A lot of people ask me if the skiing and snowboarding in the Revelstoke area really lives up to all the hype, and if it does, why?
Well, it does, and the precipitation phenomenon is a big part of the reason why:
- During the winter months, the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Haida Gwaii Islands receive the most rainfall in North America. These storms turn to snow when they hit the coastal mountains.
- The driest locations in British Columbia are just inland from the coastal ranges where a series of huge valleys run north and south including the South Thompson and Okanagan. These are some of the driest and warmest locations in British Columbia, since the storms lose much of their moisture passing over the coastal ranges and warm air is funneled up from the south.
- The warming of the air over these valleys allows the atmosphere to pickup more moisture as the storms pass over the rivers and lakes of these Interior valleys, one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water. The air in these valleys is warm enough that the lakes and rivers remain largely unfrozen, allowing evaporation to continue through the coldest winter months.
- When the storms reach the Columbia Mountains on the eastern edge of these warm valleys, they are again saturated with moisture. Most of the moisture in the Columbia Mountains, which feeds North America’s 4th largest river by volume, falls during the winter months, in the form of snow – usually the light, fluffy champagne kind.
- To the north the Polar High, a shallow dome of high pressure and frigid air that moves south during the winter months, feeds cold air into the northern reaches of the north-south valley systems including the North Thompson and the Columbia River valley.
Super-saturated storms simultaneously slam into a huge mountain range and a wall of frigid arctic air directly on top of the CMH Heli-Skiing areas. Bingo - Take Flight!
This phenomenon is what makes the Mt. Fidelity weather recording station near Revelstoke, some 400 kilometres from the coast, the snowiest weather station in Canada. On average, the Mt. Fidelity station receives almost 15 metres (49 feet) of snow, and during one epic season the station recorded 23 metres (75 feet) of snow!
Any ski guide will tell you that while the Mt. Fidelity weather station gets a lot of snow, there are pockets in the region receive even more. Those spots just don’t have a weather station to record the totals, but we can go Heli-Skiing there…
Photo of the Gothics Lodge and a happy Heli-Skier, with a view out the window worth writing home about, by Topher Donahue.
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.
Heli-Skiing is different from other kinds of skiing in a number of ways. The obvious ones, like the volume of untracked powder you get to shred each day and the vast selection of ski terrain at your ski tips, speak for themselves.
Once you get out in these mountains, with a helicopter as your ski lift, a few other differences become obvious – like the clothes you wear in a ski resort aren’t necessarily optimal for Heli-Skiing.
Finally, talk to your fellow Heli-Skiers. CMH Heli-Skiing guests are an experienced lot. It’s not uncommon to be at a CMH Lodge with guests who have as much Heli-Skiing experience as some guides. They are a wealth of wisdom in how to get the most out of your precious time in the unique world of deep powder heli-skiing.
- Close the gap. I’m not talking about gap jumping. I’m talking about the gap between your jacket and pants. While the low-riding pants and high-riding jackets look great in the lift line, there are no lift lines in Heli-Skiing. This fashion statement acts more as a snow-melting system in deep backcountry powder. Even if you don’t fall, the deep powder will quickly fill your pants, melt down your leg, and eventually make it’s way into your boots. You don't want that water in your boots - you never know where it's been. Ski guides prefer high top pants with suspenders or snug belts and long shirts that will stay tucked in all day.
- Don’t wear white. Even if you’re extra attentive to staying close to your group, when skiing in the trees wearing white makes life more difficult for your tree skiing buddy. We ski in pairs in the trees, and a flash of colour is easier to keep track of than a flash of white in a white world. In a worst-case scenario, if you do get separated from your group, the helicopter pilot will be called upon to find you from the air. I’m sure you can visualize what a white skier in the middle of some of the world’s snowiest mountains looks like from the air…
- Under-dress, then add a vest. The helicopter is heated, and there is usually not much waiting around, so you don’t need to dress like you would for a long, cold chairlift ride. However, Canadian winters can be quite cold and there are occasionally delays, so you want to dress warm enough. What to wear is a debate every Heli-Skier has every day. My favourite piece of Heli-Skiing kit is a light vest with synthetic insulation. I can wear it at the beginning of the day to stay warm, and then stick it in my pocket or in the tiny pack provided for each CMH guest. Wearing too much is a common mistake made by Heli-Skiers. This results in excess perspiration which fogs up your goggles, dehydrates you, and detracts from your enjoyment of the world’s greatest skiing.
