The snowiest mountains in Canada.
The world’s first Heli-Ski company.
The biggest employer of mountain guides in the world.
The world’s greatest skiing.
A lot of flattering statements have been used to describe CMH Heli-Skiing and the Columbia Mountains that CMH calls home, but there is one that is often overlooked (or only talked about in the dark of night) in the quest to explain this place.
And that is: the snow is just plain sexy.
It's true. The characteristics of this snow inspire pillow talk. It is drier than the snow found in coastal ranges, but more voluminous than the snow found in most continental ranges, creating a truly drool-worthy medium. If you're into that kind of thing, here are seven photos that put the soft in softcore:
A skier flirts with a snowball in the Monashees:
A snowboarder between the sheets in Galena:
A skier feeling confident with his pickup line in the Gothics:
Cornices show off their curves in the Adamants:
A woman in the Cariboos realizing that size matters when it comes to snowpack:
Bump and grind in the snow ghost disco above the Columbia River:
A shy helicopter sports the sheer look in Revelstoke:
Ok, that was bad. Just putting together these pictures that I took over the last few years kinda got me all worked up. Now I really want some, but at least the early season snow is falling!
I’m speechless. After watching McConkey You have one life. Live it. the new film from Matchstick Productions that digs into the life and death of snowsport megastar Shane McConkey, I tried to put together my feelings into a tidy blog post about passions, innovation, adventure, life, and risk. But my feelings wouldn’t cooperate. I am torn, inspired, blown away, and don't really know how to begin.
The world’s most influential skier.
Those are some of the words his friends and the media used to describe Shane, and with innovations like the rockered ski to his credit, and a background going from pizza delivery boy to ski superstar, those words ring true. But there’s more to it than that.
Shane was one of those human beings that experienced the cultural and technological equivalent of the rogue wave that happens in storms at sea when one wave builds on top of another to create a single wave that is massively out of proportion to the rest of the swell.
Shane’s wave was so enormous (he was the first North American athlete sponsored by Red Bull) in part because his father, Jim McConkey, was part of a cultural and technological wave that launched what became known as Heli-Skiing half a century ago. McConkey begins with footage of Jim skiing in the Bugaboos and Cariboos in the 60s where he helped Hans Gmoser develop what became CMH Heli-Skiing, a recreation icon that today parters with Shane's sponsors Red Bull and K2 to help everyday skiers and superstars alike savor the ultimate skiing experience.
The movie follows the highlights of Shane’s life, benefitting from an incredible collection of home video and GoPro style footage from Shane’s own camera, shot decades before the GoPro was invented. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Shane started skiing when he was 23 months old, and he began with a fairly predictable trajectory of a ski icon, from joining the local ski team at 7 years old to attending high school at the Prestigious Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont where Olympic racers are made, to a ski scholarship at CU Boulder in Colorado. When Shane didn’t make the cut for the US Ski Team because he was too small, he was shattered and his predictable trajectory was interrupted.
He jumped on the wave left by the likes of Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt who’d shown a new generation of brilliant skiers that skiing wasn’t just about racing. He left ski racing with one last memorable slalom run (also caught on film) where he bashes his last gates in his birthday suit. Yup. Buck naked.
You’ll have to watch the film to get the whole story, but the bottom line is that Shane didn’t just raise the bar a little; Shane raised the bar by an order of magnitude. He didn’t just ski off the biggest cliffs, he hucked backflips of the biggest cliffs. Shane was a staple of cutting-edge ski films for two decades, and McConkey highlights many of his best moments (and some of his worst) but it wasn’t the mind-blowing lines he chose, or the committing tricks he pulled in the midst of them that really left me speechless.
It was the fact that Shane always came across as a regular guy. A regular guy who just liked to see how big he could go if he did everything right. And big he went. He didn’t give a whit about the latest snow-gangster fashion or what his fellow skiers did. He just went out and figured out how to make something outrageous into something that was for him normal and repeatable. In 1996 he founded the IFSA, International Free Skier’s Association (also known as I F&$#!$g Ski Awesome) helping boost the prestige and mainstream appeal of creative free skiing.
