I’ve been waiting for weeks to post this. I came across this photo in June, at the peak (hopefully) of a horrendous wildfire season in the US.
Waldo Canyon and High Park, the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, were both raging, consuming over 600 homes between the two of them. New Mexico’s Whitewater-Baldy fire had taken the dubious honor of being the largest fire in the state’s history. Utah, Wyoming and California were all doing battle with fires.
It seemed most respectful to wait until those unbelievably destructive fires were under control before talking about them on a blog dedicated to having unbelievable amounts of fun in the mountains.
It’s a screenshot of a CNN photo of a Bell 212 helicopter and pilot from Alpine Helicopters fighting fires in California in June. After seeing Alpine machines flying above glaciers, between billowing white clouds, over heavily snow-ladden forests, and under huge granite walls, it was somewhat shocking to see the familiar red and white machine hovering above a massive wall of flame.
Alpine Helicopters has been a reliable partner for CMH Heli-Skiing for decades, and now supports all the CMH Heli-Skiing locations in the vast Columbia Mountains ski paradise around Revelstoke. Some heli-ski pilots take the summer off, but many have families to support, or simply enjoy flying, and spend much of their summer fighting fires in the US and Canada.
The pilot and engineer often commute together, in their helicopter, from the Alpine Hangar in Kelowna, BC, to wherever they are needed for firefighting. An Alpine pilot told me once, “Smoke and Jet-A smell good to a pilot”.
I’d guess the Alpine boys got enough of whiffs of jet fuel and pine smoke so far this summer to last them through a winter of fresh air, gourmet food, and powder snow with CMH.
Heliskiing photo from CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.
Since the early 70s, the reliable twin-engine Bell 212 has been the steadfast workhorse of CMH Heli-Skiing. The smaller but powerful and fast Bell 407 is used for private heli-skiing and small group heli-skiing, and the lighter and efficient Bell 206 “Long Ranger” is used as a support helicopter alongside the 212 for our Signature Heliskiing programs.
With the same helicopter designs powering skiers for over 40 years, a common question our guests ask our skilled team of pilots from Alpine Helicopters, is “Are there new helicopter designs in the works that would be good for heliskiing?”
The pilots all seem to give a similar answer - so far, there isn’t a good replacement, especially for the Bell 212. The combination of the reliability, lifting capacity, and suitability for mountain flying make the 212 an ideal machine for most of CMH Heli-skiing’s regular operations.
Then, the other day I came across a BBC article about new designs for a helicopter that included the Large Civil Tilt Rotor (LCTR). The LCTR looks more like an airplane than a helicopter, but the oversized propellers rotate, allowing the aircraft to take off and land like a helicopter, but then rotate to fly like a propeller plane once airborne. The LCTR would fly much faster than a traditional helicopter, hitting 300 knots cruising speed.
Another design by Sikorsky called the X2 has a more traditional helicopter-like shape, but can hit speeds of 250 knots and is a more suitable size for heliskiing than the LCTR. The X2 uses two main rotors that spin in opposite directions, and a tail rotor that points backwards. The design allows much faster speeds by eliminating a helicopter specific flight phenomenon called “retreating blade stall” where the rotor moving forward is traveling faster than the rotor on the other side of the aircraft that is traveling backwards.
Retreating blade stall creates a situation where the two rotors do not provide the same lift. This is not a problem at slow speeds, as the rotors are designed to shift with each rotation, tilting at a slightly different angle when the blade is moving forward than it is when moving backward. At higher speeds, beyond about 200 knots, these changes of rotor angle are not adequate to compensate for the difference in lift by either rotor.
The X2 allows for not only greater speeds, but also a quieter ride and better fuel efficiency. However, before all you footage-fiends out there, who love nothing more than a 15,000+ metre day of heli-skiing, go jump on your Stairmasters to get ready for even bigger, epic-er days with faster helicopters, there’s a catch.
