This morning I awoke to the season’s first snow dusting the high peaks of the Rockies. The view got me daydreaming about skiing, and I started looking through my photos of heliskiing in Canada with CMH for a bit of early season inspiration.
For some reason, each photo that caught my eye had something in common: the ski pole interacting with the powder snow. On further inspection, I realized that the ski pole is perhaps the least heroic aspect of ski imagery, but while heliskiing in deep Canadian powder, the interface between the ski pole and the snow is a sight to behold.
The snow is often so deep, that most experienced heliskiers prefer shorter poles than they would use at a ski resort. Here, you can see why – the pole might as well be 10cm long:
Good heliskiers lead with their poleplants, but don’t lean on them. This snow is so deep that if the skier leans on his ski pole it will sink to the point of face plant instead of a pole plant:
During a heli-assisted ski touring week in CMH Adamants, I shot an especially scenic run with a camera mounted on my chest and a remote trigger down my sleeve. The view past the ski pole of the Adamants splendor is the result:
At one point in each deep powder turn everything is moving except the ski pole; a momentary respite from the moving, flying, floating world of powder skiing:
This is one of those moments that defines heliskiing in Canada. When CMH Cariboos Manager John Mellis gets eaten by a snow mushroom he gets spit out on his feet and smiling…
Curious if you ski well enough to go heliskiing in Canada? You probably do, but give us a call at (800) 661-0252 to ease your mind.
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?
Starting this winter, every CMH guest will receive a radio to carry with them while they are skiing. After 46 winters of making safety the absolute priority at CMH, this standard-setting safety protocol is the natural next step in giving every skier the safest experience possible.
Like the avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, the radio should be viewed as an extremely serious part of the system that makes backcountry travel far safer. If your ski partner falls into a tree well, your ability to use the radio to call for help could save his or her life just as much as your ability to use the avalanche transceiver in case of an avalanche.
Although using the radio, the Motorola CP200, seems easy at first glance, in the past some skiers have struggled with using the radio when they needed it. Don’t be that guy. Pay attention in the safety briefing and using the radio will be super easy.
Experienced CMH guests will be familiar with the responsibility of carrying and using a radio. The guides and pilots use the same frequencies for the complicated logistics involved in orchestrating a day of heliskiing, so the radios are not to be used for unessential radio chatter.
DO NOT use the radio to say unnecessary things like:
“Bro, there’s some sick air to your left!”
USE the radio to communicate important things like:
“I just lost a ski, we’ll let you know when we find it.”
“I’m not sure which way to go.”
CMH uses two different carrying methods for the radio, a harness or a leash. Most experienced guests prefer to bring a jacket with a high chest pocket, and use a leash and clip provided with the radio to secure the radio to a zipper. At a cost of $400 each, losing or taking radios home should be avoided.
Each day, the guides will pass out the radios to their group in the morning, and then collect them in the evening to recharge for the next day.
This new safety protocol makes CMH one of the only heliski operators providing radios for every skier.
Information for this article was provided by Todd Guyn, CMH Mountain Safety Manager.
The only thing better than heliskiing with CMH would have to be heliskiing with CMH with an all-women ski group. From March 29 to April 3, 2012 CMH is going to do just that; a group of women will take over the CMH Gothics Lodge for Chicks in the Chopper, a week of deep powder skiing and unbridled fun.
The event was inspired by Victoria Reynolds who felt that women have so much fun heliskiing together that they deserve their own helicopter, guide, and slice of ski paradise. I tracked down Victoria to learn a little more about what it takes to join Chicks in the Chopper – besides the obvious.
TD: What kind of fitness is needed to join you for Chicks in the Chopper? For example, would you need to be able to ski all the way down a long black diamond run without stopping?
VR: A first time heli trip can be a bit intimidating for women, and men for that matter, but women tend to underestimate their ability where men tend to be over confident. No, you don’t need to be able to ski black diamond terrain without stopping. The guides re-group on every run so there is plenty of time to catch your breath.
TD: What kind of ski ability is needed? Do you need to be able to keep up with the fast skiers at a resort to keep up with Chicks in the Chopper?
VR: If you are an intermediate skier and can handle the back bowls of Vail, or similar moderate ski resort terrain, you are good to go. In March, CMH held a Women's Ski Day at Vail with one of the CMH ski guides, which was great fun. The skiers were varying abilities, some were past racers and other just recreational skiers, but they all were down at the bottom of the run together. Also, surprisingly, gravity and powder snow is a great equalizer, and even weaker skiers usually keep up better while heliskiing than at the resort where hardpacked terrain is conducive to strong skiers going extremely fast.
