Last week I had a chat with Joel Gratz, the legendary meteorologist who has turned the ski conditions forecasting world on its head with his snow-rider-centric websites, Colorado Powder Forecast and Open Snow. We were at the Denver showing of Take Flight, the latest visual treat from CMH Heli-Skiing where he shared some interesting (and exciting for powder hounds) trends in Colorado precipitation after the record-breaking Colorado floods.
Joel told me he’d been looking at historical weather data from the Mica Dam, just up the road from the CMH Monashees lodge and an area known for extraordinarily deep snow (and steep tree skiing) but that his results weren’t quite ready for prime time. Since then he dialed it in and this week he sent me a summary of his results.
To begin with, this year the water in the central Pacific is about average temperature, creating what Joel calls La Nada, as opposed to El Niño (warmer than average waters in the central Pacific) or La Niña (cooler than average waters in the central Pacific).
Joel found the following trends in snowfall at the Mica Dam:
- During El Niño years, snowfall is 92% of average, and is twice as likely to have a below normal snow year than a normal year or an above average year.
- During La Niña, snowfall is 111% of average, with almost no “normal” years and is twice as likely to have an above average year than a below average year.
- During La Nada (which we have this year) snow is 100% of average, with equal chances of having an above average or a below average year.
By crushing more of the Mica Dam data into statistics, Joel found a few more interesting things:
- In December, it snows an average of 61% of the days, with 13% of the days having at least 15cm (6 inches) and 3% having at least 30cm (12 inches).
- In January, it snows an average of 56% of the days, with the same percentage of 15cm and 30cm days as December.
- In February, it snows and average of 44% of the days, with 7% of the days getting 15cm and 1% getting at least 30cm.
Joel noted that Mica Dam is at the lowest altitude of any Heli-Skiing pickups and explained that “Even though it's at a low elevation, the snowfall trends should be similar to higher elevations, but the amounts at the dam are far lower.”
In his research, Joel came up with a couple of other interesting tidbits:
First, he learned that there is no trend in snowfall over the past 30 years, but that the late 60s and early 70s had average snowfall that was about 25% more than the snowfall during the past 30 years. This supports the observations made by some of the old-timers that I interviewed while writing Bugaboo Dreams, the book that chronicles CMH and the invention of Heli-Skiing, who said that in the early years it snowed more. They’ll be happy to learn that it wasn’t just the passing of the years that made the snow seem deeper – it really was deeper.
Second, and perhaps most fascinating to CMH and Revelstoke area skiers and snowboarders, is that about 75% of the maximum base (which occurs from February 1 to March 1) is accumulated by December 31. This may come as no surprise to fans of the cold smoke of early season Heli-Skiing, but it is a fascinating statistic considering how much it snows in the Columbia Mountains from January through April. Perhaps the part we forget to consider is that right now the snow is already accumulating in the Columbias…
If anyone knows when to plan a ski trip, it’s Joel Gratz himself, and he’s planning a trip to the tree skiing nirvana of CMH Monashees this winter from December 28 to January 2 where he will share some secrets of the art of forecasting powder – as well as schralp a bunch of the white stuff. Want to join him? Contact Brad Nichols, CMH Rep at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 378-9106.
Photo of early season snow in the Columbias by Dani Lowenstein.
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.
Earlier this winter, Forbes.com ran an article titled “Why You Need To Try Heli-Skiing This Winter” that inspired me to compile this list of things that Heli-Skiing, at least with CMH Heli-Skiing in Western Canada, is most definitely not.
It isn’t that there is anything wrong with the article. The author, Larry Olmstead, is a genuine fan of skiing who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Most Trails Skied in 8 Hours (a record he explains, humbly, is “begging to be broken”) after skiing 64 different runs in 8 hours at Crested Butte in Colorado.
What inspired me to do a little myth-busting is that the first photo in the article is perhaps the most misleading photo ever published in an article about Heli-Skiing. It shows a group of guys braced against the wind on a dirt ridge next to a helicopter. There is no ski terrain, not even a pair of skis, and hardly any snow in sight. I’m sure they went on to have a great run, but the photo hardly does justice to one of the most exciting forms of recreation ever invented.
So here’s my short list of what Heli-Skiing is not:
I know there are a lot of other experienced Heli-Skiers reading this. What else is Heli-Skiing not?
- Heli-Skiing is not about groveling on dirty ridges while the helicopter spits gravel in your face. Most of the time, the helicopter lands in the snow with flags placed to mark the landing spot amidst a winter wonderland of alpine peaks or snow-cloaked old-growth forest.
