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.
As ski technology has made skiing easier, the average speed of average skiers has also increased, especially on a powder day where the fat skis allow us to really get going - before we crash. Since force equals mass times acceleration, at whatever our ability, our fat, shaped skis and snowboards are allowing us all to go hurling down the mountain with more force than we used to have. While it sure is fun haulin’ tail through the fluffy stuff, the bottom line is that our increased force means that if we hit a tree, another skier, a snow machine, a lift tower, or get hit by another skier, it’s gonna hurt more.
Besides the simple physics, there’s the fact that modern skis allow more people to ski the powder, so on a powder day there will be more people charging for their slice of the pow harvest than there used to be (a great excuse to go Heli-Skiing). Snowboarders used to be, without a doubt, the fastest riders on the mountain. With modern skis, skiers are now rivaling snowboarders for speed.
Last year, most ski resort fatalities in Colorado happened on an intermediate groomed run after the skier or snowboarder lost control and hit a tree. This victim's average age is 37, is an experienced skier, and is wearing a helmet. According to an article in the Denver Post: “Those who died on Colorado slopes ranged from a local doctor to a snowboard instructor to a paraplegic using a sit ski. More than 80 percent were men. The youngest two were 11; the oldest, 73. Just more than 60 percent were out-of-state visitors.”
Considering the trends, here are 5 suggestions for making your time at the resort a safer experience:
- Ski good or eat wood? How about live to ski another day. Give the trees a wide berth when you’re skiing fast, and as the quest for freshies pushes you closer to the edge of the runs, slow down, way down - as in really slow - and enjoy the turns without redlining the adrenaline of powder skiing near the trees. Helmets are designed to protect you up to about a 19 kph (12mph) collision – most fatal accidents happen at 40-65 kph (25-40mph). For perspective, an ASTM study (an international standards organization) revealed that the average speed for a skier or snowboarder on a blue run, with good visibility, is 44.5 kph (27.6 mph) - plenty fast to render your helmet useless.
- Get out of the back seat. According to a study from the University of Vermont, skiers have the same statistical chance of getting an ACL injury as a college football player – or 365 times more likely than the rest of the population. Leaning back on your skis puts your ACL in a compromised position. Leaning forward doesn’t eliminate your chances of a knee injury, but it does put your knees in a stronger position, and allows you to react quicker. Besides, being centered or slightly forward on your skis will teach you to ski better than that old faithful backseat boogie. Here’s a detailed article on how to adjust your skiing habits to protect your ACL.
- Slow down at intersections, and don’t bag on snowboarders. Skiers love to say that snowboarders are more dangerous since they tend to look one way, creating what appears to be a blind spot on their backside turn. Statistics, however, tell a different story. According to a study done by the Rochester Institute of Technology, explained in this excelent article on ski safety, snowboarders are between 50% to 70% more likely to get injured (mostly wrist and upper body injuries), but they are about a third less likely to be killed on the slopes than skiers. Additionally, the study revealed that skiers are three times more likely to be involved in a collision than snowboarders. That said, snowboarders need to be aware of their blind side at all times, and beware of the trend that snowboard accidents are on the rise, while skiing accident rates are relatively flat. Both skiers and snowboarders need to heed that deceptive mistress of speed.
- Avoid crowds. Like a freeway, the ski hill tends to create bottlenecks and crowded zones. Choose runs that avoid these areas if possible, but when you must ski through these areas, make consistent turns in the fall line without stopping, give other skiers a wide berth and rotate you head frequently to see what’s happening in your blind spots – and yes, us skiers have blind spots too.
- Wear a helmet. No list of safety suggestions would be complete without suggesting that you should wear a helmet, but again, the statistics are surprising. While the number of skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets is increasing each year, with almost 70% of all snow riders helmeting up these days, the fatality rate has remained flat. This suggests that wearing a helmet is a good idea, but skiing in control at slower speeds is an even better idea; as the numbers show in tip # 1, if you hit a tree with your head at 40+ kph, your helmet will not save you. When you're near the trees or on a crowded slope, challenge yourself with technical lines and perfect technique rather than tongue-wagging speed.
