Just driving between the CMH Heli-Skiing areas, the snowpack is a sight to behold. In many places, it would be impossible to slide off the road thanks to the size of the snowplow burms. One of the CMH guides joked, “You could just turn on the cruise control, take a nap, and let the car pinball back and forth between the snowbanks.”
A heliski tour in snow conditions like those occuring right now at with CMH Heli-Skiing leaves everyone, even the most seasoned guides, with a sense of euphoria. After leaving the Cariboos last week, I trained my camera on CMH Gothics and came home every night laughing at the exceptional ski moments captured on my memory cards.
Day One – Lisa, the Gothics ski tech, loves nothing more than blasting over snow mushrooms on her snowboard, and with feather-soft landings there was no reason to hold back:
Day Two – It’s hard to imagine a more magical place to heli-ski than the headwaters of Horne and Ruddock Creeks in the heart of the Monashee Range. 1200 to 2200 meter runs drop from pointy summits to the valley bottom through pillow gardens, chutes and open glades. Tripping the shutter on this photo was a highlight of my photography career:
Day Three – Some photos need no explanation. Simply exceptional ski conditions:
Day Four – It was dumping so hard that Doug, the 206 pilot, spent most of lunchtime sweeping snow off the helicopter:
Day Five – Even the heli-ski guides are stunned by this winter’s snow, so when we stepped out of the helicopter on Morning Star and sank up to our waists in nearly a metre of new snow after 10 weeks of consistent snowfall, Claude Duchesne, the Gothics Area Manager, laughed out loud and shook his head incredulously. Needless to say, the face shots were meaty:
Day Six – This is one of those winters were skiing takes on a fantasy-like quality with the snow textures and sculptures, skier position and the heavily snow-laden forest all dancing together:
Day Seven – There is no word for it in English, but the Germans call it “Huettenzauber”, meaning that particularly cozy magic of mountain huts, and a peek through the windows of the Gothics Lodge nestled in the snow perfectly demonstrates Huettenzauber:
Spring skiing at CMH this year will be incomparable, with the crevasses filled in, boulder fields covered, and plenty of snow to ski the longest runs. The guides are already talking about the convective snow storms of spring and skiing lines that only come into shape once every couple of decades. Check out CMH space availability to see about getting your slice this remarkable season.
With some of the most epic snow conditions in the last two decades, CMH sent me to the Cariboos last week to document the bottomless deep. I don’t know how many times I heard the guests say, “This is the best skiing I’ve ever done!”
Another said: "This is heaven. Snow heaven."
If any of you heliski fanatics have friends who wonder why skiers and snowboarders travel from all over the world to ski the Interior of British Columbia, here’s a photographic tour of last week in the Cariboos that answers the question quite clearly.
Day One Pilot Chris telling us the right way to use the helicopter as the ultimate ski lift:
Day Two The massive snow sculptures hanging in the trees are a pretty clear sign of the kind of winter going down in the Columbia Mountains:
Day Three A short break in the snowfall gave us a chance to look around at the mind-blowing Cariboo terrain:
Day Four Low visibility and another snow storm kept us in the Lower Canoe Valley near the Cariboo Lodge, but nobody was complaining:
Day Five A mixture of sun and clouds let us ski some of the great wide open with magical ice fogs hanging in the air:
Day Six Another storm meant skiing in the trees and the massive snowpack meant open season on the pillow drops:
Day Seven A classic CMH Saturday where the sky clears, the powder is perfect, and the snow crystals hang sparkling in the air long after the skiers pass by:
All good things come to an end. Sipping a cappuccino on the deck in the sunshine while saying goodbye to a week in ski paradise:
Send this to any of your friends or family who don’t understand why you’re crazy about heliskiing - or better yet check our space availablility and get up here yourself while the snow conditions are the stuff legends are made of!
Early season can be a knuckle-biting time for heli-ski guides. With zero artificial snowmaking, and countless skiable acres, heliskiers need enough natural snowpack to cover jagged rocks, tangled fallen timber, and thick underbrush. This season, snowfall started slowly, but by all accounts the powder machine has installed itself over the Columbia Mountains and the white room is open for business.
CMH Galena: December 4, 2010. Photo by Mike Welch.
For a little firsthand glimpse of what it’s like out there, I tracked down Kevin Christakos, the manager of CMH McBride, John Mellis, manager of CMH Cariboos, and Jason Semenek from the CMH Banff Office who updates the multimedia for CMH online and is testing a couple of CMH webcams so we can see conditions for ourselves.
TD: Does it feel like heliskiing time out there in the high country?
KC: Ya, it always feels like time to go skiing when December hits. Today was a dark and snowy day in Golden, and it felt like the kind of day you want to be skiing in the trees.
TD: Do you still get excited about skiing this time of year?
