CC: It's quite a bit more difficult, you don't have that firm takeoff to pop off, so setting a trick is usually much more challenging. You need to have some finesse and be light on your feet. And then landing in powder can be very tricky, you have to be strong. But the more you do it the easier it becomes.
TD: While heliskiing with CMH K2, what kind of features will you be looking for to throw down on?
CC: I'm super excited for the legendary deep powder and hopefully some big pillow lines. And as I mentioned, always looking for nice cliffs with steep landings.
TD: What are you looking forward to most about Heli-Skiing with CMH?
CC: Just stoked to explore new terrain and ski some deep powder. It should be a very unique experience with some cool new people. Getting rides in the heli is always a privilege, too, so I'm looking forward to that!
TD: How old are you?
TD: How long have you been skiing?
25 years or so. Pretty much my whole life.
TD: What is you home ski area?
CC: Sun Valley, Idaho
TD: Any advice for younger riders taking park skills into the backcountry?
CC: Just have fun! It's definitely not easy, but it's worth it, be ready to work hard and struggle a bit. I encourage kids to get out of the park more often and ski the whole mountain, it'll make you a much better skier. Skiing powder is the greatest thing on earth. Nothing beats stomping a trick into bottomless powder.
TD: Have you had any close calls out there?
CC: Not that I can think of; I've been pretty lucky out there so far.
Collin is sponsored by K2 Skis and Saga Outerwear, and will be ripping it up with CMH Heli-Skiing on January 3-7. A ski pro to inspire, CMH guides to mange safety and find the best lines, and you. I'm jealous already.
Photo of Collin surfacing for some fresh air by Alex O’Brien/K2 Skis.
We’re leaving the ski area. You can’t really blame us. The ungroomed, untouched and unbelievable terrain and snow outside the ski area boundary is the stuff of skier’s dreams.
Not only are the snow quality and the terrain of wilderness skiing dream-worthy, but today’s equipment makes deep powder skiing easier and more accessible than ever. According to Backcountry Magazine, backcountry skier visitation has risen 124% since 2009. But what's up with all the different words that are used to describe it?
Europeans call it off-piste, and it's become so popular in Canada and the US that the different flavors of unbounded snow riding have developed their own North American nomenclature.
Here are the Heli-Ski Blog’s definitions of the backcountry bonanza:
Several leading outdoor gear companies have watched “sidecountry” become their fastest growing product category. For good reason. Sidecountry is generally defined as using ski lifts to get up the mountain, and then leaving the ski area through approved gates to access the goods.
European ski areas have allowed sidecountry skiing since the first ski lifts we installed, but it was slower to catch on in North America. Areas like Washington's Mt. Baker were instrumental in making sidecountry skiing an acceptable part of this continent’s ski area management. Many ski areas now require skiers to carry avalache gear when leaving the resort.
This is easy-access backcountry skiing. Places such as the more user-friendly canyons of Utah’s famed Wasatch Range inspired the term frontcountry. This is where you have to ski or hike up to earn your turns, but if you break a ski you can fairly easily wallow down the hill to the car.
Good frontcountry destinations have become so popular that early-bird strategies can be necessary to get the freshies after a dump.
A slacker’s version of frontcountry. Teton Pass in Wyoming, Stevens Pass in Washington, and Berthoud Pass in Colorado are perfect slackcountry destinations. Drive to the pass, ski or hike as far up as you want, and then rip powder turns to meet the road far below your car. Hitch a ride back to the pass with an understanding ski bum. Repeat as often as possible.
Roger’s Pass, near North America’s powder skiing epicentre of Revelstoke, British Columbia, has roadside backcountry access that almost falls into the slackcountry category, but the size and complexity of the terrain make it suitable for only the more motivated and experienced slackers.
Whatever you call it, anywhere without ski patrol actively working must be treated as backcountry skiing, even skiing inside a ski area before or after the resort's open season. Just because you’re near your car, ski lifts, or other skier’s tracks doesn’t mean you’re safe from avalanches and other backcountry hazards. In fact, being around a lot of other skiers, tracks, cars and lifts can create a complacent attitude about risk.