On the bright side of snow riding statistics, skiing and snowboarding are no more dangerous than other active participation sports, and safer than some of them, so while you're out there on the slopes, don't forget the most important element of all: have fun!
Photo of Telluride, Colorado 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.
We all know what it’s like to ride on corn snow – that smooth, easy turning velvet that is so conducive to high speed ripping. We know if we get on it too early in the morning that it tends to rattle our teeth out of our skulls; if we get on it too late it is slurpy mush that sucks on our skis like quicksand. But what is the stuff we call corn snow?
The best definition and scientific explanation for corn snow I found is on fsavalanche.org, where they describe corn snow as: “large-grained, rounded crystals formed from repeated melting and freezing of the snow.” Their page on the subject includes the image below that illustrates how it is the surface tension of the water between the rounded ice crystals that creates the perfect corn snow. After a cold night, the water between the ice crystals is still frozen; when the ice crystals melt too much, the matrix of ice and water loses cohesion, falls apart and turns to slush. The magic time between too hard and too soft under intense sun is often no more than an hour.
Because of the short window of perfection, the tricky part about corn skiing is the timing, and on really long runs, it is almost impossible to get it just right. On a spring descent of Mt Shasta, known as one of the longest ski runs in the United States with over 2100 metres (7200 feet) of vertical, we waited on the summit until the steep upper slopes were just soft enough to ski but still rattled down the first 500 metres of sketchy, still-too-frozen corn. Then we had a thousand metres of glory before the surface melted out from under us and we wallowed in the slush for the last 500.
There is an atmospheric phenomenon that can preserve the corn low in the valley, while the sun bakes the upper slopes, and that is valley fog. The only time I’ve experienced perfect corn snow from top to bottom on long runs is when valley fog insulates the lower elevations. The Wasatch Range, the Cascades, the Columbias and the Alps are all mountain ranges known for frequent valley fog conditions. If you are in any of these ranges in the springtime, and getting frequent valley fog in the mornings, go find the biggest, safe, corn run in the area and enjoy gorging on the stuff.
Leo Grillmair, shown in the photo at right Heli-Skiing in the Bugaboos in 2005, is one of the founding guides of CMH Heli-Skiing. He explained to me once that the best corn snow forms when temperatures reach 10 degrees C during the day, and fall to minus 10 degrees C at night.
For beginners, corn snow is the very best, most forgiving, most comfortable snow condition for learning to ski or snowboard.
In a ski area, corn snow behaves a little differently because of all the ski traffic, but still there is often a good corn cycle when conditions are right. The best tactic for getting it right in a ski area is to take it easy.
- Don’t shoot for first chair unless your area has a lot of south facing terrain - give it an hour or so extra.
- Find the aspects that have been in the sun for a couple of hours.
- Ski the side of the run where there is less tree shade and the snow has warmed uniformly.
- Avoid entirely shady terrain until very late in the day.
- Wear a carving ski/board rather than a fat powder tool.
However, without a doubt the best way to feast on corn snow, cooked to perfection, is with a helicopter. Interestingly, for the last few years at CMH Heli-Skiing, corn snow has been a largely absent part of the CMH Heli-Skier diet. Nobody’s complaining, because epic powder conditions from the first to last day of the Heli-Ski season in the Revelstoke region has more than made up for it, but still, there is nothing quite like a perfect corn feast with a Bell 212 helicopter and a group of savvy mountain guides to dial the timing and serve it up just right.
Photos of CMH Adamants corn smile and Leo Grillmair portrait by Topher Donahue. Corn illustration courtesy Forest Service National Avalanche Center.
