According to the foresters of Parks Canada there are three life zones in the Columbia Mountains: “Rainforest, Snowforest, and No Forest."
These life zones are where CMH Heliskiing happens
. Mountain guides and heliskiers divide the mountains a little differently, but the differences are largely semantics. However you break it down, the wildly different life zones of the Columbia Mountains are fundamentally connected to the kind of terrain you’ll encounter on a heliskiing or helicopter snowboarding vacation.
Mountain guides break it down into Below Treeline, Treeline, and Alpine. Each zone has features that appeal to both beginner and expert powder skiers. Here is a photographic and descriptive tour of what skiers of differing ability levels can expect from each zone:
Alpine: The original inspiration for heliskiing. It’s all about stunning views, big vertical, leaving tracks on gorgeous peaks and oceans of snow, and skiing past glaciers and massive mountain walls of snow and rock. On a summit to valley run at CMH, the alpine is usually a 500- to 1500-metre elevation band.
- Beginner Powder Skiers will enjoy the freedom to turn wherever they want, without the pressure of trees or terrain features.
- Expert Powder Skiers will enjoy the high speed carving on steeper unbroken faces.
Treeline: Quentessential Canadian heliskiing terrain. You get both views into the alpine, and technical tree skiing features like wind rolls and snow mushrooms - and the most massive snowpack in an already snowy region. On a summit to valley run at CMH, treeline is usually a 200- to 400-metre elevation band.
- Powder skiers and snowboarders of all abilities will enjoy the diversity and beauty of the treeline zone. Even within the safety limits of staying near the guide’s tracks, experts can ride over the jumps, drops and steeps formed by the tree islands and moraines, and beginner powder skiers and snowboarders can ride the lines of least resistance.
Below Treeline: This is where the new school of heliskiing goes off. When the CMH guides began exploring the steep tree runs of the Monashees, they stumbled onto one of mankind’s most amazing contrivances: floating effortlessly downward through a steep forest with snow pouring around every millimetre of your body - with a helicopter to take you up for another round. On a summit to valley run at CMH, the Below Treeline zone is usually a 500- to 1500-metre elevation band.
- Beginner Powder Skiers would be wise to choose an area with tree skiing that is suitable for weaker skiers. The Cariboos, Bugaboos, Kootenay, Adamants, and Revelstoke have a plethora of tree skiing terrain that is great for weaker tree skiers.
- Expert powder skiers and snowboarders will need no introduction to know that charging the deep powder through an old growth rainforest with CMH is pretty much as good as life gets. Rippers will be happy at any CMH area, but the Monashees, Gothics, Cariboos, Revelstoke, Bobbie Burns, Galena and Kootenay are legendary for aggressive tree skiing.
Check out the rest of the most frequently asked questions about heliskiing.
Yeah, statistically there are more days of deep powder skiing in the middle of winter, but statistics don’t measure fun. If you ask me, the most FUN time of the year to go heliskiing with CMH is in the spring.
Why is that? Let my camera count the ways:
1. Surprise dumps from convective showers make the sweetest powder days. Even at times when the storm cycles are not hitting the CMH areas, the convective showers that are caused by daytime heating pumping moisture into the atmosphere will frequently dump 20 to 50 cm of snow. The above shot shows what convective showers can do for snowboarding with CMH in April.
2. Lunchtime in the spring is pure PLEASURE. In the middle of winter, lunchtime is about seeing how well you can eat a sandwich with your gloves on, and finding that delicate balance of drinking enough hot tea to keep your toes warm without spending the afternoon relieving yourself in the woods on every run. In the springtime, lunches with CMH are casual affairs with amazing people in the most spectacular places.
3. The light on the snow. Of course for some skiers, heliskiing with CMH is all about tree skiing in the darkest, deepest forests in Western Canada. And while such tree skiing is indeed epic, the light in the alpine in the springtime is a phenomenon to behold. These north facing moraines in the above photo see no sun until late March, when they light up with an almost inner glow. Add 50 cm of convective fluff to the equation and the experience is incomparable.
4. Speed. Yup, you can ride faster in the spring. Friendly snow, big alpine features, and generous runouts allow skiers and snowboarders to pull out all the stops. While the winter snow can give the sensation of speed, it doesn’t hold a candle to high speed riding in the springtime when you can open the throttle all the way and rip past some of the most scenic mountain terrain on the planet.