He discovered BASE jumping in the early years of the sport, and mastered it, logging close to a thousand jumps all over the world, with and without skis and was a veteran of BASE jumping's thrill and tragedy. He was there when a woman’s chute didn’t open properly on a demonstration jump off of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Shane stood next to her husband, watching his face as it happened. (Perhaps one of the reasons the film hit me so hard is that I was sleeping on El Capitan that morning, and awoke to the sound of her hitting the ground - a sound I'd buried in my memory for years until they talked about that sound in the film.)
Shane didn’t just try ski BASE, he mastered ski BASE, which allowed him to ski lines that ended on massive cliffs and did it so well that it seemed almost normal – at least for him – and did it successfully for years. We all know this was what cost him his life in the end, but one of the things that I hadn’t realized was that it wasn’t ski BASE that got him, it was ski BASE with a wingsuit, which added to the complications and risk. As usual, Shane was raising his own bar.
Perhaps the details of his final jump don’t really matter. What matters is that “everyman’s superman” did a lot more than be a superman – he helped the rest of us feel like superheroes. When I’m slashing down a face of steep powder, feeling like a hero instead of the hack skier I am, it is thanks to Shane McConkey who walked away from his ski racing pedigree and even his extreme skiing peers to create both technology and a mental approach to skiing that makes many thousands of everyday skiers all over the world feel like superheroes.
McConkey does about the best possible job of doing the impossible: capturing the beauty, the tragedy, and the brilliance of Shane McConkey’s life in under 2 hours. From intimate interviews with his loved ones, to footage of his journal where he drew pictures of the first rockered skis and mused on the potential of ski BASE, the experienced team at Matchstick Productions deserve all the accolades they will certainly get. Order it here.
McConkey premiered in London on October 1st, and the story of the premier was captured by Pure Powder. I’m sure the tears and beers flowed freely.
Photo of Jim McConkey jumping a plane in 1962, during the first explorations into the Columbia Mountains in what is now CMH Cariboos Heli-Ski terrain, with CMH Heli-Skiing founder Hans Gmoser. Courtesy CMH Archives.
Everyone has a strategy for getting the most out of a powder day at a ski resort. Here are 10 time-tested tactics, ranging from the aggro to the zen:
1. First Chair: It takes a special kind of skier to get to the lift half an hour or more before the lifts open, and stand there stomping like an excited race horse trying to stay warm, in order to be the first skier on the lift. While there is immense prestige with being on the first lift, it has little bearing on how many freshies you’re going to get – to have the most fun on a powder day you need to study the following strategies no matter what chair you’re on.
#2. Local discount: Hooking up with a local is by far the best way to harvest the most pow. They know which runs tend to get skied first, where the secret lines are hiding, and how to beat the crowds. If you don’t know a local, listen carefully in the lift line. The locals are usually either talking loudly about their run selection strategy, or not saying anything at all. Then follow the one who’s not saying anything – they probably know best.
#3. Sloppy seconds: One of the best-kept secrets of the ski area powder day is that sloppy seconds are some of the best turns on the mountain. I’m not talking about skiing across somebody’s tracks; I’m talking about that point when the deep piles have been knocked down, creating a consistent surface that rides like carving the surface of a lemon meringue pie. Sure, the first lap or two in truly untouched snow is great, but after that, I’d rather have sloppy seconds on a sweet line than root around the flats for another turn or two in the fresh.
#4. All too obvious: If you can’t hook with a local, or find one to follow (or can’t keep up with the local you tried to follow), don’t ski the obvious runs. Everyone else will be there too. Instead, look for those obscure lines that require a traverse to reach, runs where you have to take your skis off and boot pack to reach, those black diamond runs hidden in the middle of mostly blue terrain. Watch for places where a number of tracks traverse off the side of the main runs – those tracks are probably from locals gettin’ the goods (Remember, though, you may get more than you bargained for by following those tracks!).
#5. Tree team: There’s always that guy or girl who jumps into the thickest trees on the very first run while even the main open runs are still untracked. To each their own, I suppose, but most of the tree team will hit the trees after the main lines are skied out. Poking around in the trees is a great way to find freshies long after the rest of the ski area is fully hammered, but it’s also a way to get suckered into lousy fall lines and slots where less skilled skiers and snowboarders have side-slipped through, removing the fluff. Explore the trees on a bluebird day so you know where to find the goods when the flakes are flying.