The remote wilderness skiing around Revelstoke in British Columbia’s Interior ranges, where CMH Heli-Skiing operates, has become known worldwide as the ultimate deep powder backcountry skiing destination.
To go side, slack, front or back, here are a few starter tips:
- Take basic avalanche training, then carry and know how to use a transceiver, shovel and probe.
- Hire a ski guide. Even experienced backcountry skiers find that hiring a guide is a great way to learn a new area and find the best terrain.
- Ski with friends who are experienced but not overly aggressive.
- Learn what safer ski lines look like, and stick to them - safe terrain choices are easier to get right than snowpack evaluations.
- Always check the current local avalanche forecast, and then ski accordingly.
At CMH, we’ve been exploring some of the snowiest, biggest backcountry on earth for over half a century. In 1965, we invented Heli-Skiing to show more people the wonders of British Columbia's backcountry, the place many people consider home to the world’s greatest skiing. Today, we continue to reinvent backcountry skiing with programs such as Heli-Assisted Ski Touring and Ski Fusion.
Photos by Topher Donahue.
Well, it is February 1st. So, if I post pictures only from January 2012, they are technically the best photos from the year... Right? Well, I will go with it anyways.
As I was going through out "best of" gallery for January, there were so many pictures that could have made a best of list! So, I decided to break it down into a category: Guide Photos. Now, everyone loves seeing a skier in a bright orange jacket blasting through blower pow, but you will notice that all but one of these pictures is missing that. Each of the following pictures was taken by one of our guides across 4 different heli-ski areas, with the Bugaboos getting the double shout out. Here they are, in no particular order.
Photographer, Dani Lowenstein
Skier, Lianne Marquis
Few people know that Lianne is actually on telemark skis here. But honestly, after the snow January brought, I would believe it either way...
Photographer: Jorg Wilz
Skier: Bell 212
The Selkirk Mountains near the Rogers Pass make for a nice back drop at the end of the day.
Photographer: Mike Welch
Burnt forrest, fisheye lens, deep pow... Can it get any better?
CMH Bobbie Burns
Photographer: Carl Trescher
Skier: Marty Schaffer
Marty claims this is him... So we'll give him credit for taste testing the snow in the Bobbie Burns
Photographer: Andrew Wexler
Skier: Sepp Hochlahner
Sepp proves just how light and fluffy the snow is in the Bugaboos. He is also missing the top half of his tuque...
Well, that is the end of the epic photo recap from January. Today is the first day of February, which means you have 29 days to be included in the next round! Send us an email to find out when you could be out there: email@example.com
While heliskiing, there are inevitably a few delays; at the pickup, when someone is looking for a lost ski, while the helicopter that has gone for fuel, or waiting for a fog bank to pass so the helicopter can fly again. To pass the time, telling jokes has become a big part of the heliski culture.
To give you committed Heliski Blog readers an edge-up on the other heliskiers next season, here are 10 ski and snowboard jokes for next season that might even make the helicopter smile:
On the first day of her vacation, a woman fell and broke her leg. As the doctor examined her, she moaned, "Why couldn't this have happened on my last day of skiing?" He looked up. "This IS your last day of skiing."
From the Sports Joke Cafe:
A woman and her husband decided to go on a skiing trip one weekend. They rode the ski lift to the top of the mountain, and were preparing to go down. The woman suddenly announced that she needed to use the restroom, and NOW. Her husband told her that since the coast was clear, she could just hide behind a tree and go. Well, the woman had her pants down around her ankles when she suddenly began going down the mountain. She hit a tree on the way down and broke her leg and her arm and had several other bumps and bruises. When she awoke at the hospital, she was surprised to see another man who was dressed in a skiing outfit and also looked as if he had been in a skiing accident. The woman was very curious about this man, so she asked him what happen. You'll never believe it, he told her. I was just skiing down the mountain, and a woman went by with her pants around her ankles, and I crashed into a bush.
