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The Trouble with Skiing and Snowboarding


Even before I started writing about snow sport, I was frustrated by the fact that snowboarding and skiing have two different names.  It makes the whole discussion around the two colossally worthwhile ways of playing in the snow so very awkward.

ski snowboard debate Take for example the phone conversation that begins many a day on the slopes:
You want to say, “Hey bro, wanna go skiing tomorrow?”

Immediately it’s hard to know what to say.   He rides a snowboard, but you ski.  What do you say? 

If you say, “Do you want to go snowboarding?” when you’ll be on skis, that doesn’t sound quite right either. 

Then there is the whole discussion around the sport that is unnecessarily difficult.  Take for example the snow sports industry.  One time I was at the SIA Tradeshow, and ended up in a conversation with a representative of a famous snowboard company.  I mentioned “heli-skiing”, and he immediately held up his hand, corrected me with “heli-snowboarding” and gave me a disapproving look.

It seems like things are changing, and many powder hounds, one boarded or two, have come to the conclusion that besides the physics of the ride, experientially there is really little difference between the two.  Sure, skis are better for moving around in the backcountry, and snowboards are better in crud, but both are simply bitchin’ ways to play in the snow.

It was a snowboarder who showed me the light.  My friend Karl, a snowboarder, called me one day to see if I wanted to go shralp some pow.  “Do you want to go skiing?” he asked.  Then, throughout the day, when we scored an especially nice run, he’d say, “The skiing on the left was totally untracked, let’s ski that again.” And at the end of the day, “Killer ski day, thanks for driving!”

Later, I had a conversation about it with Karl.  “Why do you call it all skiing?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “It’s all the same.”

Years later, I met another group of people who felt the same way: the CMH staff.  For them, it is all quite simply, fantastically, skiing.  And why shouldn’t it be; when you’re going out and frolicking in bottomless fluff on some of the most spectacular ski mountains on planet earth, why get too caught up in the nomenclature. 

In snow like the above photo, at CMH Cariboos, half the time you can’t even tell what someone is riding on anyway.  Any of you snowboarders or skiers out there have an issue with calling it all the same thing?

Heliskiing’s Best Kept Secrets: Why Riding in the Back is Better


When a group of young or inexperienced skiers or snowboarders goes heliskiing together, everyone usually prefers to ride as close to the front as possible.  Indeed, riding just behind the guide is pretty awesome.  The guide sets a nice consistent pace, the tight sections have the most fresh snow, and the expanse of untracked snow around you is beautiful.

However, when a group of experienced skiers, snowboarders or CMH staff (that should tell you something) goes heliskiing together, everyone often jockeys to stay in the back of the group.

Why, you may ask?  That means you don’t get as many fresh tracks, right?  Hardly.  In the front you may get 110 fresh turns on a run, and in the back you might get 104 - making your last six turns before the pickup in other ski tracks.  That's hardly enough difference to fret about; besides, there are a number of reasons why many veterans prefer to ride in the back:

  1. Elbow room.  In the back of the group, the others have left a wide swath of tracks, so the remaining skiers can ski farther apart while still skiing safely, in great snow, near the other tracks.  Here’s a photo of two skiers jockeying for the number two position behind the guide at CMH Revelstoke:heliski technique distance speed powder
  2. Gettin' Jiggy.  If you’re in the back, there are more chances to have someone stop below to scope a landing for a jump or technical line.  Here’s a photo of skier spotting a snowboarder ripping a wind roll in CMH Bugaboos:skiing heliski technique snowboarding
  3. Picking a Line.  You always need to stay near the guide’s track, but after several people ski ahead, you have more freedom to play on terrain features that the first skiers missed with only a single track ahead of them for guidance.   
  4. Speed.  If you’re into riding fast, the back is way better.  (That's why the CMH staff mostly prefer to ride in the back.) You can let slower skiers go ahead for a bit, you can look ahead to see where the guide is heading far below, and then you can open the throttle without worrying about missing a traverse or getting too far from the guide’s line.
  5. Visibility.  In flat light, the other tracks give definition to the snow and allow for far easier and more agressive skiing.
  6. The Vibe.  It’s just more relaxing at the back.  That’s where the CMH staff always rides, and they laugh and smile and get as sweet of lines as anyone out there.

