You don’t meet more excited 27-year-olds than Daniel Riley. Maybe he’s excited because of his first Heli-Skiing trip. Maybe he’s excited because Vail received enough snow to re-open after closing for the season. Maybe he is excited because he survived a bomb exploding under his feet in Afghanistan, leaving him with no legs, three fewer fingers, and shrapnel scattered throughout his body.
“My heart is about the only thing that didn’t get hit.” says Daniel, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Daniel is one of 1600 American soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees. To say it changed his life is obvious, but how it changed his life is exceptional: losing his legs turned Daniel into an athlete.
Daniel skied a couple of times before his injury, but says he wasn’t a skier. Mono-skiing is now Daniels passion and since his injury in 2010 he’s pursued surfing, cycling, running, swimming, and skiing, has competed in triathlons and has plans to try rock climbing. I met Daniel for coffee in Boulder, Colorado, where everyone and their grandma is an athlete. When I asked him what sports he pursued before the injury, he just shrugged and said, “Not any, really.”
Within the first minute of meeting Daniel told me proudly that he’d skied over 50 days this winter, the highlight being a trip to CMH Gothics. While talking about the six months in the operating room and his 30-some surgeries he said: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even count the number of surgeries I’ve had. The number of days I’ve been skiing is a much more important statistic.”
So how did Daniel go from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, to months in the operating room, to intense rehab, to the slopes of Vail, to what he calls “the pinnacle of skiing” – a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing in interior British Columbia?
The answer is Vail Veterans, a sponsor-funded organization started in 2004 by Cheryl Jensen (whose husband, Bill, was President of Vail Resorts) and David Rozelle, Professor of Military Science at the University of Colorado. The program began on a whim, when Cheryl and David decided to host a few injured veterans at Vail. The therapeutic effects of skiing were obvious and Vail Veterans was born.
During therapy, Daniel was given the opportunity to join Vail Veterans. With nothing to lose, he gave it a try. On his first day, using a sit ski, he remembers: “I was falling down every six feet – I wasn’t really getting it. But by the third day they had to drag me off the mountain.”
A few months later, Daniel had another chance to ski Vail - this time in fresh powder. "That's what really got me," he said, before happily sharing footage of his first powder day - complete with spectacular GoPro wipeout footage:
His close friend Chris Fesmire, who discovered skiing with Vail Veterans a few years before Daneil and went heli-skiing with Daniel's group, explains in sobering terms how skiing has helped him: "The Vail Veterans program saved my life. Without mono-skiing I'd be dead in a gutter."
Skiing the Gothics was full circle for Daniel, who was born in British Columbia and moved to the United States as a teenager. In the Gothics Daniel met one of the CMH staff from the same small town on Vancouver Island where Daniel grew up. Like so many others realize about CMH Heli-Skiing, Daniel said, “It’s not just about the skiing – it’s also the lodge, the people, the whole experience.”
Daniel is now a board member of Vail Veterans, and they could have no more committed fan of the program. He concluded, “The program changed my life for the better. Now I want to do that for the next guy.”
Photos of Daniel catching air at CMH Gothics, celebrating life with fellow wounded warriors, and considering life's potential with Chris Fesmire courtesy of Daniel Riley/Vail Veterans.
After a season of unbelievable skiing and riding and awesome snowfall, we're itching for a summer of great climbing, hiking and via-feratte-ing in the Columbia Mountains of western Canada. But before we get to all that, let's take a moment to reflect on the great ski photos our guides, guests and staff submitted from the CMH Heli-Skiing 2011/12 season.
We've compiled a full on-line gallery of ski images to amuse you, but wanted to single out a few of the more spectacular images from the past heli-ski season to keep your dreams alive until the snow flies this coming fall.
Skiers and riders at CMH Monashees reveled in the fresh powder all winter long:
The Bobbie Burns team had epic skiing conditions this winter and both Bruce Howatt and Carl Tresher shared their perspectives on the Bobbie Burns Facebook page (if you're not a fan, you should be!)
Further south in the Bugaboos, the birthplace of Heli-Skiing, our 407 pilot, Alex Edwards, used his keen eye to capture the great skiing there:
This is how CMH Galena began their season in mid-December, 2011:
The team down at CMH Kootenay played host to the K2 Skis design team and hosted 3 demo sessions in March with CMH guests skiing on protype skis and providing feedback to the designers:
How about you? We'd love it if you share your best skiing photos from the past season on our Facebook page. We've been known to randomly mail gifts to people who post photos on our page. Wink, wink.
This is a guest post by Stephanie Wong, CMH's Mountain Operations Assistant.
