Any list of the world’s 5 best ski towns doomed to be unfair. In many ways, the best ski town in the world is the one you’re in. But some, like my number one choice (shown in this photo), are the kind of ski towns where ski dreams meet reality.
To make this list for the Heli-Ski Blog, I considered the conversations I’ve had with the most experienced group of skiers I know: the guests of CMH Heli-Skiing. As a group, CMH Heli-Skiers have skied everywhere and know a thing or two about the best the world has to offer. At aprés ski in a CMH Lodge, waiting for a heli-pickup, or riding the bus from Calgary to the Revelstoke region, CMH guests talk about skiing. These are the ski towns that I’ve heard spoken of with the most reverence. To pick this list, I weighed the skiing heavily, followed by the culture and lifestyle of the area, and limited my list to no more than one ski town in a given country.
Number 5: Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA
There’s nowhere in the United States where you get a more American skiing experience than Jackson Hole. Think cowboys and National Parks, big trucks, wolves and moose before even stepping into your skis. From Teton Pass, where a car shuttle and boot pack trail give access to world-class powder skiing, to the endless backcountry runs in Grand Teton National Park (photo right), to the progressive Jackson Hole ski resort where out-of-bounds skiing (with the right safety gear and training) is considered standard fare; the skiing during good snow cycles is about as good as snowriding gets.
Number 4: The Arlberg, Austria
It’s hard to pick one area in the Northern Alps. From Garmisch Partenkirchen in Southern Germany, to Innsbruck, Austria, a town many consider the winter sports capital of the world, there may be no region on the planet with better ski infrastructure or more ski-soaked culture.
I had to pick the Arlberg. Considered the birthplace of modern Alpine skiing, the Arlberg was also one of the places where skiers experimented with using a helicopter as a ski lift before CMH opened the world’s first Heli-Skiing business in 1965.
Number 3: La Grave–La Meije, France
Much of Europe is famous for impeccably groomed pistes, comfortable lodging, and well thought-out transportation. A few European areas, including the legendary Verbier in Switzerland, are known for out-of-bounds skiing and would be worthy of inclusion in this list. I had to give the love to a little lesser-known jewel of the off-piste lifestyle: La Grave, described here in an Outside Magazine article, is an almost mythical area famous for one thing, and one thing only. Skiing.
Home to the biggest lift-accessed off-piste skiing in the world, La Grave offers 2150 metres (7000 feet) of vertical and unrestricted backcountry access. There are no luxury hotels in La Grave, and only a single tram and a couple of surface lifts, but the town's classical stone construction and epic skiing make it a ski town unlike any other. If you go to La Grave, hire a guide, and get ready for the most thrilling lift-serviced skiing you’ve ever done.
Number 2: Akakura Onsen, Japan
The Revelstoke of Asia, this ski region surrounding Nagano was blown wide open by the 1998 winter Olympics. I remember having a hard time focusing on the races in Nagano because of the surrounding steep mountains coated in a generous blanket of powder snow kept catching my eye.
Akakura Onsen is known as the most central village to the best skiing, with access to several ski resorts. One area, Myoko Kogen, also allows off-piste skiing, while many of the other Japanese ski resorts do not. Add Japanese Onsen (hot springs) and cuisine to the equation, and you’ve got a recipe for what could be the world’s healthiest ski destination.
Number 1: Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada
Let’s see. North America’s tallest lift-serviced ski area. Canada’s snowiest mountains. Arguably the world’s most diverse and vast backcountry ski terrain. The spiritual centre of CMH Heli-Skiing, the world’s first Heli-Ski service. Well-managed backcountry hut systems. A world-class avalanche forecasting service. Industry-leading ski guide culture. Canadians. Need I say more?
While I hummed and hawed over the other four, it was easy to choose the number one ski town in the world. For some reason, similar to Akakura Onsen, much of the ski world just recently learned about Revelstoke. But the word is out, and the combination of Revelstoke’s easy-going-yet-go-for-it-safely Canadian ski culture, the endless terrain, the epic snowfall and diverse ski options are taking the ski world by storm.