5. You can ride ALL of our terrain. In the winter, you are often limited to the trees, while in the spring you can frequently ski from the summits, down the big alpine, and finish the run with a long tree shot to the valley bottom.
6. Aprés ski looks better in the spring. In the winter, you enjoy the aprés ski wearing your long underwear in front of the fireplace. In the spring, you can roll up your short sleeves and step outside. The generous decks around the CMH lodges transform from chilly places where only the smokers hang out, to the most scenic, friendly, and intimate après ski venue the ski world has to offer.
April 30 is the last day of the CMH Early Booking Incentive! Book next year’s trip today and save up to $700.
After John Entwistle’s heartbreaker April Fools joke - where he lured us in with promises of the “Best Heliski Photos. Ever.” and then left us with perhaps the least inspiring collection of skiing pictures ever published - I had to balance things out and put together these five face shots from the winter of 2010/2011 in honor of just how sweet it really is riding deep powder with CMH Heliskiing.
In the process of making these five ski photos I lost and cracked lenses, filled my camera with snow a hundred times, and took a thousand lousy pictures - but I'm not complaining.
Blower Equals: 10 weeks of almost non-stop snow, and then a bluebird day in CMH Gothics.
Powder Eyes: After a hundred faceshots at -20C, this is what a smile looks like.
The Ghost Grab: The kind of helicopter snowboarding where the difference between a face shot on the ground and a face shot in the air is immaterial.
The Ghost Pole Plant: The kind of powder skiing face shot where the pole plant becomes immaterial.
The Cariboos-Flavoured Face Shot: Does life get any better than this?
Any heliskiers or snowboarders out there have a good story to share about the powder manna of the 2010/2011 CMH Ski Season? About how many face shots you got in a row? About how deep it really was?
One of the amazing things about the CMH Heliskiing experience is that you can show up at the airport with your ski or snowboard boots, and CMH takes care of all the other snow riding details.
Temperature changes making your skis too slow? Get an overnight wax job. Want to move your snowboard binding position for riding in the deepest snow? Just drop them off at the shop. It will all be better in the morning.
To get a perspective on how the CMH shop techs contribute to the CMH heliskiing experience I talked with Kim Shaw, a 24-year-old ripper from Rossland, British Columbia, and shop tech in the CMH Cariboos:
TD: How does being a shop tech influence the skier's heliskiing experience?
KS: I meet them the minute they walk in the door, figure out their needs for skis and snowboards or just find the right jacket or layering piece. If any of their gear is not working for them, I try my best to problem solve and make the best out of what we have available. Having product knowledge first hand on what equipment you should be using for the type of conditions at the time helps a great deal.
TD: How are the different ski shapes changing your job?
KS: With the variety of skis we carry this year, from the Rossi S7's , K2 Darkside and Pontoons people sure are trying everything! It is good for us to get positive and negative feedback on what ski really works, and what doesn't. We can take this information and try to provide the best ski for the conditions.
TD: What do you do for skiers to maximize their heliskiing experience?
KS: Anything that I can! Knowing what ski works well with the conditions at the moment will help the skier with making the decision of what to ski on. With different options a skier can go from a K2 Coomback with rocker in the tip, to a Rossi S7 with rocker in tip and tail. This year the new selection of skis gives people more options. If a ski is not working out, they can try another.
TD: Sounds like the ultimate powder demo program. What do you do for snowboarders to maximize their heli snowboarding experience?
KS: What goes for skiers, goes for snowboarders! Knowing the depth of snow, conditions, and what to ride on helps them make choices. Working closely with the rider to find the perfect stance to help them feel comfortable riding in any situation is huge. We are currently looking at some different options for snowboarders and it looks like next year we will have something new and exciting out in the field!
TD: What is the standard level of training for a CMH shop tech?
KS: Most people have experience in the ski industry prior to CMH. Some have a working or racing background, and we all love the mountains! We have meetings at the beginning of the season and talk about what new products we are bringing into the CMH world.
TD: Anything else you'd like to add?
KS: CMH is an amazing place to play and work!
Curious about what else is included in a CMH heliski trip?
Photo of Kim Shaw and the fruits of her labours in the CMH Cariboos by Topher Donahue.