Before I started working for CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures, I would never have dreamed I would be able to go heli-boarding. Alas, my dreams have come true! A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days at the famous Bugaboo Lodge. Being a female snowboarder, you can imagine that I had some anxiety about fitting in with the rest of the guests at the lodge. Even though I’ve been snowboarding for over 10 years and I head out to the ski hills every day I have off (unfortunately I’ve got the goggle tan to prove it), I was still unsure about how I would be received by the other guests. Before even getting to the lodge, I had butterflies in my stomach and thoughts whirling around inside my head – “Would I hold up the groups? Will there be a lot of walking and traversing? Should I bring collapsible poles?” I felt like I was in heading to my first day of high school all over again! Luckily I was driving up to the lodge with another staff member (Mike Morton) who helped to ease my fears. Not only that, but on the way to the lodge we were driving in a blizzard! Nothing calms your fears like the excitement and anticipation of getting some face shots and pow turns!
Fortunately, my excitement and anticipation were fully rewarded - the first day of skiing was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. It had snowed about 30-40cm the night before, leaving us with fresh blankets of that glorious white fluffy stuff – once I got out of the helicopter my instincts just kicked in and all my fears and butterflies evaporated. Not only that, I was riding with Brodie, an old friend who also happens to work with me in the Banff office. Having a buddy there definitely elevates the fun level!
Back at the lodge, I realized that my childish fears of not fitting in were unfounded. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming – eager to hear about what I do with the Mountain Operations team at the CMH head office. I didn’t feel one step out of place the entire time that I was at the lodge. I even learned a great new game called Perudo and met some fantastic people. It eventually became evident to me that it’s not about what we are at home or what we do for a career, but it’s about the love of skiing that brings us all together. Once you strap on your skis or snowboard, everything else in the world just seems to fade away.
A big thank you to all the Bugaboo staff – thanks for showing me what CMH is really about! Good times, great friends and awesome riding! Can’t wait for next year!
Photo: Steph (in red) sharing a smile with friends new and old in the Bugaboos!
I talked to a professional snowboarder last week who said that the conditions in the Columbia Mountains were creating the deepest snow he had ever ridden - then it snowed for the next week straight...
Over the last 2 weeks, the Columbia Mountains’ snow machine has dumped nearly two metres of low-density snow at treeline in the CMH Heli-Skiing tenures.
Shooting photos in these conditions resulted in some exceptional images of the deep powder heliskiing experience, some of which I shared last week, but some of the best face shot photos have yet to see the light of day. It seems only fitting that the loyal readers of the Heli-Ski Blog should see them first.
This first shot shows CMH Galena guide Bernie Wiatzka, the ski guide with by far the most experience at the tree skiing paradise of Galena, doing what he does best - disappearing in a cloud of cold, white smoke.
It snowed between 10cm and 30cm every night, and the CMH Galena Lodge was as fascinating in these conditions as the skiing itself:
While much of the time, the snow was so deep that it was impossible to tell if the CMH Heli-Skiing guests were on skis or snowboards, occasionally everything would ride to the surface and the deep powder travel tool of choice would be revealed:
Conditions were ideal for big air, and the CMH guides were in good form suggesting the best pillow drops, not to mention the mandatory air on some of the runs. Here, the co-owner of The Source snowboard shop demonstrates one method of choking on a mushroom:
The CMH Ski Guides wear bright orange jackets to make them easier to follow, but in these conditions much of the time they were nearly invisible in a cloud of snow. Luckily, CMH Ski Guides, one shown here up to his earlobes in low-density powder, are exceptionally good at giving directions and nobody had any issues following them down run after run of the deepest snow imaginable:
Even the Bell 212 helicopter, known to be the safest helicopter ever made, seemed to enjoy the mind-blowing storm cycle:
Yesterday, the CMH Heli-Skiing area's snow reports showed up to half a metre of new snow over the last 24 hours - on top of what you see here. If you haven't booked a heli-ski trip yet this year, call your boss, your partner, and CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252. Not necessarily in that order!
There is no better way to put the World’s Greatest Skiing in perspective than through the eyes and words of the world’s greatest ski and snowboard athletes. Recently, Gretchen Bleiler, one of the world’s most accomplished snowboarders, and Tyler Ceccanti, a ski star in the most recent Warren Miller film, “Like There’s No Tomorrow” both tasted CMH Heli-Skiing and, like many of us, rank heliskiing in Canada with CMH among their favourite moments in the snow.