#6. Hey diddle diddle, straight down the middle: With the invention of the fat ski, anyone who’s an intermediate level skier can ride powder. This is great, but it means there are a lot more powder hounds on the hill than there used to be. I almost don’t want to tell you this one, since it makes me giggle every time I score on this, but quite often everyone thinks the middle of runs have already been skied, so they ski the edges, leaving large swaths of untouched snow right down the middle.
#7. IBOB - In Bounds Out of Bounds: While you may find some fresh snow here, this method will get you busted. Most ski areas have roped off areas within the ski area boundaries. On powder days, there are always a few people who decide it is worth getting their passes taken, or getting injured, so they duck the rope. Think about it: losing your lift ticket or season pass over a single run is more expensive than Heli-Skiing.
#8. Sidecountry/Slackcountry: Progressive ski areas with good backcountry terrain accessible nearby have installed gates where riders can leave the ski area legally. This is a fantastic evolution of our sport, but it also means skiers who leave the area need to realize they are entering the wilderness. The ski patrol does not usually do avalanche control or patrol outside the ski area (unless the slopes threaten the resort or roads) so you’re on your own. Avalanche and terrain assessment are essential, and remember that just having avalanche rescue gear does not mean you are safe.
#9. Patrol Beers: The whole mountain doesn’t always open immediately after a dump, but instead runs open in stages as the ski patrol determines it is safe to do so. In areas with the most rowdy terrain, the day after the powder day often results in the best skiing when the whole mountain is finally opened. It might be a good investment to take a six-pack to the patrol office, tell them you're new to the area, and ask nicely how they tend to open terrain after a storm. This can be more effective than jonesing in line for the first chair only to miss the main event when they open the backside hours later.
#10. Last Chair Larsen: This is the ultimate zen approach to the powder day. Named for a legendary ski bum, Last Chair Larsen would show up on a powder day for his first run – and catch the last chair; not just once but nearly every time it snowed. While many dozens of riders vie for the first chair, Last Chair Larsen was in a league of his own. At first, I thought he was missing the whole point of the powder day, but he seemed to be having at least as much fun as anyone else on the mountain – maybe it was those of us stressing out for fresh tracks who were missing the point…
PS. Go Heli-Skiing: If powder is your thing, take a lesson from Last Chair Larsen. Mellow out at the ski area and have fun no matter what time you arrive - then do whatever it takes to go Heli-Skiing. In an average week of Heli-Skiing with CMH you’ll rip more powder than a decade at a ski resort – and even though Heli-Skiing is expensive, from a dollar-per-powder-turn perspective it is the best deal going.
Any of you powder gurus have any other tactics you'd like to share? C'mon, we'd never use your own tactics to poach your line...
Photos of Man versus Machine at Alpental, Washington, and Man loving Machine at CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.
The season’s first snows have dusted the summits of the Rockies. Summer activities are losing their appeal. Days are growing shorter at a rapid rate. We all know what that means. For some of us, it also means it is time to wonder what we can do to get in shape for winter.
Perhaps you’re the kind of snowrider who likes to just get out there and let fitness come as the winter goes, but if your planning a dream snowriding trip this winter, or you want to take your game to the next level, a bit of focused work in the preseason will go far in both improving your abilities and preventing injury. Even a simple approach like “I’m going to ride my bike a couple days a week” is better than nothing, but if you want to feel dramatic improvement, check out these websites and consider a more systematic approach.
To pick these sites, I looked for places with a little different approach to ski and snowboard fitness rather than just another training program. Here are my top 5:
- National Ski Patrol: The National Ski Patrol is an organization that represents one of the hardest working groups in the world of skiing. Their preconditioning page on their website shares the wisdom of Dave Merriam, the head coach of the PSIA and the AASI demonstration teams. Here’s a glimpse into his understanding of snowsport fitness: "In most snowsports, it's important to build a strong base of aerobic fitness, because that's what's going to allow you to be on the hill longer and reduce your chance of injury due to fatigue. At the same time, skiing and snowboarding are anaerobic activities, which means that they require short, intense bursts of energy interspersed with rest periods."
- Bodybuilding: At CMH Heli-Skiing, we tend to think of snowboarding and skiing as two equally wonderful ways to do the same thing – rip deep powder on spectacular mountains – but the specific demands of snowboarding are very different than skiing. This article gives specific exercises as well as a potential training schedule to ride your best this winter.