Solo travellers, consider these options:
Option one: Travel to a huge and famous resort. Check into a hotel room on the 6th floor. Go out looking for a place to have dinner. Eat at a table by yourself. Go to a bar in hopes of finding someone to talk to. The next day, ski alone and try to be social on the lift. Channel Jason Bourne strategies to get a few fresh tracks.
Option two: Take a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing. From the moment you meet the CMH concierge in Calgary or wherever your trip begins, you’re warmly welcomed into the fold of CMH Heli-Skiing. Every aspect is taken care of for you. Go to a remote and cozy lodge where you’re immersed in ski paradise with people having the best days of their lives. Request a private room or let us find you a roomie. Dine with snow riders from all over the world who quickly become your friends. Use the world’s safest helicopters for a ski lift. Channel Scooby-do appetite to devour thousands of vertical metres of untouched powder.
Which would you choose?
For some reason, there’s a common myth among snow riders that you have to be part of a group to book a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Among CMH Heli-Skiing’s 11 ski tenures in the Revelstoke region, two of them are private lodges that are (mostly) booked by groups; the rest are filled with singles, couples, families, small groups, and every combination of powder enthusiasts imaginable.
Not only are single Heli-Skiers allowed at CMH, there are numerous return guests at CMH Heli-Skiing who book trips with their friends and family for the shared experience – and then return for a trip alone for the full-throttle experience of snow-riding without friends and family.
For solo travellers who want to socialize outside of the CMH Lodges, CMH Revelstoke and CMH K2 are based in the charismatic Canadian mountain towns of Revelstoke and Nakusp where nightlife and a ski bum scene can be found between days of Heli-Skiing in the legendary mountains of the Selkirks and the Monashees.
For the unique combination of camaraderie and comfort that makes you feel like you’d rather be nowhere else on earth - a feeling known in the German alpine culture as huttenzauber, or hut magic – a Heli-Ski trip to one of the nine remote CMH Lodges would be a solo travellers dream trip.
Whatever you choose, CMH has been hosting solo travellers (and groups) for 48 years, and there may be no other place on the planet where you’ll feel more welcome or have more friends more quickly than CMH Heli-Skiing.
Photo of a solo traveller making friends with a few snow mushrooms, CMH Adamants, and huttenzauber at CMH Gothics by Topher Donahue.
When we spend a day with a CMH Heli-Skiing Guide, it is impossible not to be in awe of their profession. It appears that every waking hour they are committed to the safety and quality experience of their skiing and snowboarding guests.
But every single one of them has a life outside of guiding.
A couple of years ago I went Heli-Skiing with Liliane Lambert in the epic tree runs and scenic alpine terrain of CMH Revelstoke. At that time she had a toddling daughter at home and a son on the horizon.
Liliane’s blossoming home life and commitment to her profession begs the simple question: How does she do it?
So I tracked her down between guiding ecstatic guests through the epic storm cycles of the 2012-2013 winter to find out.
TD: How old are your kids now?
LL: Thomas is almost two and Emilie is four.
TD: How did you meet your partner?
LL: I have a great husband (Dominic). I met Dominic in the Bugaboos during the spring of 2002! He was the chef. Three months later we moved to Revelstoke and bought a house.
TD: What do your little ones do while you are working?
LL: They are with Dominic. Dominic takes them skiing (alpine and x-country), swimming, skating, Strong Start (a drop in no-charge preschool for kids in British Columbia), Mother Goose (a story telling program), the train museum, long hikes with the dog (Texas), and riding bikes (when the snow is not too deep). They go to day care twice a week so they get their social time and Dominic can go ski touring. During the four month winter season Dominic does not work to be with the kids, and during the 8 month summer season Dominic goes to work and I stay home with the kids. Dominic is the owner of Indigo Landscaping in Revelstoke.
TD: Have you taken Emilie Heli-Skiing yet?
LL: Yes and no. I was guiding until I was 5.5 month pregnant with Emilie. She has been on 6 helicopter flights. When she was 4 months old we took her to a backcountry lodge. I was guiding and Dominic was the chef and Emilie came along. Dominic was cooking and taking care of her during the day. I am planning to take her out Heli-Skiing in the spring during the staff day.
TD: Has having kids changed your approach to managing risk in the mountains?
LL: My approach to managing risk has not changed that much. I would say that I think twice when I make a decision about managing risk.