- Monitor and adjust your temperature. If you feel that you are about to get cold, make sure you put on your hood, zip up your zippers, tuck in your sweater and loosen your boots at the pickup to increase circulation BEFORE YOU GET COLD. If you’re getting hot, take off your hat and vent your jacket BEFORE YOU OVERHEAT.
- Wear a hard shell rather than a soft shell or an insulated jacket. While insulated jackets and soft shells are great at the ski area, they don’t allow enough versatility for a week of Heli-Skiing. In a typical week of Heli-Skiing in Interior British Columbia, you’ll see both brilliant sunshine and heavy snowfall - sometimes in the same day. Even the best soft shells tend to get wet easier and stay wet longer than hard shells.
Photo of a well-executed wet-sock-grab at CMH Bugaboos by Topher Donahue.
One of the first things any CMH Heli-Skier learns is that, as part of CMH Heli-Skiing’s endless quest to make Heli-Skiing as pleasant and safe as possible, each guest is assigned their own radio and is trained in how to use it. From a user’s perspective, it’s easy, but behind the scenes, CMH communications are a marvel of modern technology covering almost three degrees of latitude and costing over a million dollars.
For an insiders view of the CMH Heli-Skiing communication system, I tracked down Bob Lutz, the Manager of Infrastructure at CMH:
TD: How does repeater communication differ from direct radio communication?
BL: Every radio has a receive frequency, Rx, and a transmit frequency, Tx. When your radio is operating in what we call Direct Mode, the Tx and Rx frequencies are the same so you transmit on the same frequency that everyone’s radio is receiving on. This works great if you want to talk to someone nearby, like your guide or other members of your group, but the small battery and antenna on a handheld radio can only transmit so far and certainly not through mountains to reach a group in another valley. This is where our VHF repeaters come in.
When you change your radio to Repeater Mode, only the Tx frequency changes so that you can still hear radios sending on direct, but you broadcast on a different frequency that only the repeater is listening for. The repeaters have a much larger antenna, plus they are positioned up high to be able to cover a much larger area. The repeater also has four to eight batteries similar to the ones in your car for power so it can re-broadcast your transmission much longer distances on the Rx frequency that everyone’s radios (including yours) are listening for.
This leads to the natural question of, why don’t we set the radio to Repeater Mode all the time? For most of the communications between you and your guide the direct mode works well and there is the possibility you might be too far or too low to reach the repeater that might be 10km away when your guide is just 200m below you. Secondly, the repeaters are in low power standby state most of the day but when they kick into gear to re-broadcast someone’s message they use a lot of power to reach as far as possible. If they were running all the time the batteries would run out faster than our solar panels can recharge them.
TD: How do the repeaters support the remote internet at the lodges?
BL: Well, our remote lodges are too far from towns to make running phones lines or fibre optic cables feasible especially when you look at all of the avalanche paths we would have to cross along the way. So for each lodge we had to find a location in a neighbouring valley where we could get telephone service and an Internet connection fast enough to support a lodge full of guests and staff. Then we had to find sites with a direct line of sight to the lodge and that site. The shortest leg is 6km and the longest is 31km. The Bobbie Burns connects to phone lines and a fibre optic cable that are 73km away by the time you add all three legs together.
The phones and people’s web browsing use the same link, the trick is that there is device at the lodge that converts your voice into data packets to join the flow of Internet traffic, but when they reach civilization we convert the data back into an electric signal that we transmit down the phone line.
TD: What is the value of the complete CMH repeater system?