KC: Ya, I wonder if that will ever change. By the end of November I'm usually on skis. Now I often start with nordic skiing. Our ski hill opened last Friday. I pulled my oldest boy out of school to go skiing with me. He was worried he'd get in trouble but I convinced him it would be okay - I guess if I'm convincing my kids to play hooky to go skiing with me that would classify me as keen.
TD: What was the snow like during guide training?
KC: When we started I was pretty much busting through to ground when I walked, but it snowed almost every day and by the end you could really feel the snow starting to settle as it had snowed about 50cms in total. Winter often comes on fast and it is amazing this time of the year how fast the skiing gets good once the snow tap gets turned on.
TD: Where and when is your first week of guiding this year?
KC: We'll be setting up in McBride right after New Year, and the first guests are all snowboarders so I’ll guide on a snowboard. I look forward to spending the week on the dark side…
TD: Since CMH doesn't make snow like a ski resort, how much snowfall does it
take to open a heliski area?
KC: How much snow you need on the ground depends a little on how dense and settled the snow is, but a good target would be 1-1.5 metres at treeline.
TD: How much snow is there at treeline now?
KC: What a coincidence. There are about 1-1.5 metres.
Writing from the CMH Cariboo Lodge on Friday, John Mellis gave me this update:
“It's been snowing for the last 30 hours. 25cm new at the lodge, 60 cm for total H.S. here. I haven't been up high yet. But I know winter really kicks in around tree line. It was an exceptionally wet, cold summer up here. The glaciers more than likely did quite well.”
Johnny is excited about the aftermath of a cool summer for good reason: The Cariboos contain some of the biggest glaciers in the Columbia Mountains. A cold, wet summer means crevasses will fill in more quickly so the glacier skiing there, and in the high alpine of the other CMH areas, could be setting up for the best season in many years.
Jason Semenek is currently testing the new CMH webcams, which are still being optimized for updates from the remote locations, and they can be viewed with the CMH Snow Report. Jason also updates the CMH slideshows and multimedia, which right now feature some choker powder photos from CMH Galena that are worth the visit - unless of course you'd rather not see how good the skiing is right now...
Just 12 years ago, snowboarding made its Olympic debut. I remember the debate then. The question was if snowboarding was fit for the Olympics – after all, there is no skateboarding in the Olympics (yet). Now, the tables are turned. Skiers are debating the ups and downs of having the ski halfpipe in the Olympics while Shaun White is an Olympic icon.
It's much more than a chairlift argument. The International Ski Federation (FIS) is proposing to the International Olympic Committee that the ski halfpipe be included in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Ski halfpipe is already part of the program for the Inaugural Youth Winter Olympics in Innsbruck in 2012.
A recent article in Powder Magazine blew the lid off the debate, with the dogmatic and well-spoken editor Derek Taylor ranting against the idea, and the enthusiastic Trennon Paynter, the founder and coach of the Canadian Halfpipe Ski Team, all for it.
I can see both sides of the argument.
On one hand, sports without regulation hold a special place in any outdoor enthusiast's heart - and any sport making an Olympic debut will likely see an increase in regulation and a decrease in creativity.
On the other hand, the audiences and athletes are bubbling with excitement about the thrilling possibility of seeing skiers like Tanner Hall and Sarah Burke take a new aspect of skiing into the Olympic Games. Skiing is a centerpiece of the winter Olympics, and halfpipes and terrain parks are the new frontier of in-bounds skiing.
The two sports closest to my own heart are backcountry skiing and rock climbing. I love these sports without real rules, oversight by international committees, or contrived standards. Even the idea of Rando Racing and Climbing Competitions makes part of me cringe, but the other part of me rejoices that the sports I love are growing and influencing more people in positive ways.
Rather than enter my opinion into the mix (there are plenty of those already) I’ll throw out a prediction: In the end, the athletes and spectators will win – this in itself is a good thing - and we’ll end up with the ski halfpipe in the Olympics.
I’ll hang my prediction out there a little further and say that - based on the riveting qualities of the men’s snowboard halfpipe finals in the last winter Olympics in Vancouver, even when we all knew who was going to win - ski halfpipe will become one of the most watched disciplines of the Olympics.
In the 2010 Olympics, viewers ages 12-24 were up 40% over previous Olympics, largely because of snowboarding and "extreme" sports, according to an article in USA Today. While the relative extreme-ness of halfpipe versus downhill is a tender topic for another lift ride, these are the kinds of numbers that change things. Check out this clip, and it is pretty obvious why the ski halfpipe would be a popular Olympic event:
We can always go back into the backcountry and do what we want like my friend Joe Vallone, an international mountain guide and halfpipe coach, is doing in the above photo while demonstrating some new-school ski savvy in some old-school summertime threads.
Readers of this blog, you’re all sophisticated ski enthusiasts. What do you think?
Photo by Topher Donahue