TD: Does CMH Heli-Skiing do anything differently from the old days (when guides worked for a month or more straight) to make it easier for parents who are guides to be with their kids?
LL: The schedule is 2 weeks on, 1 week off. CMH has been really good about accommodating time off so we can spend more time with the kids.
TD: How does winter season affect Dominic's relationship with the kids?
LL: They spend a lots of time together so their bond is getting stronger. Dominic is extremely comfortable spending all day with the kids, keeping them busy and entertained - and he has fun has well.
TD: During the winter, what does your workday look like?
LL: I leave the house at 4:45am to get a bit of a work out. The guide’s meeting is at 6:00am until 7:00am, then breakfast and go skiing from 8:00am until 4:00pm. Between 4:30pm and 5:00pm I go home to see how Dom and the kids are doing. Them I’m back at the guide's office from 5:00pm till 6:00pm for guides meeting. I go back home from 6:00pm till 6:30pm and then go back to be with the CMH guests from 6:45pm until 9:15pm. I’m in bed buy 9:30pm.
TD: How long have you been guiding and how old are you?
LL: I have been guiding since 2000 and am 41 year old. I was born in Rimouski , Quebec and I never lost my accent...
TD: How did you get into the mountain sports?
LL: My family was into skiing. My Mom put me on skis at 2 years old. I grew up in Rimouski (near the Val Neigette ski area), ski racing and teaching skiing and telemark ski racing. At 16 I started ski touring in the Chic Choc in Gaspe (1.5 hours from Rimouski). In my early 20's I moved to Banff to go skiing. Then I really got involved in telemark ski racing on the Canadian National Team as well as ski touring and mountaineering. I did my ACMG Assistant Ski Guide Training in 2000 then got hired at CMH for the winter 2000-2001.
TD: On the scale of 1-10, how happy are you with the life of a guide and parent?
LL: 9 out of 10. I am super happy. The minus 1 point is because I get tired. I get tired from not sleeping all night (kids waking up!!). I feel very lucky to have a great partner, 2 great kids and to be able to guide. Life is good.
TD: How do you reconnect with your kids after working such long days?
LL: Emilie and Thomas are use to having one of us away. When I get back I make sure that I spent time a lots of time playing hide and seek and then doing puzzles to get back in the groove. It seems that if I play a game that both them can be involved it seems to be the trick.
Every CMH ski guide has a story like Liliane's, so next time you’re out with them in the snow-laden woods, in awe of their professionalism and mountain savvy, remember to ask them what they do when they’re not guiding. It’s always a great conversation that follows.
Photo of Liliane Lambert in her big office, the Selkirk Range of CMH Revelstoke, by Topher Donahue.
This coming weekend, February 2-4, the acclaimed Boarding for Breast Cancer (B4BC) is hosting a new event, ReTreat Yourself, at Red Mountain Resort, near Rossland, British Columbia. Rossland is just over two hours north of Spokane, Washington, and four hours south of the powder epicentre of Revelstoke, BC. Lead by a star-studded cast of inspiring women, ReTreat Yourself is a celebration of breast cancer survivors and all other women who find medicine in the mountains.
The ReTreat Yourself weekend is a healthful bonanza of skiing, snowboarding, yoga, meditation, music, discussions and journaling - with a couple of surprises thrown in here and there. The event leaders, shown clockwise from top left, include Linda Kennoy, a life councelor from Colorado, ski legend Kasha Rigby, pro snowboarder Megan Pischke, professional chef Marianne Abrahams, yoga instructor extraordinaire Kristin Campbell and pro snowboarder/Doctor of Chinese medicine, Kendra Starr:
To find out a bit more about the event, part of B4BC's Shred the Love Tour, I talked to Megan Pischke, the spiritual leader of ReTreat Yourself.
TD: How you take these things that most people view as sports and turn them into medicine?