BL: Hmm... a lot of maintenance and upgrades have occurred over the decades and it would be hard to add all of that up. If you had to rebuild everything from scratch, it would cost roughly $50K-60K per site so a little over $1,000,000 to manage our safety communications, coordinate the ski program, and let people connect to friends and family when they get back to the lodge at the end of the day.
TD: Where is the southernmost CMH repeater?
BL: CMH K2’s Kuskanax repeater at 50°23'54"N
TD: Where is the northernmost CMH repeater?
BL: McBride’s Mt Halverson Repeater at 53°15'30"N
TD: How much maintenance do they require?
BL: Most repeaters require one inspection visit during the off season but during the winter some of them need to be visited regularly to remove rime (ice) from the solar panels to allow the batteries to recharge. With the Internet repeaters faster radios are coming out every few years so this summer we also went out to upgrade all of the radios that link the Bobbie Burns and Bugaboos to the Internet at Brisco.
TD: How does the power system for the repeaters work?
BL: The VHF and UHF repeaters are all solar powered with several batteries similar to the ones in your car. The Internet repeaters use solar power over 97% of the time but they also have propane Thermal Electric Generators, TEGs, as a backup in case the panels are covered in ice and for those weeks where it snows a lot during the day and they don’t see any direct sunlight through the clouds. The TEGs rely on a principal where a small electrical current can be created between two different types of metal if there is enough of a heat difference between the two metals. One side is heated by the propane flame while the other is exposed to the cool mountain air. The Bobbie Burns system ran on propane for 961 hours last winter during the dark stormy days of December and January.
TD: When did CMH start using the repeaters for internet as well as radio?
BL: Our first attempts were in the summer of 2006 to try and connect Valemount and later the Cariboos to a farm house that was close enough to the Town of Valemount to get ADSL service from Telus. Our Valemount lodge is farther than the 4.2km limit for ADSL service from the phone company’s central office in town. In 2009 we realized that we could no longer find parts for our old telephone repeaters for five of the areas so we spent most of the summer of 2010 combining the phone and Internet repeaters into a single site that brought both services to the lodge much more reliably than our early experiments.
TD: Are the internet telephone repeaters and the radio repeaters always in the same locations?
BL: No, we position the radio repeaters to provide good coverage to our ski tenures. This often means putting them up very high near the middle of the tenure. The Internet/telephone repeaters are placed wherever we can get a line of sight to the lodge and a location with good Internet and telephone service. We try to keep the Internet repeater sites as low as possible to reduce the electronics’ exposure to harsh mountain weather.
TD: How many repeaters does each area have?
BL: It varies from one to four.
TD: Anything else you'd like to add?
BL: We have three kinds of repeaters, VHF, UHF, and microwave. The VHF repeaters are the ones most familiar to our guests that allow the lodge to talk to the guides in the field when they are skiing in the outer reaches of our terrain. Most of our VHF repeaters have a set of UHF radios to allow one area to connect to a neighbouring lodge’s repeater to share information. If you activate all of the UHF repeaters together it forms a radio link over 400km long, the guides in the Cariboo Range up north can talk to guides as far south as CMH K2 and the Bugaboos.
Up until a few years ago, when we switched to telephone conference calls, this is how the guides in the different CMH Areas exchanged observations made in the field to give everyone as much information as possible about the snowpack.
The microwave repeaters are in separate locations and are used to connect our lodges to phone lines and the Internet at the fastest speeds possible regardless of how hard it is snowing.
CMH Heli-Skiing’s vast communication network is one of the many reasons that 70% of our skiers are return guests. For more information, contact CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252.
Renowned architect and mountaineer Philippe Delesalle, the visionary behind the design of the remote CMH Heli-Skiing lodges, has been awarded the 2011 Summit of Excellence Award at this year’s Banff Mountain Festival for his architectural innovations on remote buildings in the heavy snowfall and harsh conditions of the Canadian Rockies.