CMH Heliskiing uses Bell 212 helicopters for our Signature Heliskiing, accomodating groups of 11 skiers or riders, and with Bell 407 helicopters for Small Group Heliskiing, accomodating groups of five skiers or riders.  These back of the group benefits are applicable to any group size; however, if you are a weaker skier, you'll find skiing right behind the guide is the easiest position.

Coldsmoke Ski Festival Starts Today


Today is the opening day of the Coldsmoke Powder Fest at the Whitewater ski resort in Nelson British Columbia.  The event is one of a growing number of modern ski festivals that celebrate skiing for the everyday skier. 

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Vertfest, a similar event at the Alpental ski area in Washington.  Here's a shot of the beginning of the Rando Race:

ski festival alpental race

I noticed three big things about the event:

  1. Taking yourself too seriously was laughable.
  2. Many of the participants were average skiers who liked above average fun.
  3. The downhill skiers riding lifts at Alpental that day were inspired by the burly concept of a ski race that included an uphill element.

The Coldsmoke Festival is sponsored in part by our friends at Arc'teryx, and competitions include a randonnee rally, a ski graphics design contest, a king and queen contest based on participation, a slopestyle contest that includes a timed ascent of the bootpack to the top, a multimedia contest around the theme “Winter Mountain Culture”, a ski touring poker game, and a banked slalom race.

Starting today, a huge selection of clinics at Coldsmoke will cover the kind of skills that everyday skiers really want to know.   Subjects include: Intermediate and Advanced Telemark and AT/Alpine Skiing skills, Entering Steeper Terrain, Skiing the Mountain, Mastering Steep Terrain, The Basics of Tree Skiing, Lumps and Bumps, Skiing Wild Snow, A Medical Mystery Tour, A Bag of Tricks for Challenging Terrain, Women Skiing the Mountain, Mastering Black Diamond Terrain, Skiing the Whole Mountain, Parallels on Tele Gear, Women’s Tour, Steeps in the Backcountry and Routefinding and Reading Terrain.  

Here’s a video from last year’s Coldsmoke event where the narrator asks participants to describe their ski style:

Coldsmoke Powder Festival 2010 from ARC'TERYX on Vimeo.

The diverse responses include:
“awkward and moose-legged”
“crazy kamikaze”
“sick tricks off big jumps”
“lots of sweat”
“point ‘em”
“back seat, slightly out of control, but if you get far enough away it looks really good”

Yup, nobody was taking themselves too seriously.

While I’m not easily sold on organized competition in the mountains, this new breed of ski festival seems to be the perfect ratio of fun (at least 80%), learning (maybe 15%) and competition (about 5%).  In my world, that’s how skiing should be.

What would you like to see at a ski festival?  Maybe we'll put one together at a CMH Heliski Lodge someday...

Late Season Skiing - It's better than you think.


Our local ski area closed over a month ago – and it’s been snowing ever since.  I shot this photo a few days ago while skiing at 4000 meters in Colorado's Wild Basin.  It felt like mid-winter up there. 

For any skier who has the psyche after six months of winter, this is the best time of year to tick many of the big lines.  All over the northern hemisphere, snowpacks are fat, the steeper faces are generally more stable, and the long days give us more daylight than our legs can handle.  Many coveted lines get skied this time of year including the testpieces of North Peak’s steep north couloir at the edge of California’s Yosemite National Park, the high-altutude ski descents like the Messner Couloir and the Orient Express on Denali, the iconic ski run from the summit of Mt. Blanc, the big faces of the Alps, and countless mellower runs.

Most years I’m like most skiers, and watch the snow melt from a distance while pursuing warmer weather sports.  This year, a spring storm cycle inspired me to put my skis on again, and to ski a mountain feature that I would always remember.  My ski partner and I wanted to avoid a descent where a fall would be fatal, and instead find the kind of line that was simply fun and thrilling on a beautiful alpine peak.

For the majority of us in the backcountry, it’s not about skiing the aforementioned hair-raising ski lines, but instead about finding our own dream lines that are within our ability – and a lot of stellar ski and snowboard descents are easily accessible in the high country right now.