MP: It’s definitely one of the most valuable lessons I took from my sport of snowboarding- it healed me, and it continues to do so. From my experience, nature is healing, the air, the trees, being in “Gods” space if that’s what you want to call it. Its where I can disconnect to anything that doesn’t serve me, and connect into what I really am and where I came from and where I will go- my belief is that this in everyone, if they could just let go of what maybe their mind is telling them (especially about trying new things, not having time for it, etc.) , and FEEL the connection to their true selves within nature, and THEN adding a sport is a bonus, As there is no time for lists, phone calls, even worries, and your focus becomes in the moment. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, or even an hour from now, pure concentration on the NOW. This is where the mind/body connection comes in, and this is where I believe all healing begins. And then of course the endorphins, the excitement, the overcoming fears. Gosh, the list goes on…
TD: Rossland, one of the favourite stops on the Powder Highway, seems like a great place to hold this event. Where are the 10 "survivors" from in general? Are they travelling far to attend?
MP: Rossland is amazing - its off the beaten path and “out there” compared to other places I have held these retreats. And love it for the adventure! We have gals coming from Squamish and Vancouver, BC, Jasper, Alberta, as well as Kansas, and even from as far as Tennessee.
TD: When you've done these events before at both surf and ski destinations, how does the dynamic of the group change over the weekend?
MP: You know, honestly women are great at making friends, being open to the experience, and very comforting to eachother. Interestingly enough, I have not seen a group that doesn’t start off powerful - really, every time I am humbled and blown away from the beginning. And I would say, there are beautiful lifelong friendships and camaraderie formed by the time it comes around to goodbyes.
TD: How good of a rider do you need to be to really reap the rewards of this program? I see you suggest intermediate to advanced, but where is the sweet spot in ability level - if there is one?
MP: The suggestion this time around was based on the fact that Red Mountain is known for its intermediate/advanced terrain (this place really does kick ass!), and really this was more for the general public who we also invite to attend. We of course welcome all and any levels - and appreciate the fact some gals want to take advantage of the fact that we have fully certified mountain instructors to help them try snowboarding vs. skiing and vice versa. We have never-evers, and I love it that some want to just go for it - regardless of their age or ability. And of course, we always have intermediates/advanced who want to take it to the next level, and also why I bring my pro athletes in (and because they are amazing in their own rights!), to inspire these gals, and encourage the push.
I shared the news of ReTreat Yourself wth a close friend of mine who on Friday underwent an operation to remove breast cancer. With the wounds from the operation not yet healed, she will not be able to attend this weekend, but upon learning of the event she replied: "I would do it this weekend if they'd let me! It's important. Not just for fun, but to meet other people who are going through it and do something together that is good for you in this life."
She'll be there next time.
The B4BC Scholarship Fund, sponsored by The North Face, is providing 10 fully-paid ReTreat Yourself spaces for breast cancer survivors. While the 10 sponsored spaces are already spoken for, there are still ReTreat Yourself spaces available for paying guests. For more information, contact Megan Pischke at email@example.com, or to support the cause, contribute to B4BC.
Last week, I posted a collection of recent photos showing just how exceptional the skiing conditions are around Revelstoke.
Then that night it snowed...
...50cm of low density champagne fluff on top of deep, soft powder.
Steve Chambers, the Manager of CMH Revelstoke, posted a comment to the article with a link to a video his team shot last Friday, a day they’re calling Big Friday. The combination of inspired powder skiers, creative camera work, and dreamy snow make "Big Friday" about the most fun two minutes of powder skiing I’ve ever seen:
Big Friday from Global Powder Guides on Vimeo.
Peter "PA" Arbic, guiding at CMH Galena, added this comment to last week's post after coming in for the day on Friday: "...and today was even better...we had to turn the amp up to 11" That's saying something; PA has spent decades dancing with snowflakes in the Canadian Rockies.
Today I talked to a writer in British Columbia who brought up this question: “Is it the best skiing ever?”
The best skiing ever? Them're fightin' words in some bars, and anywhere it's the kind of question that is hard to answer with certainty about something as ephemeral as powder skiing. Regardless of what truly defines the best, the fact that those are the kinds of questions being thrown around speaks volumes to the kind of snow riding going down in Revelstoke this winter.
Here’s what two veteran CMH Heli-Skiing guests had to say about it:
Eugene R. (Over 2 million vertical feet with CMH Heli-Skiing) “Had the best powder skiing ever!!! Can barely walk now –Great fun!”
Ed C. (Over 5 million vertical feet with CMH Heli-Skiing) “Couldn’t be any better – Epic Skiing!”