Tyler was interviewed by Stephanie Stricklen of KGW Portland and, between clips of him ripping jaw-dropping pillow lines at CMH Monashees, he had this to say about heli-skiing with CMH: “The best ski runs I’ve ever had in my life.”
Gretchen was interviewed by National Geographic for their “Ultimate Adventure Bucket List 2012.” She chose CMH Galena as her "must-do" experience, and summarized heli-skiing in Canada with CMH simply: “Amazing terrain, amazing snow, and totally experienced, safe and fun guides and staff. And the food is delicious - need I say more?”
Great athletes have been part of the fabric of CMH ever since CMH invented heli-skiing in the 60s. Jim McConkey, the father of legendary extreme skier Shane McConkey, was on some of the original exploratory ski missions into the Columbia Mountains with Hans Gmoser in the early 60s that inspired the birth of heliskiing.
Ever since then, a long line of ski and snowboard superstars have visited CMH. Sometimes, it is it in the line of duty during a film project, but more often a visit to CMH for the world’s ski elite is not so different from the reasons the rest of us go to CMH: for a week in ski paradise far from the pressures of the rest of our lives.
And amongst the super-athletes, it’s not just the skiers and snowboarders who find CMH Heli-Skiing to be an incomparable experience. Martina Navratilova, the tennis superstar, went heli-skiing at CMH Galena, and at the end of one particularly spectacular run she turned to her guide and said: “I’d have given up tennis ten years earlier if I had known about this!”
Booking day for the 2013 Heli-Ski Season at CMH is November 17. To assure yourself a spot on the prime weeks, call 1.800.661.0252
Heliskiing. Helicopter-skiing. Heli-skiing. Heli-snowboarding. Helicopter snowboarding. Heli-boarding. I did a Google search for each of these words, and the result was different for each one. Sure, there were a few of the same sites that popped up, but most of them were entirely different.
It’s nobody’s fault, but the idiosyncrasies of the online search engine has made the differences between these different ways of saying the same thing seem greater than they really are.
Whatever you call deep snow nirvana, the commerce-based optimization of search engines changes everything. A Google search of one of the above descriptives of our sport takes you to a bunch of YouTube clips, another takes you to a list of ski guide services, and yet another takes you to definitions of the word itself.
Consider, by contrast, the real human conversations that happen around the 3-dimensional area-map tables in many of the CMH Lodges after a day of deep powder perfection:
“That was choker powder!”
I did a Google search for "choker powder" and was taken to a bunch of powder-pink necklaces.
“How about those pillow drops!”
The Google search for "pillow drops" took me to a page of padded chairs, a couple of skiing video links, and a conference centre in South Africa.
“I’ve never had so many face shots in my life!”
Entering "face shots" took me to mostly skiing links, but also a few portrait photography links and one site touting a game where you shoot people in the face. Great.
"Sweet lines" gave me a list of pickup lines to try on chicks. I knew better than to search for "deep penetration". "Big air" took me to an inflatable fun centre in Florida.
The wonderful thing is that while the descriptive of our game has changed, the lovely, fluffy, pristine, white world where we play hasn’t changed since Hans and Leo first took people skiing with a helicopter ski lift in1965.
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.
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?
According to the foresters of Parks Canada there are three life zones in the Columbia Mountains: “Rainforest, Snowforest, and No Forest."
These life zones are where CMH Heliskiing happens
. Mountain guides and heliskiers divide the mountains a little differently, but the differences are largely semantics. However you break it down, the wildly different life zones of the Columbia Mountains are fundamentally connected to the kind of terrain you’ll encounter on a heliskiing or helicopter snowboarding vacation.
Mountain guides break it down into Below Treeline, Treeline, and Alpine. Each zone has features that appeal to both beginner and expert powder skiers. Here is a photographic and descriptive tour of what skiers of differing ability levels can expect from each zone:
Alpine: The original inspiration for heliskiing. It’s all about stunning views, big vertical, leaving tracks on gorgeous peaks and oceans of snow, and skiing past glaciers and massive mountain walls of snow and rock. On a summit to valley run at CMH, the alpine is usually a 500- to 1500-metre elevation band.
- Beginner Powder Skiers will enjoy the freedom to turn wherever they want, without the pressure of trees or terrain features.
- Expert Powder Skiers will enjoy the high speed carving on steeper unbroken faces.
Treeline: Quentessential Canadian heliskiing terrain. You get both views into the alpine, and technical tree skiing features like wind rolls and snow mushrooms - and the most massive snowpack in an already snowy region. On a summit to valley run at CMH, treeline is usually a 200- to 400-metre elevation band.