TD: What kind of connectivity is available at the lodges to stay in touch with family and work during the week?
VR: The Gothic's Lodge has wireless internet and also land line telephones to stay in touch. Because the lodge is so fantastically remote, cell phones will not pick up a signal – now that’s a vacation!
TD: What if someone doesn't want to ski all day every day? What else is there to do besides ski?
VR: No worries if you need some down time on the trip. You have opportunities to return to the lodge before lunch and the staff will have a great lunch prepared and you may have a nice glass of wine too. Though if you indulge you can't go back out and ski! You can curl up after lunch with a good book fireside or maybe indulge in a massage and a hot tub and spa session would relax the sore muscles. Cross-country skis and exercise room are always available as well.
TD: What about really good skiers? Will they be challenged?
VR: Confident and strong skiers can ski different lines with the guidance of the ski guide. We will have two groups so the guides can adjust the groups accordingly, and even within the same group the terrain is so diverse that there is ample opportunity to ski both mellow and challenging lines.
There are only a few spaces left on this one-of-a-kind women's heli-ski ski trip, so if you’re considering it, and have questions, check out our women specific FAQs or even better give us a call at (800) 661-0252.
Update (October 14, 2011): Chicks in the Chopper is currently sold out but we have just announced a Powder 101- The Intro for women only called "Girl's School". Call 1.800.661.0252 for details on this trip and other women's heli-ski trips with CMH.
A recent article in Conservation Northwest titled “Heli-skiing and mountain caribou” - while well-intended in it’s attempt to raise people’s awareness of the plight of the mountain caribou - is a sad example of the dangerous misunderstandings between conservation groups, recreationalists, and land managers.
The article begins with: “What recreational pursuit costs $2,300 per day, generates nearly 600 times the CO2 on a per/km basis as a Hummer, is subsidized by taxpayers, and scares the heck out of wildlife? No, it's not a recreational space flight or a flight to Antarctica… It's heli-skiing with Canadian Mountain Holidays!"
The article is a full frontal assault on heliskiing, with CMH Heliskiing as the scapegoat, but the good news is that it provided a perfect forum for Dave Butler, biologist and CMH’s Director of Sustainability, to explain how CMH not only avoids the endangered animals entirely, but also assists with the mountain caribou conservation efforts in the areas where CMH operates. One sentence of Dave’s response says it all, “scientists who have taken the time to understand both caribou and heli-skiing have recommended the approaches we are taking.”
Many CMH heliskiers can tell the same story of ski guides explaining how they monitor snowpack, avalanche areas, caribou and wildlife locations on a computer system called Snowbase, and how the guides view wildlife avoidance with the same seriousness as avalanche avoidance.
Dave’s response is posted here in clarification of what really goes on out there:
June 20, 2011
Conservation Northwest 1208 Bay Street, #201 Bellingham, Washington 98225
Attn: Mitch Friedman Executive Director
Dear Mr. Friedman,
It has recently been brought to our attention that our company is specifically referenced on your organization’s web-site. We reviewed the site, and quite frankly, are surprised and disappointed.
There are a number of key items which are worthy of comment:
- It is ironic and disappointing that you’ve focused on CMH when in fact we are the company that has been leading the helicopter and snow-cat skiing sector for many years in addressing the needs of mountain caribou (and other key species). We are the only company which has been directly involved in recovery efforts since the early days of those efforts, and the only company with a staff biologist/forester to help us focus on these efforts. Perhaps you’ve chosen us because we’re the largest, or because we’ve taken the time to actually get involved. But you’ve chosen to “pick on” the company which is pushing the hardest for dealing positively and effectively with this important issue, while some others in our sector and in other sectors (such as commercial snowmobile tours) are not involved at all.
- As background, CMH was founded nearly 50 years ago on the concept of stewardship. This equates to stewardship of our guests (through service and safety) but just as importantly, it means stewardship of the special places where we operate, and it means stewardship of the communities where we live, work and play. Those aren’t just words; we show people what we mean, every day and every year, through our actions.