Stay tuned. More snow last night and nothing but snow in the 5-day forecast. It’s shaping up to be a white Christmas like no other at CMH. There's already more snow in Revelstoke than any December in the last decade. Bring it on!
Photo from CMH Valemount, Decempow 2012.
There’s 10 feet of snow at treeline in the Columbia Mountains around Revelstoke right now, but numbers don't tell the story. Perhaps the legendary storm machine of Interior BC makes this seem like standard fare, but even for Revelstoke conditions are exceptional.
Photo: CMH Revelstoke December 2, 2012.
Part of the reason for the powder phenomenon is because of a little known secret of early and mid winter skiing near Revelstoke: at our latitude, during the shortest days of the year, the sun is high enough in the sky to provide a full day of skiing, but so low that it hardly affects the surface of the snow, leaving snow on all aspects that cappuccino fluff, champagne powder that we all dream of.
But even a bigger part of the current powder bonanza is the freak-of-nature storm cycle we've been getting for the last month.
The result? Ski quality is approaching mythical.
This is when the emotions of guides, guests, and staff at CMH Heli-Skiing meld into a common buzz; a euphoria of deep powder. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a CMH Heli-Skiing Lodge when conditions are like this. It’s hard to tell who’s a veteran and who’s a first timer, who’s staff and who’s a guest; everyone is blown away.
Photo: CMH Galena, December 3, 2012.
This is when CMH guides who have been skiing the Columbia’s for a lifetime say they’ve never seen anything like it. I just got off the phone with Bernie Wiatzka, Peter “PA” Arbic, and Bruce Rainer at CMH Galena - between the three of them that's about 60 years of experience with CMH Heli-Skiing. Here’s what they had to say about the conditions:
PA: “Speaking for Bernie and I, this is the best first week we’ve ever had.”
Bruce: “One of the better early seasons I’ve ever seen."
Bernie: “Remember that photo you took (of Bernie in February) last winter? It’s been like that every run, every turn, all day long.”
Here’s the photo Bernie is talking about:
Yup, surf's up, WAY UP, at CMH Heli-Skiing - to the point we’re quite confident in saying that we have the best powder snow in North America right now. It’s so over the top that it begs the question: why don’t modern snow riders treat powder skiing with the same conditions-oriented mentality as surfers? Go where the waves are; don’t wait for them to come to you.
Back in the day we used to settle in and “ski bum” an area, bagging the powder days when they came along and riding out the droughts. These days, with the real-time access to ski conditions all over the globe, and extreme weather conditions that have provided both exceptional skiing and exceptional dry spells, it makes more sense than ever to chase deep powder with the meteorological instinct of big wave surfers. Check the report, hit the road, buy a plane ticket, and get a piece of the best this planet has to offer.
Photo: CMH K2, November 28, 2012.
We’re genuinely sorry for the skiers and snowboarders whose home mountains have been getting short-changed this season, as many areas have only just begun to receive winter storms, but we just couldn’t help but share our current deep powder phenomenon. When your area gets the goods, we’ll come join you, but with prime spaces available at CMH Heli-Skiing, you really should join us.
If you can't afford Heli-Skiing, take a trip to any resort on the Powder Highway. If you can't afford resort skiing, pack your touring gear and hit the Revelstoke backcountry. It's shaping up to be the kind of season you'll tell your grandkids about.
And here's the last straw: we have space. Call your boss, call your kids, give your wife or husband a nice massage, call CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252 - and pack your bags for the best ski trip of your life. Right now.
Today, CMH Guide Training is fully underway at CMH K2, preparing our team for the season and getting everyone in tune with the latest developments in safety, technology and method.
Tomorrow, the first CMH Heli-Skiing trip of the season takes flight from CMH Valemount into the Cariboo Mountains where two metres of snow have already accumulated at treeline.
Last week, the run checks in Revelstoke and CMH K2 revealed fluff enough. The Revelstoke guides shot this video of the team having a bit of fun between the full-throttle preparations it takes to open 11 areas and 15,000 square kilometres of ski terrain.
In other words: CMH Heli-Ski Season is on!