Q: What's the difference between a government bond and a ski bum?
A: government bond will eventually mature and make money.
Q: A car has five snowboarders in the back seat; what do you call the driver? A: Sheriff
Q: How do you become a millionaire as a professional skier?
A: Start out a billionaire.
From Ski My Best:
Q: Why are most snowboard jokes one-liners?
A: So the skiers can understand them!
Q: What do you say to a ski instructor in a three piece suit? A: "Will the defendant please rise...."!
Q: On a date, what does a ski instructor say after the first hour? A: "That's enough talk about me; now let's talk about skiing."
This skier walks into a bar at the ski area and says "Hey, you guys wanna hear a snowboarder joke?"
The bartender says, "Well, I'm a snowboarder, the guy on your left is a snowboarder, same with the guy on your right, and a couple of folks behind you as well!"
So the skier says "Ok, I'll tell it a little more slowly then."
Q: How do you know there’s a Mountain Guide at the bar? A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
Anyone out there have another one to add to the list of heliski jokes?
Back in the early days of heliskiing, the guide pack sometimes included a bottle of wine to share at lunch, skins for ski touring because the early guides were not confident that the helicopter would really be able to return, and other heavy gear that made the whole profession harder on the knees and backs of the ski guides.
Today, the CMH guide pack is much lighter and more streamlined - and don’t bother looking for that bottle of wine from 1969. For a view into the guide pack, I tracked down Erich Unterberger, the Manager of Guiding Operations for CMH, who took the time between a few days of guiding in the Monashees to share with us the guts of the guide pack:
"The guide pack got a bit lighter over the years with newer materials being used for lots of our tools. But essentially, the contents are not much different from what we used a quarter century ago when I first started with CMH."
- The shovel and probe only weigh a fraction of the first generation of their kind.
- The rope kit (for crevasse or cliff rescue scenarios) is small and still very strong.
- The headlamp is another tool that is much smaller and still provides better function than the older versions.
- Some guides use their probes as the ruler for the snow observation kit. The other Snow Observation tools remain the same.
Guide's Pack Contents:
1 medical kit
1 headlamp or light
1 improvised splinting materials
1 collapsible avalanche probe
1 snow shovel
1 bivouac bag
1 pair of spare gloves
1 warm hat
1 multi-purpose tool
1 metal container for melting snow
1 bush saw
1 snow observation kit:
- folding ruler
- crystal screen
- magnifying glass
- field book, waterproof
1 rope kit: may be carried separately
1 min. 25m / 8-9mm rope or equivalent
2 locking carabiners
3 5m slings
Photo of Erich Unterberger and his guide pack getting up to speed in the CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.
Although you spend a lot of time on your heli-ski trips with a few guides, there is one guide that you may never ski with. This guide, even though he or she may never ski with your group, has a job that affects you more than you might think.
The snow safety guide plays a huge role in the safety, and smooth running, at each of our heli-ski areas. Mike Welch, area manager of Galena, gave me some insight as to what the snow safety guide might do to make our day out in the mountains better.
Snow Safety- Digging snow pits, checking stability, and explosives control are all part of the snow safety guides day. They might be doing all of the above on runs that are going to be skied later that day, or ensuring more consistent stability for later in the season. Once a run has been deemed safe, the snow safety guide may also check for snow quality. We all know how a thick sun crust can kill a great run, the snow safety guide will relay information back to the lead guide so their group can successfully avoid any poor snow conditions.
Helicopter Safety- We love skiing in deep snow, so what happens if it snows a couple of feet overnight and the landings are no longer accessible? This is where the snow safety guide may quickly become your best friend… They might be out early in the morning digging out landings, replacing landing flags, or clearing brush all so that your pilot can land safely and you can start skiing.