Just driving between the CMH Heli-Skiing areas, the snowpack is a sight to behold. In many places, it would be impossible to slide off the road thanks to the size of the snowplow burms. One of the CMH guides joked, “You could just turn on the cruise control, take a nap, and let the car pinball back and forth between the snowbanks.”
A heliski tour in snow conditions like those occuring right now at with CMH Heli-Skiing leaves everyone, even the most seasoned guides, with a sense of euphoria. After leaving the Cariboos last week, I trained my camera on CMH Gothics and came home every night laughing at the exceptional ski moments captured on my memory cards.
Day One – Lisa, the Gothics ski tech, loves nothing more than blasting over snow mushrooms on her snowboard, and with feather-soft landings there was no reason to hold back:
Day Two – It’s hard to imagine a more magical place to heli-ski than the headwaters of Horne and Ruddock Creeks in the heart of the Monashee Range. 1200 to 2200 meter runs drop from pointy summits to the valley bottom through pillow gardens, chutes and open glades. Tripping the shutter on this photo was a highlight of my photography career:
Day Three – Some photos need no explanation. Simply exceptional ski conditions:
Day Four – It was dumping so hard that Doug, the 206 pilot, spent most of lunchtime sweeping snow off the helicopter:
Day Five – Even the heli-ski guides are stunned by this winter’s snow, so when we stepped out of the helicopter on Morning Star and sank up to our waists in nearly a metre of new snow after 10 weeks of consistent snowfall, Claude Duchesne, the Gothics Area Manager, laughed out loud and shook his head incredulously. Needless to say, the face shots were meaty:
Day Six – This is one of those winters were skiing takes on a fantasy-like quality with the snow textures and sculptures, skier position and the heavily snow-laden forest all dancing together:
Day Seven – There is no word for it in English, but the Germans call it “Huettenzauber”, meaning that particularly cozy magic of mountain huts, and a peek through the windows of the Gothics Lodge nestled in the snow perfectly demonstrates Huettenzauber:
Spring skiing at CMH this year will be incomparable, with the crevasses filled in, boulder fields covered, and plenty of snow to ski the longest runs. The guides are already talking about the convective snow storms of spring and skiing lines that only come into shape once every couple of decades. Check out CMH space availability to see about getting your slice this remarkable season.
Early season can be a knuckle-biting time for heli-ski guides. With zero artificial snowmaking, and countless skiable acres, heliskiers need enough natural snowpack to cover jagged rocks, tangled fallen timber, and thick underbrush. This season, snowfall started slowly, but by all accounts the powder machine has installed itself over the Columbia Mountains and the white room is open for business.
CMH Galena: December 4, 2010. Photo by Mike Welch.
For a little firsthand glimpse of what it’s like out there, I tracked down Kevin Christakos, the manager of CMH McBride, John Mellis, manager of CMH Cariboos, and Jason Semenek from the CMH Banff Office who updates the multimedia for CMH online and is testing a couple of CMH webcams so we can see conditions for ourselves.
TD: Does it feel like heliskiing time out there in the high country?
KC: Ya, it always feels like time to go skiing when December hits. Today was a dark and snowy day in Golden, and it felt like the kind of day you want to be skiing in the trees.
TD: Do you still get excited about skiing this time of year?
KC: Ya, I wonder if that will ever change. By the end of November I'm usually on skis. Now I often start with nordic skiing. Our ski hill opened last Friday. I pulled my oldest boy out of school to go skiing with me. He was worried he'd get in trouble but I convinced him it would be okay - I guess if I'm convincing my kids to play hooky to go skiing with me that would classify me as keen.
TD: What was the snow like during guide training?
KC: When we started I was pretty much busting through to ground when I walked, but it snowed almost every day and by the end you could really feel the snow starting to settle as it had snowed about 50cms in total. Winter often comes on fast and it is amazing this time of the year how fast the skiing gets good once the snow tap gets turned on.
TD: Where and when is your first week of guiding this year?
KC: We'll be setting up in McBride right after New Year, and the first guests are all snowboarders so I’ll guide on a snowboard. I look forward to spending the week on the dark side…
TD: Since CMH doesn't make snow like a ski resort, how much snowfall does it
take to open a heliski area?