- Powder skiers and snowboarders of all abilities will enjoy the diversity and beauty of the treeline zone. Even within the safety limits of staying near the guide’s tracks, experts can ride over the jumps, drops and steeps formed by the tree islands and moraines, and beginner powder skiers and snowboarders can ride the lines of least resistance.
Below Treeline: This is where the new school of heliskiing goes off. When the CMH guides began exploring the steep tree runs of the Monashees, they stumbled onto one of mankind’s most amazing contrivances: floating effortlessly downward through a steep forest with snow pouring around every millimetre of your body - with a helicopter to take you up for another round. On a summit to valley run at CMH, the Below Treeline zone is usually a 500- to 1500-metre elevation band.
- Beginner Powder Skiers would be wise to choose an area with tree skiing that is suitable for weaker skiers. The Cariboos, Bugaboos, Kootenay, Adamants, and Revelstoke have a plethora of tree skiing terrain that is great for weaker tree skiers.
- Expert powder skiers and snowboarders will need no introduction to know that charging the deep powder through an old growth rainforest with CMH is pretty much as good as life gets. Rippers will be happy at any CMH area, but the Monashees, Gothics, Cariboos, Revelstoke, Bobbie Burns, Galena and Kootenay are legendary for aggressive tree skiing.
Check out the rest of the most frequently asked questions about heliskiing.
Yeah, statistically there are more days of deep powder skiing in the middle of winter, but statistics don’t measure fun. If you ask me, the most FUN time of the year to go heliskiing with CMH is in the spring.
Why is that? Let my camera count the ways:
1. Surprise dumps from convective showers make the sweetest powder days. Even at times when the storm cycles are not hitting the CMH areas, the convective showers that are caused by daytime heating pumping moisture into the atmosphere will frequently dump 20 to 50 cm of snow. The above shot shows what convective showers can do for snowboarding with CMH in April.
2. Lunchtime in the spring is pure PLEASURE. In the middle of winter, lunchtime is about seeing how well you can eat a sandwich with your gloves on, and finding that delicate balance of drinking enough hot tea to keep your toes warm without spending the afternoon relieving yourself in the woods on every run. In the springtime, lunches with CMH are casual affairs with amazing people in the most spectacular places.
3. The light on the snow. Of course for some skiers, heliskiing with CMH is all about tree skiing in the darkest, deepest forests in Western Canada. And while such tree skiing is indeed epic, the light in the alpine in the springtime is a phenomenon to behold. These north facing moraines in the above photo see no sun until late March, when they light up with an almost inner glow. Add 50 cm of convective fluff to the equation and the experience is incomparable.
4. Speed. Yup, you can ride faster in the spring. Friendly snow, big alpine features, and generous runouts allow skiers and snowboarders to pull out all the stops. While the winter snow can give the sensation of speed, it doesn’t hold a candle to high speed riding in the springtime when you can open the throttle all the way and rip past some of the most scenic mountain terrain on the planet.
5. You can ride ALL of our terrain. In the winter, you are often limited to the trees, while in the spring you can frequently ski from the summits, down the big alpine, and finish the run with a long tree shot to the valley bottom.
6. Aprés ski looks better in the spring. In the winter, you enjoy the aprés ski wearing your long underwear in front of the fireplace. In the spring, you can roll up your short sleeves and step outside. The generous decks around the CMH lodges transform from chilly places where only the smokers hang out, to the most scenic, friendly, and intimate après ski venue the ski world has to offer.
April 30 is the last day of the CMH Early Booking Incentive! Book next year’s trip today and save up to $700.
After John Entwistle’s heartbreaker April Fools joke - where he lured us in with promises of the “Best Heliski Photos. Ever.” and then left us with perhaps the least inspiring collection of skiing pictures ever published - I had to balance things out and put together these five face shots from the winter of 2010/2011 in honor of just how sweet it really is riding deep powder with CMH Heliskiing.
In the process of making these five ski photos I lost and cracked lenses, filled my camera with snow a hundred times, and took a thousand lousy pictures - but I'm not complaining.
Blower Equals: 10 weeks of almost non-stop snow, and then a bluebird day in CMH Gothics.
Powder Eyes: After a hundred faceshots at -20C, this is what a smile looks like.
The Ghost Grab: The kind of helicopter snowboarding where the difference between a face shot on the ground and a face shot in the air is immaterial.
The Ghost Pole Plant: The kind of powder skiing face shot where the pole plant becomes immaterial.
The Cariboos-Flavoured Face Shot: Does life get any better than this?
Any heliskiers or snowboarders out there have a good story to share about the powder manna of the 2010/2011 CMH Ski Season? About how many face shots you got in a row? About how deep it really was?