Refueling- When it comes time to refuel, the helicopter will often head to one of our remote fuel caches to avoid the long flight back to the lodge. Generally at the lodge, the helicopter engineer will refuel and avoid the need to turn off the engines, saving you a lot of time. Because our remote fuel caches are so remote, it often becomes the job of the snow safety guide to meet your helicopter at the fuel cache so that refueling happens quickly and efficiently.
Finding the perfect lunch spot- Did you ever wonder how that amazing lunch gets set up in the middle of nowhere? Although the guides may often have an idea of where a good lunch spot would be, the snow safety guide will pinpoint a spot where there is maximum sun, minimal wind, and you aren’t sinking up to your chin in snow. Lunch is one time where deep snow isn’t optimal conditions!
Balancing the groups-
What happens when you or someone in your group gets tired and starts slowing down your group? Often, the snow safety guide will be called in so that the faster parts of the group can do a lap while the slower group members take a break or slow down their pace. This keeps everyone skiing, and everyone happy!
Anyone who has been heliskiing with CMH knows there are two seats in the helicopter that are always taken: the pilot’s and the guide’s seats. Nobody questions the pilot’s choice, but why does the guide always get the best views?
To find out what goes on up there, I asked Peter Macpherson, the assistant area manager of CMH Bugaboos. Here’s what he revealed about the coveted front seat:
Why do we ride shotgun? Primarily sitting up front is for safety. It allows you to gain a lot of information about recent avalanche activity, not only on the run you are skiing, but also the adjacent runs and even whole creek drainages.
You can view the hazards on the ski line, like crevasses and cliffs, just minutes before skiing it.
Also, if there is an accident, the guide up front can get an aerial overview of the site or the injured skier’s exact location and then radio pertinent information to the guides on the ground and the pilot.
Second to safety is skiing quality. You get a relatively unobstructed view of the run from the air. You can loosely assess skiing quality by getting a look at the snow surfaces. You can determine if there is a lot of wind affected snow and sun crusts, as well as how soft it may look. Skiing all winter on the same terrain gives you a good eye for these subtle changes.
You can also determine which lines have been skied by other groups, adjust accordingly, and take your group to a fresh line or a line that best suits your group’s ability. It provides an opportunity to have an overview of the run and the all-important pick up.
While lead guiding (each day, one guide is designated lead guide) I make a great number of decisions from the front seat. Particularly, if weather and snow conditions are changing or if we're skiing in an area that we have not been to recently. Many times lead guides will decide to ski, or not to ski, a run based on what they have observed from the air.
You can’t learn everything from the air however. Decisions made from the air are generally macro terrain decisions where as on the ground they are micro terrain decisions. For example, I may choose the ski line from the air, but while on the ground I may ultimately ski around certain features on the intended ski line.
With the pilot, all experienced heliski pilots from Alpine Helicopters, we mostly talk about the logistics of the day. Things like flying conditions, landings that will work with which loads, pick ups that will work with which loads, which runs are going to be skied, fuel flights, and how the other guides and groups are doing.
Then there is also the “office water cooler” conversations that occur between people who work together a great deal: sports, music, politics, gossip - the usual.
Because you get in and out of the helicopter 8-15 times a day, you learn things about other guides. How do they wear their seatbelts? Who needs to turn the headset to max volume to hear and who is deafened by max volume? Who drinks water during the day and who does not?
Sitting up front holds a great deal of responsibility, but it is perhaps the best seat in the house.
Photo at the "water cooler" in CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.
If you’ve ever wondered how the CMH guides agree on what is safe enough to ski, or noticed that piece of paper (just right of the guide's elbow in this photo), covered with red, green and yellow words and taped to the inside of the helicopter in front of the guide seat in every Alpine heliski helicopter, you need to know about the CMH Run List.
For 28 years, the little piece of paper has been as much a part of the CMH heliskiing experience as good food and deep powder. To get an insider’s perspective on the CMH Run List, I caught up with Thierry Cardon, a French ex-pat who is working on his fourth decade of guiding for CMH.
TD: What exactly is the CMH Run List?