By this time of year, most of us have put away our skis until next season, but the roads over the mountains passes across western US and Canada offer easy access to great skiing and every year more downhill skiers and snowboarders are realizing the rewards of hiking up for a few turns in the late season. Hotspots for easy access late spring/early summer backcountry skiing include Teton Pass in Wyoming, Stevens Pass in Washington and Loveland Pass in Colorado.  If you’ve never ventured out of the ski area without a guide, these are good places for a first step and this is a good time of year to try it, but keep these things in mind:

  • Time your run so the sun has softened the surface but not turned it to slush.
  • Start on something really mellow – spring snow is super fast.
  • Climb up the ski line first so you'll know if the snow is skiable for you and avoid nasty surprises.
  • There is no ski patrol - ski with a huge margin of control. 
  • Ski or snowboard with somebody who has backcountry experience.
  • Carry shovel, beacon and probe and know how to use them - avalanches happen every month of the year in North America.
  • Most avalanche forecasting services have either closed or reduced their staff and reporting. 
Roadside is great, but the CMH Heli-Assisted Ski Touring program is the ultimate way for skiers and snowboarders interested in learning the backcountry to cut their teeth.  There is no better way to try the backcountry than with world-class guides in world-class mountains based out of world-class alpine lodges and a helicopter to get you to the best possible conditions every day.


Heli-boarding tricks for getting up from the deep


Someone wrote this comment after an earlier blog entry: "I quit snowboarding because I could not find a satisfying answer to this question? If you fall in deep powder, how do you get up? On a flat? On a hill?"
It seems like such a tragedy for someone to give up on the good life because of the difficulties of falling in deep snow, so I asked around for some advice on getting back on your board after a fall in the deep and fluffy.  

Theresa Clinton of Prior Snowboards, based in Whistler, had this to say:
"Ha ha! Yes, getting up from a fall in deep snow can be a struggle, that’s for sure (oh boo hoo!).  If you’re on your back/butt side, the best thing to do is log roll onto your stomach and then kneel and pat down the snow in front of you with your hands so that the snow compacts and you can actually get some leverage to push up with. Or, if you’re in the trees, grab a branch to help pull yourself up.  If the snow is just ridiculously deep and nothing’s working, then take off your board and use it with your hands as a snow-flattening tool to stomp out a small bench in the snow. Then have a seat on your snow bench, take a few breaths - be thankful you’re riding such sick pow - then put your board back on and you can sit up/push off from the bench.  Then SHRED!!! (and try not to fall again)."

Kevin Christakos, assistant manager of CMH McBride, watches both snowboarders and skiers struggle in the deep.  He had advice for getting up as well as for making every part of a deep powder day a little easier:

"Falling down in deep snow sucks equally on a board or skis; the advice is similar, if it is steep enough to easily push yourself back up, do so. If it is kinda flat and deep it's almost best to free one foot and get upright before you put your foot back in (or ski on). On a board, anyone who has riden at all will know that if possible flip to the toe side and push yourself up from a kneeling position. The hassle is always getting up from a heel side fall, toe side is easy to get up from."

Kevin added these tidbits to make a powder day while helicopter snowboarding a little easier:

  • Clean the snow out of your binding before they go in the basket, if the snow is a bit moist it will be ice at the top and it's harder to clean- leads to heli stress

  • Carry a snowboard tool and a couple extra screws in your pocket

  • Ask the guide on the landings "which way are we going" so you know where to put your board on and if you need to walk a little.

  • Don't cut the corner before a traverse without checking with the guide, he may be avoiding something - like a crevasse.

Bruce Rainer, shop guru at CMH Galena, had this suggestion for CMH heli-riders: 

"If it is really deep, take off your guest pack and use it as a platform to help you get up."

And a few other tips:

  • If possible, leave your goggles on your face after a wipeout.  Clean the snow off the lenses and around the vents while they are on your face.  If you pull them off, they’ll get snow inside and take more effort to clean.  
  • Try to yell at your partner as you fall so they know something has happened. 
  • If the snow is not too bottomless, borrowing a friendly skier’s poles can help you get out of a hole without taking off your board.  
  • If you find yourself falling more than you’d like, don’t be too proud.  Ask another rider to stay behind you for a bit so you can build up your confidence knowing somebody is there to help you if you need it. 
Finally, when you get home from the best powder skiing on the planet, don't expect much sympathy from your friends when you tell them how hard it was getting up after falling down in epic,  bottomless powder.

Photo by Topher Donahue/

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