- Heli-Skiing is not about jumping out of the helicopter. Last month I was interviewed by a journalist from Yahoo Travel who wrote a fantastic article titled “Take the kids Heli-Skiing”. The author, Deborah Hopewell, is a skilled journalist and she asked the kind of questions people are curious about - including whether or not Heli-Skiing involves jumping out of helicopters. Anyone who has used a helicopter for a ski lift knows the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. The helicopter lands and everyone gets out with no rush (and without wearing skis). When the helicopter leaves, we put on our skis and snowboards. Heli-Skiers are about as likely to jump out of the helicopter as we are to jump out of a commercial jet.
- Heli-Skiing is not only for super-fit, expert skiers. Families with children as young as 12, intermediate skiers, older skiers, skiers with average fitness and skiers who live nowhere near a ski area all have a great time with CMH Heli-Skiing. Sure, some of our areas, like the Monashees and Galena, are famous for challenging terrain, but anyone who can ski a blue run with confidence can enjoy Heli-Skiing with CMH. In fact, our Powder 101 program was designed by a Level 4 Austrian ski instructor with specific curriculum for intermediate skiers who want to learn to ski powder.
- Heli-Skiing in Canada is not limited to low-angled glaciers. There is a persistent myth in Heli-Skiing that Canadian Heli-Skiing all happens on low angled, glaciated terrain. Sure, there are a lot of great low-angle glaciers to ski, which are perfect for learning to ski powder, but we also have a wonderland of steep skiing, both in the trees and in the alpine – and we get after it.
- Heli-Skiing is not for people who like ski touring. In fact, CMH Heli-Skiing’s first guests, 48 years ago, were ski touring guests of Hans Gmoser, the founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays. And recently, the CMH Heli-Assisted Ski Touring program has become one of our most popular programs, selling out every season. Form many people, the recipe is the best of both the Heli-Skiing and ski touring worlds: stay in a comfortable CMH Lodge, take a flight each morning to the ideal touring location, tour all day using skins for uphill travel and skiing down runs that sometimes even Heli-Skiers can’t reach, and then catch a return flight to the lodge for après ski massage, dining and CMH camaraderie.
Photos of steep tree skiing at CMH Galena and a Heli-Ski pickup, Powder 101 terrain and Steep Week terrain at CMH Cariboos by Topher Donahue.
It must be summertime. I dreamt of skiing last night, which for some reason doesn't happen in the winter. A couple of days ago my daughter asked me when we could go skiing again. My wife came into my office this morning while I was looking through winter photos from Revelstoke. She stopped and stared. Then said wistfully, “I’m already sick of summer.”
It's clear that I'm not the only one beginning to dream about frosty mornings, cold face shots, blinding white alpine vistas, and the exhilarating rush of downhill speed in deep snow.
So I went through my collection and put together these 5 dream-like ski photos to help us all through the longest days of the year.
Just a cool December lift ride, like here at the Sunshine ski resort near Banff, at minus 30C sounds refreshing right now:
But full-body powder immersion like this snowboarder at CMH Galena sounds even better:
Here’s the shot that sent my wife into fits of wintersickness, a lone ski track in the Revelstoke high country:
Dreamtime in the Bugaboos - where heliskiing began:
And finally, a dreamscape at CMH Monashees, one of several CMH areas known worldwide for the most exciting tree skiing on the planet:
If these photos are too painful to look at right now, my apologies. If these photos get you inspired for a bike ride to keep the legs in shape, or to plan a ski trip, you’re welcome.
Photos by Topher Donahue.
The greatest thing about skiing is that when we’re doing it, we all feel like superstars, and that’s all that really matters. It follows that we’d all like to look as good in photos as it feels to shred a line of deep powder on the world’s best ski mountains, but unfortunately the camera is a brutal critic; while on the inside we’re ripping the raddest line of the season in perfect form - a 1/800th of a second snapshot of the action can reveal quite a different story.
In eight seasons of photographing CMH heli-skiers, I’ve found these following tendencies make photos look less than desirable, even when the skier is generally doing great. The identities of the skiers shown here are hidden (except one where I know the individual would enjoy the notoriety) - and all the skiers in these photos are good skiers that also made some great turns that resulted in great photos. Of course as a photographer I make more photography mistakes than anyone, but these are some of the things that you can do (or not do) as a skier to help anyone, professional or amateur, get a better photo of you having the time of your life.
- Riding rockered skis in the back seat. If you can’t keep those tips down, the photos are going to look like you’re not in control. (You’ll also have a lot more fun and reduce strain on your knees if you can move forward to the driver's seat.)