In many ways it seems the same as it ever was; the generous storm machine of Interior BC is pounding the Columbia Mountains with incessant storms, CMH Heli-Ski lodges are being stocked for a winter of hosting skiers and snowboarders in powder paradise, and snow riders the world over are either planning a trip to the powder epicentre of Revelstoke - or they’re wising they were.
But in other ways this winter is different. Very different. CMH Heli-Skiing has rewritten our own playbook; this is quite a feat considering that we’ve been playing the game for almost half a century.
While regrouping on an old-growth tree run, or sitting around the fire aprés ski, you and our other guests have been telling us you’d like to see some changes. So we listened. Here’s what we heard:
- You want more small group Heli-Skiing options, so we’ve made the Adamants a small group program where groups of 5 skiers are supported by Bell 407 helicopters.
- You want more new school Heli-Skiing options, so we joined forces with K2 Skis and this season will be the inaugural winter for CMH K2 and the CMH K2 Rotor Lodge in Nakusp where K2 athletes will be joining CMH Heli-Skiing groups for the Southern Selkirks pillows and powder harvest.
- You want to experience Private Heliskiing, so we’ve opened McBride to individual bookings so you don’t need to put together an entire group to indulge in the ultimate Heli-Skiing - one group of experienced skiers and the biggest tenure in CMH.
- You want to help make your own heli-ski plan each day, so we opened two Nomads programs, one in the north, based out of the Gothics Lodge with access to the Monashees, Adamants and Gothics areas, and one in the South, based out of the lakefront Hot Springs Resort and private chalets of Halcyon with access to Revelstoke, Galena, CMH K2 and the Bugaboos.
So next time we’re standing around in the old growth forest, up to our waists in BC pow, catching our breath and talking, be careful what you ask for - you just might get it!
If you have further questions about what is the right Heli-Ski trip for you, be it a Powder Intro with custom powder skiing instruction, or Steep Shots and Pillow Drops with a K2 athlete, give us a call at 1 (800) 661-0252 to speak with one of our knowledgable reservations agents. After all, the definition of the world’s greatest skiing is not the same for everyone, so we’ve made sure your Heli-Ski vacation is The World’s Greatest Skiing - for you!
Photo and video courtesy of CMH Revelstoke guides, November 22, 2012.
This fall, CMH Heli-Skiing was honoured to receive the 2012 Gordon Wilder Memorial Award. The award, dedicated to the former president of Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, is presented annually by Kootenay Rockies Tourism in recognition of achievements in the mountain tourism culture of British Columbia’s Kootenay region.
The Kootenay Rockies have become legendary the world over as the ultimate powder riding destination, and CMH is proud to have been one of the first to put the Powder Highway on the map.
To put the Kootenay region's ski resources in perspective, CMH Heli-Skiing is the biggest Heli-Ski operator on earth, but only operates in a small fraction of the vast ski terrain in the Kootenay Rockies. Each winter journalists travel the Powder Highway trying to capture the dream-like snow, terrain, and mountain culture for the world’s skiers; but even the best of them only see, ski, shred, film, write about or photograph a small slice of the area’s potential.
And that’s a big part of why we’re so honoured to receive this year’s Gordon Wilder Memorial award.
An article on this year’s award in Kootenay Business reads: “ CMH was recognized for the pioneering of heli-skiing in the Rockies and their world-wide promotion of the sport. Their innovation and vision has made the Kootenay Rockies not only the birthplace of heli-skiing but also the world's premiere heli-skiing destination.”
CMH Bugaboos manager and mountain guide Dave Cochrane received the award at the Kimberley Conference Centre from Annie Pigeon, the marketing director of the Whitewater ski area. It was an emotional moment as Dave represented the entire CMH family, going back to the early 60s when CMH Heli-Skiing's founder, Hans Gmoser, began exploring the potential for deep powder skiing in the Kootenay region.
Today, the Kootenay Rockies are famous for unbounded ski terrain with 40 to 50 feet of annual snowfall blanketing newer ski resorts near Golden and Revelstoke, as well as the area’s charismatic and much-loved areas near Fernie, Nelson and Rossland. In between lies a vast wonderland of backcountry skiing, an area that now boasts over 25 snowcat and helicopter skiing operators as well as more than 40 backcountry ski lodges.