- While it’s true that some scientists who don’t specialize in the interactions between caribou and heli-skiing have suggested some habitat closures, it is also true that other scientists who have taken the time to understand both caribou and heli-skiing have recommended the approaches we are taking and are working with us to ensure those are constantly improved. They understand that a static solution such as closures makes little scientific sense when dealing with two very dynamic systems (the movement of both caribou and heli-skiers across the landscape).
- We’ve worked very hard with biologists from our provincial Ministry of Environment and consulting wildlife biologists over many years to develop a range of practices, procedures and protocols to ensure that caribou (and other key wildlife species) are not displaced by our activities. These are constantly evolving, and your Joe Scott is well aware of these through his involvement in the provincial caribou recovery efforts. One of the things we at CMH have been actively promoting is the concept of a third party audit team which would monitor not only the implementation of the required procedures, but their efficacy. We hope that one or more representatives from the conservation community will play a role in such a team.
- While some may not want to believe it, the introduction and evolution of these practices has had a very dramatic effect on our business. I’m sure that’s the same for other heli- and snow-cat skiing businesses which are operating in a manner that is consistent with these practices. For example, we close ski terrain (and do not use it) if/when caribou are in the area and if they could be displaced by our presence. “Wildlife alerts” are placed on a larger number of runs where the relative potential for overlap with caribou is relatively higher than other runs. In these locations, our guides and pilots can only go there if animal absence is confirmed prior to doing so. This past winter, 44% of our run-days across the company (total # ski runs X total # days in operation) were affected by either wildlife closures or wildlife alerts. In 2009/10, 55.7% of our run-days were affected.
There are a number of factual errors on your web-site which do require a response. While they may simply be there for dramatic effect, we appreciate that you focus on science-based solutions (which we assume means using fact as opposed to opinion or purposeful misinformation):
- Your reference to the costs of our program, while irrelevant to the issue of mountain caribou, is inaccurate.
- I can’t speak to the CO2 emissions of a Hummer, or how that compares to our business. It’s a very strange attempt at a comparison. But I can tell you that we are the first (and to our knowledge only) heli-ski company to publish a regular public sustainability report. We’ve won provincial, national and international awards for our work. Among other things, the most recent report includes a break-down of our corporate GHG foot-print and our approaches to that issue. I don’t know of any other tourism company in BC that is doing that.
- You suggest that our activity is “subsidized by tax-payers.” This is simply untrue.
- You mention footage of animals running from aircraft. You should be aware that our own company protocols (and those developed by government) do not allow us to get that close to caribou; staff can be fired if they allow this to happen. And we do not undertake any form of purposeful over-flights or flight- seeing. So, if this is going on, it is not our guides or pilots involved. As an example, a writer/photographer from a prestigious natural history magazine recently asked us to fly near caribou so that they could get photographs. We refused to do this and suggested they get their images from the local highway, where animals can commonly be seen in the spring. We practice what we preach.
- Your final paragraph infers that we don’t care about caribou and we‘re not helping to protect the species. That is also not true.
Clearly, Mitch, you get to choose what appears on your web-site. We understand campaigns and how they work. What we ask of you is that you take the time to understand what it is we’re actually doing before taking us to task. We’re open to that. As a company, and as individuals, we take great pride in doing the right thing, leading the way and showing people what we do. Our track record on many fronts proves that this is not a meaningless facade; it is the way we do business.
Please accept this as our personal invitation to visit us so that you can learn what we’re actually doing. We understand this may not change your mind or approach, but it will allow you to proceed based on facts. Thanks for the opportunity to hear our concerns. I would be pleased to talk with you in person.
Dave Butler, RPF, RPBio.
Director of Sustainability
Photo of CMH Cariboos Lodge - one of the places we hope Mr. Friedman will visit to see what Canadian Mountain Holidays is really doing out there. More information on the issues facing the mountain caribou can be found here.
I’ve had the chance to accompany my camera to just about every CMH Heliski area, and of every shoot I’ve done, one day stands out in my memory as the single most amazing day of heliskiing that I’ve ever photographed.
It wasn’t the deepest snow or the most vertical, although the skiers did 15,000 metres and the snow was blower - but the combination of the perspectives I saw through the camera and the variety of places we skied made the day truly exceptional.