You can always pick out the CMH Heli-Skier in transit; they’re wearing hiking boots or something sturdy on their feet for the winter mountain world, are wearing a technical jacket, sometimes have ski boots thrown over their shoulder, and tote a small carry-on for the plane; and they’re usually smirking a little over how much fun they’re about to have – or just had.
Travel with CMH Heli-Skiing is easy. Sure, the roads through the Canadian Rockies can close down during the biggest storm cycles, but we've been experts at mountain travel for almost 50 years. 99% of the time, you can roll into Calgary, turn off your travel brain, and enjoy letting us take care of delivering your ideal ski vacation.
But there area a few things you can do to that can help ensure that your trip goes perfectly:
- Contact CMH to discuss your best transportation options. The timing of your arrival and departure can make the difference between a relaxing ski trip and a stressful one. CMH Reservation agents are familiar with the itinerary options and can suggest the travel plan that will fit your schedule and give you the most enjoyable trip.
- Carry your ski boots on the plane. But don't leave them in the luggage bin! Many million-foot guests of CMH will carry their ski boots as their “personal item” on the plane. If your luggage doesn’t arrive, which is thankfully less common in this age of computerized luggage tracking, you’ll at least have your boots. Borrowing some ski clothes is easy, we have plenty of skis and snowboards, but ski boots fitted perfectly to your feet are the one thing that would be more difficult to replace quickly.
- Fill out the lodge luggage tags as directed. When you get to Calgary, or wherever you meet the CMH concierge, you’ll be directed to put your name on a luggage tag labeled with the lodge of your destination. This is because we have 11 heli-ski areas and we want you to arrive at your area with your gear. We’ll deliver your luggage to the door of your room in the lodge, but to do this we need to know it’s yours.
- Use CMH transport when possible. While renting a car and being on your own schedule is tempting, we can do more for you if you travel with us. If roads do close, we sometimes arrange a helicopter transfer from a different location, and if you’re somewhere else in a private car, you’ll miss it.
- If your schedule allows, give yourself a little extra time to catch flights after your trip. Many of our European guests need to catch an evening plane out of Calgary on the last day of their trip. We arrange an early flight from the lodge to accommodate them, but it is far more relaxing to fly the following morning and have the last day of your trip to travel stress-free and reminisce about the ski paradise you just experienced.
- Travel light-ish. Remember that some of our areas are helicopter access only in the wintertime, and everything you bring will need to be flown into the lodge. You should bring whatever clothes and personal items you need to have a comfortable stay, but don't bring the kitchen sink - we supply those already.
Photos of Heli-Ski travel, CMH Cariboos style, by Topher Donahue.
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.
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.
CMH Heli-Skiing gear guru Bruce Rainer has been taking care of the shop at CMH Galena for 22 years. He’s seen the transition to fat skis, custom ski boots, and online gear sales - not always for the best.
We talked about the mistakes people make in buying gear for world-class backcountry ski trips, and while he spoke he worked on a snowboard binding that was the cat’s meow for the resort, but when the deep snow works its way under the binding it literally separates the binding from the board.
Bruce laughed at the irony of our conversation while working on the bindings: “Things that seem to work just fine at the ski hill, sometimes don’t work at all in the environment we ride in out here.”
He quoted former CMH Revelstoke area manager Buck Corrigan who had this to say when explaining the difference between ski resort and backcountry skiing: “We ski in the snow, not on the snow.”
Here’s the 9 biggest gear mistakes people make, according to Bruce, when going backcountry, cat or heli-skiing:
- Taking new boots on a ski trip. Skiers spend a bunch of money on new boots for their dream trip and then end up with sore feet, blisters, and simply don’t have as much fun.
- Buying stiff, top-of-the-line racing boots for deep powder. Most people prefer a softer boot for powder skiing anyway, and stiff boots just make the fluid motions of deep powder skiing more awkward and difficult for all but the world’s best skiers.