In many ways, each Kootenay backcountry operation shares its bloodline with Hans Gmoser and his perseverance in helping to make this mecca of backcountry ski destinations accessible to so many happy skiers and snowboarders. For CMH Heli-Skiing to receive this award is a coming of age of backcountry skiing in the region and a nod to CMH Heli-Skiing as both a forefather of the area’s deep powder skiing and a contemporary leader among backcountry operators who, while competitors in one sense, are at heart collaborators in the common goal of providing comfortable, safe and exciting access to what is, without a doubt, the world’s greatest skiing.
Ski technology is red hot. It allows the pros to ski big mountain lines like tow in surfing helps surfers to charge the biggest waves. It gives old-timers (and their knees) an extra ten years of skiing. It made skiing a sexy game in the terrain park and turned skiing cool again.
But in the world of deep powder heli-skiing, is the modern ski technology always better? And are there ways to ski better and safer on the fat, rockered skis that are so much fun, but tend to go so fast?
To find out, I tracked down Dave Gauley, the Assistant Manager at CMH Cariboos and a former ski pro famous for making smooth, casual turns on outrageously steep lines. Here’s what he had to say:
“Fat skis are a bit of a double edged sword, especially for the beginner to intermediate skier. They make it easier to float through almost all snow conditions - except for a few. Most notably in Heli-Skiing is the snow you run into when several lines converge to a shared pickup. Hard packed, bumps, chopped up snow, etc. You are cruising along easily in the pow... then whabam! It's suddenly a bit of an epic to control those big skis in the chop. Strained knees, back etc. are possible if you’re not ready for it.
“This kind of snow on fat skis requires a different approach. What I do is when I see a section like that coming up, is to realize the run is over and I just eat up the vertical by skiing slow with big round turns.
"The other problem with fat skis is the increased speed they generate. Skinnier skis sink more, so the snow pushing off your body slows you down. Not so with the fats.
“For beginner powder skiers, you need to vary the shape of your turn to keep your speed managable. To slow down, let your skis come around a bit more in the turns and come up with a way to dump speed if need be. I use a scrub technique of a quickly throwing the skis sideways like a partial hockey stop to loose a lot of speed quickly - not always easy in the trees. Try to anticipate, and always looking ahead will really help out. Many times in the trees I will straight line sections to get to an open area where i can then dump some speed.
"Another consideration is the weight of these new skis. A pair of K2 Pontoons is pretty darn heavy, probably almost twice the weight of a pair of the Heli Daddy's we were using ten years ago. Combine that with the increased speed, you have quite a bit of potential torque on the knees.
"Overall, you can't just saddle up and rock a pair of fatties. A completely different approach, and set of eyes for the terrain is required to do it effectively."
For another perspective on the double-edged sword of fat skis, I talked with Lyle Grisedale, the shop tech at CMH Revelstoke. Lyle had this to add:
Fat Skis - I have mixed views on the really big fat skis especially for weaker skiers. They are an asset for weaker skiers in that they are not as deep in the snow and can be turned more easily. On the other hand, when you are not so deep in the snow you also go faster - not good for a weak skier on a steep tree run. Because of the speed, these skiers have to work the ski harder in order to slow down, which is tiring.
If guests are struggling on the fat skis, I often take them off of the fat guys and put them back onto the Heli Daddys or another mid-fat, which are easy to turn and easier to control speed. On big wide open slopes and glaciers, the big fats are fun to rip on, doing fast big turns with little effort involved to turn them.
Rockered Skis - I am not a fan of rockers for weaker skiers. Sure they make skiing easier, but for weaker skiers the rocker causes them to be back on their heels, which is hard on the quads. Also, for skiers who learned to ski 20 or 30 years ago ( a majority of our guests) they where taught to use tip pressure and other skills, and it is really hard to get any tip pressure on rocker tips and this is frustrating for carvers. Technique must be adjusted to a more swivelling or smearing of the ski type of attack. This works well, but is a big adjustment for a carver.
Interestingly, when CMH moved to mid-fat skis, staff spaces decreased as the guests could stay out longer before getting tired. Last winter I found that people were getting tired because they are going too fast on the fattys and are working too hard to control speed and to turn using techniques that are not the same as the techniques that they use on groomed runs.