KC: How much snow you need on the ground depends a little on how dense and settled the snow is, but a good target would be 1-1.5 metres at treeline.
TD: How much snow is there at treeline now?
KC: What a coincidence. There are about 1-1.5 metres.
Writing from the CMH Cariboo Lodge on Friday, John Mellis gave me this update:
“It's been snowing for the last 30 hours. 25cm new at the lodge, 60 cm for total H.S. here. I haven't been up high yet. But I know winter really kicks in around tree line. It was an exceptionally wet, cold summer up here. The glaciers more than likely did quite well.”
Johnny is excited about the aftermath of a cool summer for good reason: The Cariboos contain some of the biggest glaciers in the Columbia Mountains. A cold, wet summer means crevasses will fill in more quickly so the glacier skiing there, and in the high alpine of the other CMH areas, could be setting up for the best season in many years.
Jason Semenek is currently testing the new CMH webcams, which are still being optimized for updates from the remote locations, and they can be viewed with the CMH Snow Report. Jason also updates the CMH slideshows and multimedia, which right now feature some choker powder photos from CMH Galena that are worth the visit - unless of course you'd rather not see how good the skiing is right now...
Heliskiing is intimidating. Most skiers and snowboarders can do it, but until you’ve experienced it it’s intimidating for just about everyone. Everyone has questions about it. Some have questions about their own ability, some have questions about the logistics of the program, and then of course there are questions about the skiing itself. For the top 5 questions asked by heliskiers, I tracked down Natasha Wiebe, with CMH Reservations, who spends most of her time patiently and expertly answering these very questions.
1. How many runs per day and how long are they?
This depends largely on two things: snow conditions, and your skiing or riding endurance. Most days are spent skiing and snowboarding a dozen or more powder runs between 300- and 1200-metres long. With the helicopter and multiple guides to lead different skill levels, there are chances to rest or return to the Lodge so some guests ski significantly more than others.
But don’t be surprised if, even as a first-timer, you ski a lot more than you might expect. If you’re a strong intermediate skier, and you don’t mind a few fluffy tumbles while learning the bouncy rhythm of riding in powder, you end up skiing long runs with surprising ease. If you’re an expert, you’ll be in good company with our faster skiers and riders on our longer, steeper runs.
2. What will the snow be like?
Snow is always changing, but an average heliski day will be in snow deeper than your boot tops and often deeper than your waist. There are no grooming machines at CMH, and with up to 20 metres (or 65 feet) of annual snowfall, the base you are skiing on can be up to 5 metres deep.
It's not always perfect powder - wind, sun, temperature and time can conspire against us and create diabolical crusts, bulletproof hard pack, soupy slush (which can be really fun to ski too) and everything in between – but Interior British Columbia has the best odds for betting on deep powder skiing of anywhere in the world.
3. What happens on a down day?
Thanks to the great snow and ski terrain of the Columbia Mountains, and exceptional pilots with Alpine Helicopters, we average only half-a-day without skiing each week, so a lot of guests just rest, visit the spa, get a massage, dine, and appreciate a chance to recover and ski stronger the next day.
However, after 45 years of heli-skiing, we’ve passed a lot of days when it's dumping so hard the helicopter can’t fly, so we have cross-country skis and boots in every size, pool tables, exercise areas, weight rooms and climbing walls. On occasion, down days have been known to include broom hockey, snowball fights, and building kickers in the woods near the Lodge.
4. I am coming alone on this trip. Do you think this is ok?
Absolutely. Mountain sport is conducive to camaraderie. You won’t be alone for long. Most heliskiers leave after a week with CMH with more friends than they arrived with. Every week, we’ll have a mix of guests travelling alone, in groups and in couples. Quite often we have guests come alone for one week and meet a friend or their family for the next week.
5. What is there to do in our spare time at the Lodge?
Other than during down days when the helicopter can’t fly because of weather conditions, most guests find little spare time after the long days of memorable skiing, gourmet dining, and relaxation. Wireless Internet will let you connect - and the spa, dining room, bar, and the rest of the CMH heliski experience will let you disconnect.
Are you curious about the other quesitons our guests ask us about heliskiing? Check out the FAQ section of our website.
Photo of answering these questions the fun way at CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.
No, not that kind. I’m talking about the kind you use at the bottom of a heliski run when the helicopter is coming in to pick you up.