TC: It is the printed, color-coded outcome of the terrain hazard evaluation done at every morning guide's meeting.
TD: When did CMH start using a Run List?
TC: In 1982, in the immediate aftermath of the "69" avalanche in the Bugaboos.
TD: What does each color indicate?
TC: In theory:
- Green: No particular concern other than specific terrain features
- Red: Enough uncertainty to warrant closure of the run or specific line and terrain feature for the day. Can only be re-opened with thorough discussion, significant snow stability change and/or additional observations. (In other words, stability must improve dramatically for a Red run to be changed to Green.)
- Yellow: Enough uncertainty to warrant further information such as natural avalanche activity removing the hazard or unknown new snow amount or wind effect which can be way less than anticipated. A Yellow run can be changed to Green in the field by unanimous consensus of the guide team and documented. Yellow coding is NOT used with persistent weak layers and buried facets or mid-pack surface hoar conditions (Avalanche factors that are best assessed through long-term trends rather than last minute decision-making or observations in the field). Last winter (a season with unusually poor snow stability in the Columbia Mountains) taught us that reloaded avalanche bed surfaces should be given the same cautious treatment.
TD: How did guides make decisions differently before the Run List?
TC: There was only a general, cursory discussion on the snow stability but no terrain discussion or specific hazard evaluation. This was up to each guide's evaluation and that, of course, varied greatly due to experience, personality and operational pressure.
TD: How does the Run List help the guides?
TC: It prompts systematic, focused discussion at the guide meeting (accompanied by photos of every run in the Snowbase database) and the printed copy sits in front of the guide on the helicopter instrument panel. It is a binding product of the collective hazard evaluation process. Each guide has a power of veto to make a run Red if he feels that it is warranted. (In other words, every guide has the power close runs they are not comfortable with at any time.)
TD: How quickly does the Run List change?
TC: Typically the Run List is established every day at the morning guide’s meeting but it can be re-evaluated and changed if conditions change rapidly or are way different from what they were assessed at the morning meeting. To change runs from Yellow to Green, a guide's meeting in the field is required. However, to change from Green to Red, the power of veto exercised by one guide in the field is enough.
The CMH Run List is just one element of the standard-setting CMH safety program. Besides area-specific systems, CMH guide teams share observations between areas in a daily conference call; and snow professionals from ski resorts, other guide services, and road maintenance crews publish daily observations that are studied by ski guides across the region and used by avalanche forecasting services for public bulletins. This cooperative information network is a big reason for the increased popularity and safety of helicopter, snowcat, lift, and touring access to the thrilling world of backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
Photo of CMH Adamants from the helicopter by Topher Donahue.
Last winter I was standing on the rim of the Canoe River drainage, stunned by the view across some of the biggest glaciers left in British Columbia. Above us, the 3516-metre bulk of Mt. Sir Wilfrid Laurier dominated the sky. I turned to ask Dave Gauley, our heliski guide and assistant manager of CMH Cariboos, about skiing from the big peak’s summit. He told me that it used to be a CMH ski run, but that a big crevasse opening had effectively killed it.
With ten years experience as a professional freeskier, Gauley is not one to be easily deterred by terrain challenges. He mentioned something about trying the descent, not doing it, climbing out of a big crevasse - and then skied away and dropped into the Canoe. Distracted by big terrain and stellar heliskiing, I forgot about his unfinished story.
Earlier this week I was daydreaming about big mountains, remembered Dave’s story, and caught up with him – he’s easier to catch in the summer - and here’s what he had to say:
If you skied it (Sir Wilfrid Laurier) from the summit to the valley (which they used to do) it would be 2500 metres vertical. I’m not sure how that ranks with other CMH runs, but it's pretty frickin’ long. I tried to ski off the summit, but there is a big, melted-out crevasse a few hundred metres below the summit you have to climb out of.