Cold Smoke - When we left the Bobbie Burns Lodge that morning it was -25 C - the warmest it had been in a week. The face shots were so cold they hurt:
The Heart of Ski Country - With the Purcell Mountains as the backdrop, I stood on top of a knife-edge ridge and photographed a group dropping into their first run of the day:
At Sea - The vast terrain of the Bobbie Burns, an ice fog in the air, and a 400mm lens make this skier look as if they are riding rolling waves in the open ocean rather than ripping down a mountain face:
The Bird’s Eye View - No, this photo was not taken from a helicopter. After dropping off the other skiers, the helicopter pilot left me on top of a nearly vertical face. With a long lens I was able to shoot straight down onto the skiers and the bouncy snow conditions made for a dynamic interaction between the skiers and the snow:
The Moment - We moved into the Selkirks for the afternoon, and a skier from Germany named Kai Laumann made everything look easy; making many perfect opportunities for the camera:
It was the kind of ski photographer’s day that ends with every lens packed with snow, the batteries low, the memory cards full, the legs tired and the mind whirling with a million moments of some of the most spectacular skiing on the planet.
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?
In the late 70's and early 80's Dick Barrymore, legendary ski movie maker, came to CMH and with Hans created some really great movies about heli-skiing. The movies, Heli-Skiing, Canadian Mountain Odyssey and Heli High, are a lot of fun to watch. The soundtracks are just classic. A mix of music right out of a John Ford western, a little disco thrown in and some early electronic for good measure. The movies have not been seen for along time outside of a few people at CMH. I thought it was high time they were "discovered" again. Over the next couple of months I will post segments of the movies here on the blog.
This post is from the movie "Heli-Skiing" (I wonder what it is about?). The opening 6 minutes gives a pretty good history of how Hans started out and the building of the Bugaboo Lodge.
Sit back and check out the history of this incredible sport. If you happen to be in any of these movies drop me a line...I would love to hear more history about how it all went down.
If you are chasing your 15 minutes of fame, join CMH Heli-Skiing and K2 Skis at the Monashees March 12-19, 2011 where we'll be filming the 62nd Warren Miller Entertainment ski movie. So, what are you waiting for? Dig out your old Bogner 1-piece and join the action!
There are few people in the world who can truly break down the complex world of deep powder skiing into manageable concepts. One of those is Roko Koell, the mind behind the CMH Powder Intro program, an Austrian Level 4 Ski Instructor, and former coach of the Austrian Women’s Downhill Team. I asked him about the most fundamental elements of skiing well in deep snow, regardless of skiing ability.
First, Roko explains that there are two stages to deep powder skiing, the first is a strenuous method he calls 4-wheel-drive skiing where you do not turn parallel, but rather force the turn with a snowplow or up-stem ski technique. This is how we all first learn to ski in the deep powder.
The second stage is more dynamic and seemingly difficult, but once you feel it powder skiing becomes physically much easier – eventually effortless. The interaction between your skis and the snow provide the power so your legs and the rest of your body can relax and enjoy the incomparable thrill of deep powder skiing; what Roko describes as, “The sensation of slow motion speed, the full-body experience of penetration and the exhilaration of weightlessness.”
To experience this second stage, Powder Nirvana, here are the seven crucial concepts:
1. The basic skiing movements are the same as for hard pack, or on-pisté skiing. The difference in deep powder is that there is no solid platform in the snow, so you have to build one with your skis. The solid platform has to be generated due to the fact that the skis float within a soft uneven and inconsistent mass of snow (causing resistance against skis, boots and lower legs). This makes the turning of the skis more challenging, requiring more assertive and prolonged turning movements.
2. Balance on both skis. Weighting both skis more equally and performing vertical up and down movement builds a solid platform underneath the feet within the soft mass of snow. From the platform we created during the compression, we can push off upwards and free the skis of the snow’s resistance and initiate the next turn at the point of near weightlessness - like a basketball player shooting a jump shot at the weightless apex of the jump.
3. Proper skiing speed is crucial. Not excessive speed, but "proper" speed - like riding a bike - that gives you both balance and momentum. This not only improves your balance but, even more importantly in powder skiing, this causes the skis to float up towards the snow surface, freeing the skis from the snow’s grasp which makes turning easier by reducing the snow’s resistance against your legs, boots and skis.
If you are not comfortable at proper speed in deep snow, you will not be able to build a solid platform and balance will be a continuously frustrating and physical exercise. You still can make it down in powder, but you will be limited to skiing using the strenuous 4-wheel-drive skiing techniques.