- Orthopedic Specialists of Seattle: There may be no group of professionals who have a more intimate perspective on skiing injuries than orthopedic surgeons. This website caught my eye, not so much because of their specific training suggestions for preventing injury, but because of their overall way of presenting both training and injury prevention. They give a smorgasbord of potential activities for you to choose from, and a suggested a conditioning program to go with your activity of choice.
- Adventure Sports Online: If you’re like me, the thought of following a specific training program is about as appealing as going on a raw food diet. To each their own, and for some a training program is the ticket to both health and inspiration. Of all the websites I’ve seen that were most in line with my approach to fitness, this one is prefaced with, “Perceptions of preseason conditioning stem from Hollywood's depiction of Rocky's training regime.” And goes on to say how “What we all really want to know is how can we get back into skiing shape with as little trouble as possible.” This article by Chris Fellows is both highly entertaining (this is important) and also suggests enrollment in the North American Ski Training Center program for skiers and snowboarders who want to receive professional coaching and training without being a professional athlete.
- Ski and Snowboard Inspiration: Lastly, my favourite website for snowriding fitness training is this one. Why? Because the inspiration to stay healthy and chase your skiing and snowboarding dreams is the most important training element of all.
Photo of a group of Heli-Skiers about to put their pre-season training to the test at CMH Cariboos by Topher Donahue.
My first time heli-skiing I was nervous. Not because of the skiing – I’d been skiing my whole life and knew that once the boards were on my feet it would be the same as it ever was. Not because of the helicopter – I knew CMH Heli-Skiing's partner, Alpine Helicopters, has one of the most well maintained fleet of helicopters on the planet. Avalanches make me nervous anytime I go skiing, but I knew I was safer with CMH and their world-renowned snow safety system than any other time I'd spent in the backcountry or sidecountry.
So why was I nervous? In hindsight, I think I was nervous because Heli-Skiing was something new. Like the first day of school, or learning a new skill, doing anything for the first time is a little scary.
By lunchtime of the first day, my nervousness had disappeared, and was replaced by utter fascination and absurd amounts of fun. Looking back on my own maiden voyage, and watching other first timers go through the same transformation from intimidation to fun, there are five things that seem to help the most:
1. Get to know your guide, and follow their directions. I knew our ski guide was a seasoned veteran of Heli-Ski guiding, but for some reason after we talked for a while at the pickup and got to know each other a little, I felt like the seed of friendship had been planted, and everything felt more relaxed. It’s a lot more relaxing when your guide becomes your friend. Follow their directions and you’ll stay safer, become ever better friends, relax even more, and have more fun.
2. You don’t always need to hurry. At my first pickup, I was trying to bundle my skis as quickly as possible to prepare them for the ski basket, and my guide noticed my haste.
“Island time, man.” he said, “No need to hurry.”
When he said that, I felt every bone in my body relax. There are times when it is important to bundle your skis quickly so the helicopter doesn’t have to wait, forcing the rest of the groups to wait, but much of the time you can take the time to bundle your skis slowly. The best way to know is to simply ask your guide:
“Are we in a hurry?”
If there is no need to hurry, don’t. Learn to bundle your skis properly and you’ll be faster at it later. If there is a reason to hurry, ask for help. Your guide or another experienced skier or snowboarder will be happy to give you a hand.
3. Learn to put your skis on in deep snow. Even on the most epic powder day at a ski area, underneath the powder is a hard-packed ski area base, making it easy to put on our skis and snowboards. While Heli-Skiing, we sometimes step out of the helicopter into waist deep powder with more soft snow underneath the fresh, making it a tricky process to get into your skis or board - until you get used to it. When you first experience this, ask you guide, CMH staff, or other experienced rider to show you how to put on your skis or board in deep powder. If you don’t learn this trick, you’ll fight with your board(s) at every landing, wasting energy and becoming frustrated; not a good way to start each run. Also, if you loose a ski mid-run, where the snow is usually even deeper, much deeper, than on the landings, you’ll be able to put it back on much easier. Also, ask for tips on getting up if you fall down. On one board or two, getting up after falling can be one of the most exhausting parts of riding deep powder.