The pickup can feel like a stressful part of the day, especially for first time heliskiers, but it doesn’t need to be. After a couple of laps, getting ready for the helicopter is easier and less stressful than getting ready for a gondola. Here are 7 tips that will make your heliski pickups a casual, fun, safe experience.
1. Do what your guide directs you to do. This is the most important thing. Slow down and pay attention to your guide. Sometimes the helicopter is waiting and sometimes it’s not. Many different scenarios can unfold at the pickup, but they are all really easy for you as long as you are attentive you your guide.
2. As you approach the pickup, change your skiing or riding style from sport mode to careful transportation mode. The pickup is not the place to express your independence. Many pickups in CMH terrain are just above the deep hole formed by a river drainage or cliff. If you make even one extra turn past the pickup, you can find yourself wallowing in chest deep snow for long, exhausting minutes just to gain a few feet to reach the pickup - or worse.
3. Take care of your skis and poles or snowboard first. Sometimes it is important to get ready quickly, and sometimes there is lots of extra time. In either case, do first things first: take off your skis, bundle them with your poles like the guide instructs, and put them into the stack with the other skis. Snowboarders should fold down highback bindings and place them where the guide directs in a position where they can’t slide away. Once your skis and poles or board are ready, you can clean your goggles, loosen your boots, take pictures and relax knowing you’ll be ready whenever the ski lift shows up.
4. Stay with your group. If the guide stops short of the pickup, you must do the same. Sometimes when the helicopter is refueling, or making long flights into a new valley, the different ski groups end up waiting together at a landing. Suddenly there are several guides in florescent jackets and it’s easy to get confused about which group is yours and accidentally race to joint the wrong group. Slow down. It’s easy.
5. If the guide skis right onto the landing pad, do the same. Ski slowly and carefully near the other skiers, but don’t take off your skis too far from the pickup as you’ll end up sinking in the deep snow. Where the helicopter lands, the snow is often packed hard enough to make for relatively easy walking.
6. If you need help, ask for it. Bundling your skis and poles together is easy, but can be an awkward project while wearing gloves and breathing hard. There will likely be some really experienced heliskiers in your group as well as the guide. Ask for help once or twice and it will all become really simple.
7. Watch the helicopter. When the helicopter comes in to land, crouch where the guide directs, and watch the helicopter approach. You are already wearing goggles or glasses, so the blowing snow will not bother your eyes. Put your hand over your mouth and nose. It is intimidating the first few times, and wind from the rotors is strong, but it is a spectacular event and you’ll get used to it.
The helicopter is the most exciting ski lift in the world - and it will wait for you. Take it easy, do what your guide says, and enjoy your time around the powerful machines. You’ll enjoy the visuals of the whirling snow, get front row views of the accurate flying of Alpine pilots, and quickly get in tune with the logistics of the entire CMH heliski operation.
There’s something about après ski at CMH - even considering the over-the-shoulder powder, fantasy-land ski terrain, and fine dining – that makes it a highlight of anyone’s CMH heliski trip.
Perhaps it is the quick and effortless transitions of the CMH experience. One minute the helicopter’s downwash is blowing cold snowflakes against your cheeks, already tingling from the last hundred face shots, and the next minute you’re greeted with platters of steaming ribs or nachos, pitchers of nutritional smoothies, and a goggle-tanned bartender who likely shared a few turns with you just hours before.
Perhaps it is the remote location of many of the CMH Lodges. Consider the Google Earth view of the remote CMH Lodges. Zoom in close. Your lodge, surrounded by pure wilderness. Zoom out a little. Mountain valleys on either side contain no buildings, ski lifts, or highways, and even the logging roads are drifted closed. Zoom out a little more. There are mountains stretching for a hundred kilometres or more in every direction. With CMH it’s like having your après ski on your own private island – a long way off shore.
Perhaps it is the intimate experience of a CMH ski trip. You and your fellow skiers are the only humans around. It’s quite possible to ski with nearly everyone in the lodge, including staff, over the course of a single week. During the CMH après ski, you are surrounded by people who just took off their ski boots too; people who helped you climb out of the snow after your last wipeout; people who loaned you a ski pole so you could get across the flats on your snowboard; people who just watched you link your best powder turns ever; people from all over the world who are having as much fun as you are.