- Fixing boot issues with thick, custom orthotics. When skiers are having foot issues, they try to solve them by retrofitting their boots with custom orthotics that take up so much space in the boot that they decrease the volume and often make the boots even less comfortable. Bruce noted that in numerous occasions he has helped people by simply taking their orthotics out of the boots. Bruce's advice: if you are going to use custom footbeds, get them fitted to the boots from day one.
- Assuming gear that works in bounds will work well in the backcountry. Skis and snowboards that work in a ski area, even a famous powder area like Alta, don’t necessarily work well when there is no firm base under the powder. Part of the issue is the sheer volume of deep powder heli-skiing allows. “Even on a good powder day,” explains Bruce, “in a resort you only get a few runs in the fresh before it gets cut up and packed down - out here we ski fresh snow all day every day.”
- Wearing small, low-profile goggles. You’ll notice the ski guides all wear the big, dorky looking goggles that allow lots of space between the face and the lenses. This keeps the warmth from the face from fogging up the goggles and work far better than the more stylish close-fitting goggles.
- Wearing inadequate ski gloves. Many cool ski gloves have short gauntlets that quickly fill with snow, or have too little insulation to keep the fingers warm in the deep winter of Western Canada.
- Skiing in too many clothes. “People go out in big, heavy jackets, and pretty soon they’re sweating, their goggles steam up, and then it’s just not as fun anymore.” says Bruce. If you don’t know what to wear, ask an experienced heli-skier or ski guide.
- Wearing jackets with open necks and fur. This should be obvious, but after a few tumbles or even just a meaty face shot, a fashionable fur-rimmed jacket will be holding a kilo of snow that slowly melts down your neck. Save the fashion for St. Anton or Aspen, and bring a jacket designed for powder to CMH Heli-Skiing.
- WEARING WHITE! “This last one is the biggest mistake of all!” said Bruce, “It’s a matter of safety!” When you wear white, you blend in with the snow and you make it harder for your ski partners and the guides to see you, and if you get lost even the sharp-eyed pilots will have more trouble finding you.
When he’s not fitting skis, adjusting snowboard binding positioning for better performance in the deep, and answering gear questions, Bruce is always hoping for another ride on his favourite ski run in the universe: Galena’s Freefall.
Photo of a heliskier demonstrating why yellow and blue are better colours than white when riding in the backcountry.
“I realized we’ve been doing our guests a disservice.” said Erich Unterberger, the CMH Heli-Skiing's Manager of Guiding Operations, in explanation of the new Powder 203: Big Trees heli-skiing program - as well as the philosophy behind the entire Powder University curriculum. “A few years ago I skied with one of our guests who had skied many millions of feet with us and he still skied exactly the same as he did years earlier; I felt like we had done this guy a disservice by not giving him the opportunity to improve.”
Ski guiding and ski instruction certainly have overlapping areas of expertise, but there are also vast areas of ski instruction where mountain guides have no experience - and vice versa. Traditionally heli-skiers haven’t wanted a lot of instruction, but instead hire a ski guide to keep them safe and show them the best skiing possible - and lots of it.
Since the beginning, CMH ski guides have done their best to accommodate both skiers who want instruction as well as those who do not, but to keep up with the heli-ski program the guides have traditionally been unable to give much one-on-one ski instruction. Essentially, the pace of traditional heli-skiing makes teaching difficult.
So after many years of full throttle heli-skiing, CMH Heli-Skiing has introduced a number of education-oriented heli-skiing programs designed to mix instruction with tons of great skiing, and many CMH guides are also high level ski instructors. Erich took time, while in the midst of helping his daughter tune her skis for a race at Nakiska, to explain the new Big Trees heli-ski program:
“In every CMH area, it doesn’t really matter which one, we do about 70 percent tree skiing. But some people are afraid to sign up for the famous tree skiing areas like Galena, Kootenay and the Monashees. There are a lot of skiers who ski really well, but they get into the trees and start having problems. The whole idea of Big Trees is to show people what to look for in order to ski better in the trees.”