4. Ask your tree buddy to ski right behind you on the first couple of runs. Unless you’ve skied a lot in the backcountry, Heli-Skiing often provides the deepest snow you’ve ever ridden. It is pretty intimidating your first time, but with the fat skis we use at CMH, and a friend to help you out if you fall, even intermediate skiers learn quickly how to ride the pow. Regardless of the size of the group you’re skiing with, your guide will ask you to always ski in pairs - the buddy system. If you’re nervous, ask your buddy to ski behind you for a couple of runs. This way if you fall, you’ll have someone right there to help you get up, and even if you don’t fall, it’s nice to have a friend backing you up. After a couple of runs, take turns going first - but always stay together. In no time, the intimidation quickly transitions to insane amounts of fun.
5. Pay attention during the safety training, but don’t stress over it. At the beginning of each CMH ski trip, every guest goes through a short training exercise, covering the use of radios, avalanche transceivers, avalanche rescue technique and helicopter safety. It’s hard to learn if you’re stressed out. Instead, get into the beginner’s mind and just listen to what the guide is telling you. The avalanche equipment is important, but because the goal of the CMH guide team is to keep you out of danger in the first place, the vast majority of CMH guests, even thouse who've ripped millions of vertical feet with CMH, will never have need to use the avalanche equipment. Instead, focus on learning these just-in-case skills and then go have fun. If you ever go backcountry, sidecountry or cat skiing, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.
While the safety and helicopter efficiency systems that CMH guides have developed over the past five decades are complex, for guests the system is designed to be simple. The guides and the rest of the CMH staff are there to help you have the time of your life. Get ready to have the most fun you’ve ever had with your boots on.
Photo of the fun kicking in for a first time Heli-Skier at CMH Gothics, by Topher Donahue.
In 1963 - 50 years ago this year - CMH began experimenting with what would become known as Heli-Skiing, and took the word’s first commercial Heli-Ski guests up a mountain with a helicopter for a ski lift. At the time, the best machine for the job was a Bell 47 B-1. The pioneers of Heli-Skiing strapped their skis to the skids with bungie cords and shuttled the group to the top, two passengers pusing the payload capacity of the reliable little helicopter to the limit.
The Bell 47 line were technological marvels for the time, setting helicopter records for distance and elevation.
- In 1949 it made highest altitude flight to 5,650 metres (18,550 feet).
- In 1950 it became the first helicopter to fly over the Alps.
- In 1952 it set a distance record of 1,959 kilometres (1,217 miles).
- In 1958 it became the first helicopter to be used for television news camerawork.
Its 178 horsepower engine had about the same power as a small car, but at the time there was nothing better for mountain flying than the Bell 47 B-1.
When Hans Gmoser, the founder of Heli-Skiing, was first approached by a couple of different skiers about the possibility of using a helicopter for a ski lift, he didn't immediatley jump on the possibility, but he didn’t forget the concept. Hans brought up the idea with Jim Davies, a skilled mountain pilot who had helped Hans with ski exploration in the Cariboo and Rocky Mountains using a fixed wing.
According to Hans, he asked Jim, “Do you think you could use a helicopter to take skiers up a mountain?"
And Jim replied, “I know I could.”
That’s how it began. But there were a couple of false starts including a trip in 1963 to the Goat Glacier near Canmore, Alberta where the helicopter worked great but the snow was hideous breakable crust, and a trip in 1964 out of Golden, British Columbia where windy conditions blew the little helicopter far from their destination, clear into the next province of Alberta, before they found a place to safely land and ski.
In 1965 Hans decided to try Heli-Skiing in a place called the Bugaboos, where a remote sawmill camp provided lodging, the endless mountain range of the Columbia Mountains provided the terrain, the now-legendary storm cycles of Interior British Columbia provided the powder – and the Bell 47 B-1 provided the power. The third try was, as they say, a charm; the snow was dreamy, the guests were ecstatic and wanted to go again the following year, and Heli-Skiing was born.
Helicopter technology changed dramatically in the late 60s and early 70s, so the Bell 47 was soon exchanged for larger, more powerful machines, but these pictures of the little helicopter servicing the very first commercial Heli-Skiers will forever speak to the world's greatest skiing and the unprecedented adventure of learning to use a helicopter for a ski lift half a century ago.
Photos courtesy CMH Archives.
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 early birds at CMH Heli-Skiing are the ski guides, who awake while the lodge is still quiet and dark to make plans for the day; checking weather reports, avalanche conditions, and determining the safest and best Heli-Skiing possible on that particular day.
For the guests, the ultimate ski vacation begins as it should – by getting you ready to ski. A bell rings and anyone who wants to feel good on the first run meets for a ski and snowboard specific stretch class in the exercise room.