- Skiing too close to other skiers. If you want a hero shot of you and somebody else, I guess you could risk skiing right next to each other, but if you want a hero shot of you, give each other a few seconds of space. (You’ll also reduce your chances of collision by spreading out more, and it’s more fun to ski powder in your own track rather than someone elses...)
- Skiing too fast. If you can make the speed work for you, by all means let it rip, but what I see through the camera is that most people go too fast, lose penetration in the snow, and end up looking like they are skimming along the surface at the edge of control rather than converting the power and control from one turn into power and control in the next. These two photos were taken on the same slope. The skier on the left is going too fast for his ability and makes the snow look 5cm deep. The skier on the right is digging into each turn and getting the full waist deep powder effect. Fat skis exacerbate this issue.
- Raising your arms when you catch air. While this is the natural reaction to having the ground drop out from under your feet, the key to jumping in control, and looking good in the ensuing photo, is to maintain good position. Tighten your stomach, keep your arms down, and ride it out as if you were just making another turn on the corduroy.
- Skiing the line even when the guide tells you not to. Following the guides instructions is essential. In this case, it wasn’t a matter of safety, but on either side of this alder thicket were spectacular Monashees pillow lines. In the quest for skiing far from any other tracks, this skier opted to ski the alders when the guide was waving for them to ski either left or right. (Even if it is not a matter of safety, the guides are really good at pointing out the best ski lines.)
- Cranking that one extra turn. That’s when we all tend to fall in the tree well, crash into other skiers, or just generally yard sale. Instead, the best photos seem to happen when you’re skiing without showing off, smoothly but powerfully, aggressively yet carefully, with space to spare, and well within your margin for error and control.
- Taking too much time to set up a shot. Sure, if you're on assignment for the next centerfold for K2 Skis, you'll spend half a day setting up the right shot. When you're on a deep powder ski vacation with CMH Heli-Skiing, nobody wants to stand around waiting for you to be a hero. It only takes 1/800 of a second for a good ski photo - rip the line and get on with your holiday.
For the last 4 days I’ve been documenting the CMH Nomads from their base at the almost mythical Halcyon Hot Springs resort just south of the powder skiing epicentre of Revelstoke, BC. Getting a glimpse of the newest genre of the world’s greatest skiing while the deep powder season in Western Canada is in banner form has been eye opening to say the least. Here’s a photographic tour of the exciting new CMH Heli-Skiing program:
The Nomads South program owes part of its charm to the base area, the Halcyon Hot Springs where the healing waters are just the right medicine to get tired legs ready for another day of riding in the deep.
The first day we spent in the big timber of the northern CMH Kootenay tenure in snow that both guides and hard core skiers have been saying is “as good as it gets.”
A view from the copilot’s seat of that as-good-as-snow-gets kind of fluff.
The second day we explored the southern Revelstoke terrain. Even the most experienced guides were talking about how magical it is to explore such amazing mountains with the freedom and power offered by heliskiing.
Then yesterday we crossed the Great Arrow Lake into the Southern Monashees and skied long tree runs between the dark waters of the Columbia River below and huge granite walls of the Gold Range above.
CMH Nomads concierge Sarah Watts joined us for both some blower powder skiing and a Nomads-style lunch buffet.
Then today we schralped Galena's southern area and flew over more spectacular ski terrain than I've ever seen in a single day. One more day, and it's supposed to dump tonight! For more details on the CMH Nomads heliski program, check out the interview with CMH Nomads Manager Jeff Bodnarchuck.
CMH Heli-Skiing Guides took to the mountains at the Monashee Lodge just north of Revelstoke, BC on Friday, November 25. According to Thia and the team there, snow conditions are "excellent with 260cm of settled snowpack at treeline and 160cm at the pick ups at 1000m". Late January conditions in late November? La Nina, we love you. Sorry Colorado, sorry Europe, but the weather report for the Monashees shows more snow coming in the next 48 hrs. Even local Banff ski areas are happy with the resort snowpack: 108 cm at Sunshine Village and 113cm at Lake Louise where the World Cup race was held over the weekend. Revelstoke Mountain Resort is reporting a base of 142cm and will be open for skiing and riding this weekend.
But back to the Monashees where Thia and Paul are grinning ear to ear. After a great day of skiing in Soards Creek on Saturday, the guides sent in a handful of photos. Here are a few to get you going:
To see more photos from this past weekend, check out CMH's online photo gallery.
As the CMH Heli-Skiing areas gear up for the season we promise to provide you with more and more reasons to ski in Revelstoke this winter.