4. The timing is slightly different, a bit delayed, from the abrupt transitions of skiing on hardpack. Because your skis are penetrating down into the soft mass of snow and floating within it, you must ski with more patience within each turn and prolong those skiing movements you already have within your muscle memory.
5. You do not need to physically lean back in powder. When we lean back we tend to freeze our muscles, resulting in a rigid, strenuous position rather than flowing, athletic movement. Having said that, there is an exception. In very deep or very heavy snow a “slight and sensitive” backwards transfer of the weight helps to bring and keep the ski tips up.
6. Once you gain just a little experience and adjust to more equal weighting of both skis, a springboard will appear underneath your skis and give you a more solid platform. Now you are over the hump. Suddenly balancing becomes much easier and you can ski without hesitation and with dramatically improved confidence.
7. Finally, keep turning. Continuous turning provides the up and down motion and makes control possible. Skiing a series of linked turns will put you in control of your skiing speed in any terrain no matter how steep.
What kind of powder skier are you? Take it to the next level with a one-of-a-kind CMH powder skiing program. For the skier who wants to heli-ski but is afraid of the demands of heliskiing in powder, your dreams will come to life with a CMH Powder Intro. For the agressive, strong powder skier who wants to take it to the next level, check out the CMH Steep Week.
Photo of approaching Nirvana in the CMH Monashees by Topher Donahue.
Heliskiing is intimidating. Most skiers and snowboarders can do it, but until you’ve experienced it it’s intimidating for just about everyone. Everyone has questions about it. Some have questions about their own ability, some have questions about the logistics of the program, and then of course there are questions about the skiing itself. For the top 5 questions asked by heliskiers, I tracked down Natasha Wiebe, with CMH Reservations, who spends most of her time patiently and expertly answering these very questions.
1. How many runs per day and how long are they?
This depends largely on two things: snow conditions, and your skiing or riding endurance. Most days are spent skiing and snowboarding a dozen or more powder runs between 300- and 1200-metres long. With the helicopter and multiple guides to lead different skill levels, there are chances to rest or return to the Lodge so some guests ski significantly more than others.
But don’t be surprised if, even as a first-timer, you ski a lot more than you might expect. If you’re a strong intermediate skier, and you don’t mind a few fluffy tumbles while learning the bouncy rhythm of riding in powder, you end up skiing long runs with surprising ease. If you’re an expert, you’ll be in good company with our faster skiers and riders on our longer, steeper runs.
2. What will the snow be like?
Snow is always changing, but an average heliski day will be in snow deeper than your boot tops and often deeper than your waist. There are no grooming machines at CMH, and with up to 20 metres (or 65 feet) of annual snowfall, the base you are skiing on can be up to 5 metres deep.
It's not always perfect powder - wind, sun, temperature and time can conspire against us and create diabolical crusts, bulletproof hard pack, soupy slush (which can be really fun to ski too) and everything in between – but Interior British Columbia has the best odds for betting on deep powder skiing of anywhere in the world.
3. What happens on a down day?
Thanks to the great snow and ski terrain of the Columbia Mountains, and exceptional pilots with Alpine Helicopters, we average only half-a-day without skiing each week, so a lot of guests just rest, visit the spa, get a massage, dine, and appreciate a chance to recover and ski stronger the next day.
However, after 45 years of heli-skiing, we’ve passed a lot of days when it's dumping so hard the helicopter can’t fly, so we have cross-country skis and boots in every size, pool tables, exercise areas, weight rooms and climbing walls. On occasion, down days have been known to include broom hockey, snowball fights, and building kickers in the woods near the Lodge.
4. I am coming alone on this trip. Do you think this is ok?
Absolutely. Mountain sport is conducive to camaraderie. You won’t be alone for long. Most heliskiers leave after a week with CMH with more friends than they arrived with. Every week, we’ll have a mix of guests travelling alone, in groups and in couples. Quite often we have guests come alone for one week and meet a friend or their family for the next week.
5. What is there to do in our spare time at the Lodge?
Other than during down days when the helicopter can’t fly because of weather conditions, most guests find little spare time after the long days of memorable skiing, gourmet dining, and relaxation. Wireless Internet will let you connect - and the spa, dining room, bar, and the rest of the CMH heliski experience will let you disconnect.
Are you curious about the other quesitons our guests ask us about heliskiing? Check out the FAQ section of our website.
Photo of answering these questions the fun way at CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.