Philippe emigrated from France in 1951 and took work as a lumberjack, among other jobs, before attending architecture school at McGill University in Montreal. An interest in adventure introduced him to skiing and mountaineering, and while learning to ski and working as a lifty at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, he met Hans Gmoser, the founder of CMH Heli-Skiing. At the time, Hans was working at the remote Mt. Assiniboine Lodge, and would use the ski lifts at Sunshine to begin his 25km ski commute to work.
In 2006 I had the honor of interviewing Philippe while researching Bugaboo Dreams, the book that chronicles the invention of heliskiing. Philippe first met Hans while working at the Sunshine ski lift. During my interview, with misty eyes and a warm expression, Philippe recalled meeting Hans: “This tall guy, who looked like Jesus Christ with a big pack, would come out of no man’s land, ask for a lift, and then disappear back into no man’s land.”
Philippe became one of Hans’ closest friends and adventure partners, sharing epic trips to Mt. Logan in the Yukon, pioneering long-distance ski traverses in the Rockies, and countless adventures in Little Yoho and the Bow Valley near Banff. As Hans’ heliski invention took off, he recruited Philippe to design the remote heli-skiing lodges in the Bugaboos, Cariboos, Bobbie Burns and Adamants.
Philippe describes his philosophy behind his design of the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges simply as creating a place where skiers can “live above the snow, looking out at the mountains.”
Philippe also designed the Lodge at Sunshine Village, the Sapphire Col Hut near Rogers Pass, and the original remote and exposed Alpine Club of Canada huts on the Wapta Icefield. “The most difficult site presents opportunity for the most interesting buildings.” says Philippe. WIth such a vision, Philippe’s architectural mastery was a cornerstone in the entire epic project of remote wilderness heliskiing in Western Canada, and he has created a lasting legacy of functionality and beauty with the design of the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges.
The CMH Heli-Skiing lodges are far more than just hotels; there are no other buildings or infrastructure near the lodges, so they must be complete life support systems that can sustain dozens of people through the most violent storms imaginable and weather many decades of Canadian winters.
For veteran CMH heliskiers, the unique look of a CMH Heli-Skiing lodge out the helicopter window on the approach is both a warm and thrilling sight. For skiers and snowboarders new to CMH Heli-Skiing, the lodge is different than what most people would expect. Rather than overt luxury or imitation of famous ski destination architecture, the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges are like no other buildings anywhere, and Philippe designed them that way on purpose.
He explained, “When Hans said, ‘Build me a lodge.’ he knew I would not give him an Austrian lodge or a French lodge, but a Canadian one.”
At first glance, the rooflines of the CMH Heli-Skiing lodges appear to be overbuilt, but in fact it is an extremely successful design that Philippe introduced to Western Canada. The roof consists of two roofs, a snow-bearing roof and an inner roof separated by a well-ventilated crawl space. This allows the roof to hold the entire winter’s snowpack without shoveling (other than cutting off the occasional cornice that overhangs too far over the edge) because the inner roof can breathe and behave like a roof in a dry climate without ever seeing icing, condensation, or wear and tear from the outside elements.
Now 82 years old, Philippe still skis regularly with his wife Mireille near their home of the last 50 years in Canmore, Alberta. The Summit of Excellence Award is given annually at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival to an individual who has made significant contribution to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies.
Photo of the CMH Cariboos lodge by Topher Donahue.
The winter of 2010/2011 provided us with some of the best conditions we have ever seen at CMH. With the lack of a proper spring, it was a snowy start to the summer season. Luckily for us, the snow has melted away from most of our favorite hiking locations, and made for some spectacular scenery along the way. Sitting here halfway through August, ski season is far from most of our minds. But luckily for us, it seems as though mother nature is still thinking about last winter, and we can only hope that she brings it again! Here are five pictures that serve as left over evidence of a great heli-ski season.
A leftover cornice in the Bugaboos.
Think you could link some turns over there?
Some of our Summer Adventures guests snow sliding.
The Bugaboo Glacier looks ready for some turns at sunrise. Alright, Maybe not...
Still a good couple feet (10+) of snowpack on Groovy Ridge!