Have you been out skiing yet? Share your pics with CMH on Facebook or Twitter for #SkiFotos and your stories here in the comments.
There is no better way to put the World’s Greatest Skiing in perspective than through the eyes and words of the world’s greatest ski and snowboard athletes. Recently, Gretchen Bleiler, one of the world’s most accomplished snowboarders, and Tyler Ceccanti, a ski star in the most recent Warren Miller film, “Like There’s No Tomorrow” both tasted CMH Heli-Skiing and, like many of us, rank heliskiing in Canada with CMH among their favourite moments in the snow.
Tyler was interviewed by Stephanie Stricklen of KGW Portland and, between clips of him ripping jaw-dropping pillow lines at CMH Monashees, he had this to say about heli-skiing with CMH: “The best ski runs I’ve ever had in my life.”
Gretchen was interviewed by National Geographic for their “Ultimate Adventure Bucket List 2012.” She chose CMH Galena as her "must-do" experience, and summarized heli-skiing in Canada with CMH simply: “Amazing terrain, amazing snow, and totally experienced, safe and fun guides and staff. And the food is delicious - need I say more?”
Great athletes have been part of the fabric of CMH ever since CMH invented heli-skiing in the 60s. Jim McConkey, the father of legendary extreme skier Shane McConkey, was on some of the original exploratory ski missions into the Columbia Mountains with Hans Gmoser in the early 60s that inspired the birth of heliskiing.
Ever since then, a long line of ski and snowboard superstars have visited CMH. Sometimes, it is it in the line of duty during a film project, but more often a visit to CMH for the world’s ski elite is not so different from the reasons the rest of us go to CMH: for a week in ski paradise far from the pressures of the rest of our lives.
And amongst the super-athletes, it’s not just the skiers and snowboarders who find CMH Heli-Skiing to be an incomparable experience. Martina Navratilova, the tennis superstar, went heli-skiing at CMH Galena, and at the end of one particularly spectacular run she turned to her guide and said: “I’d have given up tennis ten years earlier if I had known about this!”
Booking day for the 2013 Heli-Ski Season at CMH is November 17. To assure yourself a spot on the prime weeks, call 1.800.661.0252
A recent article in National Geographic on the world’s Top 10 Ski Runs and Lodges brings to mind snow-laden luxury accommodations below mountains laced with fantastical ski lines. We’re proud that Western Canada’s very own Whistler/Blackcomb and the Fairmont Chateau Whistler tops the list, and even closer to home, Banff/Lake Louise and the Fairmont Banff Springs (though not exactly slope-side) is number five.
Interestingly, the article, while it contains “ski runs” in the title, doesn’t mention a single ski run, nor does it include heli-ski areas. The reader can only surmise that the writer intended “ski runs” in the most general sense, and not singular spectacular ski runs. Which for me, as a skier, was a bit of a disappointment. I was truly curious what the iconic National Geographic's list of the world’s top 10 ski runs would include.
Photo of the CMH Monashee Lodge and behind it the kilometre-tall ski run known as Elevator - a ski lodge and ski run that many have called the best in the world. Maybe next time National Geographic will include heli-skiing in their selection...
It's obvious why the article didn't include heli-skiing - heliskiing is so much better than resort skiing as to make comparisons seem absurd. What can compare with the CMH tenture? It is bigger than the rest of North America's ski areas combined!
Also, I can see why the writer chose to weight the article towards lodging rather than skiing. It’s much harder to give both lodging and skiing equal weight in such a selection. Even within CMH there are sometimes heated conversations, especially among the 3,921 guests who have skied over a million vertical feet with CMH, debating which is the best CMH area. Most understand that the whole discussion is subjective, and many ski at different areas every time, but each CMH area has its committed fans who have skied millions of vertical feet exclusively at their favourite CMH area.
So, if you asked CMH heli-skiers and snowboarders to pick their favourite ski run and lodge, which would they choose? The skiing is great everywhere, so some pick their favourite area based partly on the view from the lodge, and pick the Bugaboos or Adamants; others choose based entirely on the volume of steep tree skiing they can shred in a week, and might vote for Galena, Kootenay, or the Monashees; still others choose based on the variety of terrain they can encounter and might pick the Cariboos, Gothics, Bobbie Burns or Revelstoke; some like the most private luxury and mountain experience and would pick the private heli-skiing areas of McBride or Valemount.
Really, such a thing is utterly impossible to judge fairly.
But it’s fun to consider. So, just for the fun of it, what is your favourite CMH ski run and lodge?