The people who most enjoy the big fats are the younger skiers who are stronger, fitter, and less fearful of going fast."
Lyle offered these tips to help enjoy the pleasures of a fat ski while minimizing the work and leg strain:
- On steeper treed terrain, make lots of turns to keep speed comfortable.
- Use a good athletic stance with the hips above the feet for quick reactions to changes in terrain and snow texture.
- Upper body should be facing down hill most of the time, but don’t over rotate your shoulders or hips or the fat skis will run away on you.
- Avoid the back seat, otherwise the skis can't be controlled and manoeuvred optimally.
- Equal weight on both skis with a little more pressure to the outside ski produces the best results.
For skiers of all abilities who want to improve and would like their CMH Heli-Ski week to include both epic amounts of powder skiing as well as customized instruction in powder skiing technique, the CMH Powder University programs offer a new-school curriculum for all types of skiers and snowboarders.
Photos of fat ski powder harvest by Topher Donahue.
Yesterday, I received a note from Mike Aucoin, a mountain guide from CMH Revelstoke and co-host of the latest CMH Powder U Program, Powder 405: Freeride Camp based in the legendary powder epicentre of Revelstoke, BC.
First, he asked the obvious question: "How can I best characterize Freeride as a ‘new’ concept in Heli-Skiing and why now?"
Then he answered his own question, brilliantly putting to words the intangible magic the new crop of rockered skis from our friends at K2, a Bell 212 Helicopter, the snowiest mountains in Canada, a team of experienced mountain guides, and the desire to ride the mountain like we ride in our dreams - CMH Heli-Freeriding:
"Helicopter skiing has always had a uniquely ‘free’ component to it because of the swift access to an unbelievable selection of deeply snow-covered mountains. Then there’s the unparalleled feeling you get looking back at your signature in the powder after an exhilarating and awe-inspiring run. For me, the most relevant motivation to promote CMH freeriding began with the occasional skier or boarder in the group who would ask, 'Can we do some freeriding today?'
"This simple request always made me smile, and every time someone asks for freeriding, I understand the root of the question. The comment would often come from someone relatively new to heli-skiing, an individual who may have been experiencing this feeling of freedom on skis for the first time, away from the lifts of a resort, far from a line of people waiting for one part of their local mountain to open up after a snowfall. This is the time and place to demonstrate what you’ve envisioned for so long.
"It only makes sense since ‘Freeriding’ has become an established part of the skiers’ and boarders’ vocabulary. It’s how you see a feature on the mountain and imagine just how you would soar through it. For one skier it could mean laying out a deep carve in a long untracked field, while others see themselves riding up on a rib or shoulder and slashing a big plume of powder in the air before accelerating down the next steep roll. It could mean picking your way through a narrow gully to ride a unique part of the mountain, or just letting those dogs run on a remote mountainside.
"I have always looked at these mountains through those eyes. Constantly evaluating how fun it would be to ride a particular feature on the mountain in my own fashion. Until recent changes have surfaced in ski design and technique, the reality rarely mirrored the vision. Today, many strong skiers can now enjoy the sensation of expanding the arc of the turn in powder like never before, and still dump speed with a quick brake check while flying through knee deep powder. The concept of a specific ‘freeride Heli-Skiing’ trip is to provide the opportunity to those who want to feel the mountain in a new way and truly express their will on the hill.
"Your guides have spent years working in these mountains and recognize when it is appropriate to access the terrain that is suitable for this kind of skiing. While skiing, we will discuss hazards specific to particular features while evaluating changes in snow quality and stability. As in everything we do, safety is our chief concern. We have two guides dedicated to the group each day to allow flexibility in the group. Not only will the guide provide the terrain decision and safety management, but they will also provide instruction and video analysis - and of course large doses of fun skiing in big mountains.
"If you are a strong skier who knows what rocker is, come ride with us and we’ll show you why rocker is. It’s sure to be a blast."
CMH Freeriding in Revelstoke? Can't think of anything better in the galaxy? Think you've already done it? Never been Heli-Skiing but this is what you've been waiting for? For questions about the new CMH Freeride Camp taking place March 23-28, 2013, contact CMH reservations at 1.800.661.0252.