The North Canoe Glacier (which would be the lower part of the run) also has huge crevasses, and an icefall that it did not used to have. I think when they built the Cariboo Lodge in 1974, it was in the middle of the biggest snow decade in the area. From talking to oldtimers like Kiwi (Gallagher) and Ernst (Buhler), as well as (people) who grew up in the area - that's kind of their memory.
So I think the changing of the glaciers is a combination of back then they were really lucky with a huge snowpack to fill the crevasses, and glacier recession is now coupled with less snowfall. Bingo - less terrain to ski.
Other runs in the Cariboos are changing quickly too, like pretty much everything at the apex of the Premier Range on all the big ice (“big ice” is guide speak for glaciers) is becoming trickier to ski. Crazy Horse, Little Matterhorn, Penny, Ned's Moon, Thompson Glacier, Jerry's Perch, The Zipper… These are just a few runs that are becoming difficult, or are no longer possible to ski.
Another thing that has changed is that they were much more aggressive on glaciers in the old days as well. Those first Euro guides did not know anything about tree skiing, so they almost exclusively skied on glaciers. What was acceptable risk then would in no way fly today.
I heard, maybe from Bob Geber, that the Bugaboos has lost 30-50% of their glacier skiing from the original area over the last 40 years. Just look at the S&S Glacier. I skied it on a guide exam in 1997 - we were roped up shitting our pants - and they used to take heliski groups down there!
Sounds like a good reason to book a heliski trip now before we lose more ski terrain! Are there any of you lifelong heliskiers out there who can remember the natural closures of ski runs being a sad day?
Photo of skiing Ned's Moon in 2010 by Topher Donahue.
Behind the coffee machine in the CMH Gothics Lodge hang drawings of early climbers in the Alps navigating glacial crevasses and arresting falls. Photos of climbers from 5 different decades adorn the CMH Bugaboo Lodge. Most CMH lodges are equipped with some kind of climbing wall. Ski guides are often overheard talking about climbing adventures. But the two sports are so different. So what’s up with all the climbing culture in heliskiing?
If you look at the hard skills side of guiding, the rope techniques that are learned while climbing give skiers a powerful tool for exploring technical terrain. And of course, if someone falls in a crevasse or gets stranded on a cliff, climbing skills become an important part of the rescue.
However, these days, the two sports have diversified so radically that many ski guides can work competently and safely without studying the climbing part of the guide certification process. Basic rope skills are taught during ski guide courses and heliskiing is so specialized in its system, and intimate knowledge of the local mountains so important, that any guide must work for several seasons in an area before taking on the responsibilities of a lead heliski guide. So is the climbing, hiking and mountaineering really all that important?
To become a full mountain guide, the top certification in the UIAGM, a guide must show competence as both a skier and mountaineer. From the view through your goggles or out the window of a helicopter or gondola, this might seem unnecessary; but in the bigger mountaineering picture, skis, climbing boots, ropes, and carabiners are all just tools for exploring different parts of the same thing - the mountains.
Exploring the mountains as a climber, hiker or mountaineer teaches guides about subtleties of the mountains that you don’t see while exploring on skis. Mountaineers gain intimate knowledge of things the vast majority of skiers will never experience such as:
- The way ice and snow bonds to rock in different conditions.
- The invisible transitions from snow to ice that happen on big peaks.
- Travelling on snow types that are rarely encountered on skis - like rime, penitentes, and glacial ice.
- Vertical and overhanging snow formations a skier will rarely touch.
- Rock quality and the terrain features that hide under the winter snows.
Perhaps the best answer lies in the perspective a guide gets while climbing up or skiing down mountains. To put a really complicated thing very simply: skiing teaches guides how to look down the mountain and climbing teaches them how to look up. For the past 45 years CMH has watched the sport change
, but one thing has remained the same: the mountains are the best teachers - and the guides, climbers and skiers who explore the mountains in all seasons are the best students.
It's not only our guides who benefit from all season mountain adventures. If you want to add to your perspective of the mountains, check out the CMH Summer Adventures. It's more than you think...
Photo of skiing below the biggest peak in the Selkirks, Sir Sanford, in the CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.