The Big Trees groups will include a second guide so, with the sheer volume of powder skiing provided by the helicopter, each skier can expect one-on-one tree skiing instruction.
Erich outlined some of the Big Trees curriculum:
- Tactics for heli-skiing in the trees.
- Partner skiing technique for confidence and safety.
- Fall line selection.
- How to break a tree run down to manageable segments.
- How to avoid tree wells.
- Turn strategy with fat powder skis.
You might think that skiing a fat ski is a no-brainer, but heli-ski guides are finding that there are real issues with the new boards. Erich said, “They give floatation, which makes it in one way easier, but if you do not control the fat skis, the trees come up at you much faster!”
Erich explained that the Big Trees week will include a lot of skiing (100,000 feet guaranteed) with more of a coaching environment than a ski school environment.
“Our main goal,” concluded Erich, “is to give our guests a way to ski more in control, feel better about themselves, improve, and have more fun skiing."
Photo of maximum tree skiing fun in CMH Gothics by Topher Donahue.
It was in CMH Gothics. It had been snowing for weeks. The snow was cold, light, white, deep perfection. Everyone in the group was skiing really strong and having the time of their lives.
I was skiing a sweet fall line along the edge of a patch of trees when suddenly something hit me in the side really hard. I was knocked off my feet, flew through the air, and tumbled into the snow.
After getting up slowly, I checked to see if I was ok. I was slightly dizzy and my shoulder throbbed, but considering the force of the collision I felt lucky. Then I tried to figure out what happened. Lying in the snow next to me was my ski buddy, a good skier who was in the Gothics as a ski model to help with photos. We had collided at high speed but he was also uninjured. We were both lucky.
In talking about it later, we realized that neither one of us had seen the other until the moment of collision. It wasn’t like one of us had been trying to scoop the line or cut the other off. Afterwards, I thought a lot about what had happened and what had caused the collision and what could be done to prevent collisions.
What caused the collision:
- Different perspectives of the fall line. You always feel like you are going straight down, even when you’re angling slightly to one side.
- Terrain. My friend had been skiing in the trees next to where I was skiing in the open. He turned into the open at the exact second when I arrived there.
- Speed. While you may have a good handle on your own velocity, when you combine it with someone else’s speed the sum is a velocity that is beyond our ability to react.
- Perception. The great thing about heliskiing is that it feels like you have the mountain to yourself much of the time. However, there are other people on the mountain, always nearby.
How we could have avoided the collision:
- Slow down at transitions. As I neared the trees, a natural bottle-neck, I should have anticipated that other strong skiers would likely be arriving there at similar times, and my friend should have slowed down when moving from the trees into the open where other skiers would almost surely be skiing.
- Give each other more space. We left the top of the run skiing right next to each other, so it is no surprise that we ended up near the bottom in the same place.
- Check blind spots. We were both wearing helmets and goggles, which was lucky because our heads slammed together with alarming force, but helmets and goggles also block peripheral vision. If either of us had checked our blind spots at the transition, we might have avoided the crash. With snowboarders, a common excuse skiers give for collisions is that "snowboarders have a blind spot". Well, skiers have blind spots too, a big one on each side.
- Take it easy near other skiers. The snow had been so good that we all felt invincible. There are good times to let it rip and times to take it easy. We should have been taking it easy.
I’ve seen dangerous collisions in both trees and on wide-open slopes. Every time it is a similar story – two skiers start perfectly in control, but the pattern of two skier’s turns gets closer and closer, until they meet violently, way more quickly than either skier anticipated.
Although not the culprit in my collision, most of the collisions I’ve seen have been when someone approaches the regroup and falls or runs into a skier who is standing still. Speed in the mountains is deceiving – begin stopping about twice as far above of the group as you think you need.
Photo of skiers giving each other space to play in CMH Cariboos.