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