Perhaps it is the nature of heliskiers. Heliskiers tend to put experiences above possessions on their list of life values. This means après ski conversations tend to be with people who share common passions in life. There’s something refreshing about seeing people who met the day before, sitting around the fire, buying each other drinks, laughing, telling stories, and sharing one of the best days of their lives.
Whatever it is that makes it so great, the only problem with après ski at CMH is that it doesn’t last long enough. One by one people stand up and leave the room on shaky legs from a long day of powder skiing and make their way to a massage, the hot tub, the sauna, a nap, or just a hot shower. Even those who don’t drink leave the room rosy-cheeked, with tired legs, and with just as big a grin as those who had that extra Kokanee.
And the next day everyone gets to do it all over again.
Photo: Aprés ski in the Cariboos by Topher Donahue.
Any veteran heliskiers out there who can share a favorite CMH aprés ski story?
Skiing Magazine published an article recently, called “Trouble in Paradise”, in which the author gets a free trip with a small, new heliski company, and in return spreads a few myths about the big, established heliski companies - especially CMH Heli-Skiing. Among other things, the article provides a perfect template for clearing up a few misconceptions about heliskiing with CMH. Here are a few quotes from the brown-nosing article, and a glimpse of what really happens while heliskiing and snowboarding at CMH.
“Unlike traditional heli trips, where tame terrain is the rule, ours had a guide who charged steep tree shots at a speed well beyond the normal commercial limit.”
We’re unaware of any commercial speed limit, and every CMH ski guide I've ever skied with descends each given line at the speed that is best for the conditions and terrain at hand. It is often safest for a guide to ski the line quickly and wait for his or her group at a place where they are visible and out of any potential avalanche zone.
The only rule we have for terrain is to avoid slopes that could avalanche on us. Ski with CMH during poor snow stability, and we’ll ski a lot of really fun, safe and “tame” terrain. Show up when the stability is good and we’ll safely blow your mind. Do you think “Hanging Gardens” in CMH Galena got the name for being tame?
“Heli-skiing was synonymous with sushi buffets, tight turns, and massive tenures in the BC Interior.”
The author got part of this one right – CMH has massive tenures in the BC Interior, and the occasional sushi buffet, but the diameter of your turn is your choice. Some groups like to lay down a symmetrical pattern of tight turns, while others prefer big GS arcs, and still others prefer to let each individual skier do their own thing within the limitations of the mountain conditions on a given day.
I’m not sure what the author finds so unappealing about massive tenures in the BC Interior – the snowiest weather station in Canada is on Mt. Fidelity near Revelstoke, where 12 metres, or 40 feet, of snow fall annually. With 11 big CMH heliski playgrounds in this region, our skiers seem pretty happy with massive tenures in the BC Interior. We’d even venture so far as to guess this is part of the reason 70% of our guests have skied with us before – and ski with us again and again and again.
“The new operators recognized these customers’ needs and began offering smaller groups and more aggressive line selection.”
The smallest group we ever ski with at CMH is one guide and one guest. It doesn’t really get any smaller than that, unless we let a single skier go it alone – which we don’t. Our biggest group is 11 skiers supported by a Bell 212 helicopter. Our Small Group Heliskiing Trips use the Bell 407 helicopter to support groups of five skiers.
As far as line selection, that’s a factor of conditions and landing options for the helicopter, not the size of the business. With groups of strong riders in stable conditions, CMH goes as steep and big as any commercial ski guide service on the planet. We even offer Steep Weeks in the springtime for aggressive skiers and snowboarders who want to take the extra time to access and rip the steepest lines one rider at a time.
The author concludes the article by poking fun at “German tourists” and suggesting steep terrain is not for them. The author obviously didn’t do his research here either - some of the best skiers I’ve encountered while skiing in Canada, the US, and Europe are Germans.
CMH guests include skiers and snowboarders from all over the world, former Olympians, freeride superstars, young jibbers who go inverted every chance they get, old-timers hoping to milk one more season out of their knees, and thousands of everyday people who come to the oldest, most experienced, biggest and best heli-ski company in the world for these very reasons.
Photo taken by Topher Donahue at CMH Adamants, without speed limits or turn radius rules, just before the sushi buffet.