Next, a buffet breakfast with everything from cereal and fruit to bacon and eggs gives everyone a chance to fuel up in the way they feel suits them best.
After breakfast, it is time to gear up, and the CMH boot rooms, equpped with boot and glove dryers, as well as plenty of space for everyone's equipment, make getting ready easy and efficient.
On the first day, everyone participates in the safety practice, where the guides teach everyone how to use the radios, avalanche safety equipment, and the ins and outs of how to stay safe while skiing deep powder in the mountains. After the first day, everyone is up to speed with the safety techniques, and we just get straight in the helicopter after breakfast and go skiing.
We meet at the heli-pad near the lodge. We stack our skis so the guide can easily load them, and when the helicopter lands we step aboard and fasten our seatbelts while the guide loads the skis in a ski basket attached to the outside of the helicopter.
Then we lift off for ski paradise.
The helicopter lands on a flagged landing area atop the first run, and we all get out while the guide unloads the skis. After the helicopter leaves, we put on our skis, and listen to the guides instructions for the first run. Then we ski our brains out.
After each run, we meet the helicopter at a landing area the bottom of the run and repeat again and again and again until lunch. Most days, lunch consists of sandwiches, tea, soup, cookies and other snacks delivered by a small helicopter, but on special occasions during good weather, mountaintop barbeques have been known to happen in the most spectacular locations imaginable.
After a fairly quick lunch, so we don’t get cold and stiff, we dig into more powder runs. Skiers and snowboarders who are tired after the morning usually have a chance to return to the lodge at lunch, as well as other times during the day. The logistics of some of the areas require that you stay out all day, but the guides will let you know this before the day begins. The lodges with the more aggressive riders and terrain are the most likely to have the fewest chances to return to the lodge, including the Bobbie Burns, Revelstoke, Galena, CMH/K2 and the Monashees.
When we’ve schralped so much pow that it’s hard to remember all the great runs, face shots, cushy airs, and fresh turns, we return for CMH après ski – an experience no snowrider should miss.
Then we gather in the dining room for a fine family-style dinner and many generous toasts to an unforgettable day of skiing and snowboarding.
Finally, we retire to our rooms - ranging from comfortable double rooms, to spacious single rooms, to deluxe chalets - for a well-earned sleep, dreaming of deep powder and endless freshies.
The best part? We wake up the next day and do it all over again!
Photos by Topher Donahue.
Maybe it’s Thanksgiving break. Maybe it’s pre-season marketing. Maybe it is the Forest Service permitting system for ski resorts. Maybe it’s the insatiable human psyche to move on to the next thing. Whatever it is, for some reason most skiers and snowboarders don’t ride when the snow is at its best.
I’m not talking about ski bums who live to ski, and chase the last scraps of snow in the springtime before going to the southern hemisphere for the southern winter. I'm not talking about backcountry skiers who wait all year for the big alpine descents to come into condition in the springtime. I’m not talking about the CMH Heli-Skiing guests who plan their dream ski trip a year in advance.
I’m talking about the skiers and snowboarders who are chomping at the bit to make some turns in October and November and risk their knees and teeth riding thin snow when there are still elk grazing on the ski runs. I’m talking about the ski areas that blast artificial snow all over the hills in November, but then close in early April when snowpacks are at their deepest.
This year in Colorado was an exceptional demonstration of this phenomenon. The skiing was marginal most of the year. Yeah, we know, Revelstoke got dumped on the entire winter and Jackson Hole and the Pacific Northwest had snowy winters. But that’s not what I’m talking about. In November, it was hardly cold enough to even make snow in Colorado but areas jousted to open first and bag the precious Thanksgiving skiers at the end of November. It was March before the backcountry was really worth skiing in much of the state.
Then in April, on almost the exact weekend that most of Colorado’s ski areas closed, it started dumping, and snowed in the high country for the next month straight. It was painful to watch. Some people were actually complaining that it was snowing because they wanted to go ride their bikes, go climbing, hiking or other warm weather activities. But aside from our calendar-based expectations, it was winter!
I drove by the ski area to take my kids backcountry skiing (photo above) in a kiddie sort of way. The lifts stood silent, base lodge buried in deep snow, trees cloaked in storm after storm of fantastic powder.
My daughter asked me, “Papa, can we go turn on the lifts and go powder skiing?”
How I wanted to. We had a blast, it was great for the kids to suffer a bit boot packing and earning our turns on a little hill, but even the 6-year-olds saw the irony in it.
This year in Colorado was unusual, but not unusual to the extreme. We quite often have our best snow after the ski areas have closed. The best skiing in Colorado is typically from March through May, but most ski areas have limited permits from the National Forest Service; however, I don’t think that’s the biggest reason ski areas close when the skiing gets good.
I think the biggest reason is that like any business, ski areas are beholden to the whims of their customers. Snow doesn’t matter nearly as much as people buying lift tickets and booking ski holidays. I think we cause the problem ourselves by jones-ing for the winter long before winter even gets going, and then being over it before winter even ends; for taking our families on ski trips at Christmas when really we should be taking our ski holiday during spring break; for even buying lift tickets in November when some years there is not a single natural snowflake to be found anywhere south of the Canadian border. Ok, maybe it's not that bad, but you get my point.
If we all just stopped visiting ski resorts before Christmas unless the snow was great, and then packed the ski areas in April, maybe we could change the ski season to match the snow season. What do you think?
You don’t meet more excited 27-year-olds than Daniel Riley. Maybe he’s excited because of his first Heli-Skiing trip. Maybe he’s excited because Vail received enough snow to re-open after closing for the season. Maybe he is excited because he survived a bomb exploding under his feet in Afghanistan, leaving him with no legs, three fewer fingers, and shrapnel scattered throughout his body.
“My heart is about the only thing that didn’t get hit.” says Daniel, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Daniel is one of 1600 American soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees. To say it changed his life is obvious, but how it changed his life is exceptional: losing his legs turned Daniel into an athlete.
Daniel skied a couple of times before his injury, but says he wasn’t a skier. Mono-skiing is now Daniels passion and since his injury in 2010 he’s pursued surfing, cycling, running, swimming, and skiing, has competed in triathlons and has plans to try rock climbing. I met Daniel for coffee in Boulder, Colorado, where everyone and their grandma is an athlete. When I asked him what sports he pursued before the injury, he just shrugged and said, “Not any, really.”
Within the first minute of meeting Daniel told me proudly that he’d skied over 50 days this winter, the highlight being a trip to CMH Gothics. While talking about the six months in the operating room and his 30-some surgeries he said: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even count the number of surgeries I’ve had. The number of days I’ve been skiing is a much more important statistic.”
So how did Daniel go from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, to months in the operating room, to intense rehab, to the slopes of Vail, to what he calls “the pinnacle of skiing” – a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing in interior British Columbia?
The answer is Vail Veterans, a sponsor-funded organization started in 2004 by Cheryl Jensen (whose husband, Bill, was President of Vail Resorts) and David Rozelle, Professor of Military Science at the University of Colorado. The program began on a whim, when Cheryl and David decided to host a few injured veterans at Vail. The therapeutic effects of skiing were obvious and Vail Veterans was born.
During therapy, Daniel was given the opportunity to join Vail Veterans. With nothing to lose, he gave it a try. On his first day, using a sit ski, he remembers: “I was falling down every six feet – I wasn’t really getting it. But by the third day they had to drag me off the mountain.”
A few months later, Daniel had another chance to ski Vail - this time in fresh powder. "That's what really got me," he said, before happily sharing footage of his first powder day - complete with spectacular GoPro wipeout footage:
His close friend Chris Fesmire, who discovered skiing with Vail Veterans a few years before Daneil and went heli-skiing with Daniel's group, explains in sobering terms how skiing has helped him: "The Vail Veterans program saved my life. Without mono-skiing I'd be dead in a gutter."
Skiing the Gothics was full circle for Daniel, who was born in British Columbia and moved to the United States as a teenager. In the Gothics Daniel met one of the CMH staff from the same small town on Vancouver Island where Daniel grew up. Like so many others realize about CMH Heli-Skiing, Daniel said, “It’s not just about the skiing – it’s also the lodge, the people, the whole experience.”
Daniel is now a board member of Vail Veterans, and they could have no more committed fan of the program. He concluded, “The program changed my life for the better. Now I want to do that for the next guy.”
Photos of Daniel catching air at CMH Gothics, celebrating life with fellow wounded warriors, and considering life's potential with Chris Fesmire courtesy of Daniel Riley/Vail Veterans.