I tracked down Matt Conant, the legendary Galena pilot and rippin’ skier, and asked him what he thought of these new designs. Here’s what he had to say:
“Perhaps your blog should start, ‘No school like the old school.’ There are very few aircraft new or old that can effectively replace the Bell 212. Most new helicopters are geared toward the corporate or air ambulance market. As a heliski pilot I have no use for a aircraft that will cruise at 250 knots. I spent most of my flying day climbing at 60 knots. Although a more efficient, equally safe and more environmentally friendly way of ‘getting to the top’ would be welcome, For now we're happily stuck with the ‘old school.’
Photos of Matt's Bell 212 on the left, and the Bell 206 support helicopter on the right, at CMH Galena during an epic storm cycle by Topher Donahue.
I just finished reading Chic Scott’s “Deep Powder and Steep Rock, The Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser.” The book holds a particular fascination for me because the events surrounding the last years of Hans’ life had drawn me into the web of his life and his legacy as the inventor of heli-skiing and perhaps the most influential figure in the history North American mountain guiding.
At the time of Hans’ death in 2006, I was working on a book, with Hans as my advisor, telling the story of Canadian Mountain Holidays and the invention of helicopter skiing. Hans agreed to support my writing of the book largely, I suspect, because I wanted to combine the stories of the other people involved in the project into a version of the story that would give voice to people besides Hans in the exciting evolution he and his friends had pioneered in the sport of skiing.
When Hans passed away, for a time I felt that the entire weight of telling the story of his incredible life had suddenly fallen on my shoulders. A short time later, Hans’ widow, Margaret, asked Chic Scott to pen Hans’ biography. The news was a relief to me because now I could focus on the story Hans had wanted me to tell, while Chic, a seasoned historian, was the perfect man for the job of writing Hans' biography.
In the aftermath of Hans’ death, Chic and I sat down for dinner and made a plan. Rather than competitors, I had the strong feeling that we were collaborators in sharing Hans’ story with the world. Chic told me that he planned to focus 90% of his book on Hans’ life outside of CMH, and 10% on the heliskiing aspect of his story, and my plan was to focus 90% of my book (Bugaboo Dreams) on the heliskiing story and 10% on the rest of Hans’ life.
Chic’s book, Deep Powder and Steep Rock, digs into the earliest days of Hans escaping to the mountains of Austria for reprieve from the dark days of WWII, his emmigration to Canada, and his rise as one of the most influential mountain guides in history. The book also offers a compelling look at the development of the outdoor industry over the last 60 years.
Written as a classical biography, Deep Powder and Steep Rock chronicles Hans’ life in an accurate and matter-of-fact prose that reveals much of the complex character of Hans Gmoser. Even Hans’ closest friends will find Chic’s book delves into little-known aspects of Hans’ life.
For aficionados of mountain heroes and heli-skiing, Deep Powder and Steep Rock is a must read and includes three of Hans Gmoser's original films in DVD format.
If there is any critique to be leveled at the book, it is similar to the critique I would level at my own book, Bugaboo Dreams: Neither book brings together the entirety of Hans’ life. Bugaboo Dreams leaves much to be desired in revealing the life of Hans Gmoser, while Deep Powder and Steep Rock covers the colourful world of Han’s most dramatic contribution, heli-skiing, with academic simplicity. A great project for a future writer?
Well, the last helicopter landed last Saturday, calling an end to the 2011/2012 CMH heli-ski season. As sad as that may be, it does mean that we have time to reflect on the season, and go through loads of fantastic pictures that we recieved. For this blog post, I thought I would create a tribute to the machines that make it all possible: the helicopters.
1. This picture was taken in February up at the Bugaboos. Photographer Alex Edwards is our support helicopter pilot, and managed to snap this mid-flight picture from a nearby ridge.
2. In my opinion, there are two situations where I am ok that a helicopter is not flying. The first being when it is dark, because I need my beauty sleep so that I can get out and ski the next day. The second would be when it is snowing so hard that you can be guaranteed that once you do get back in the air, the skiing is going to be beyond epic. This picture by Topher Donahue shows just how much early snow Galena can get.
3.The Bell 407 is the sports car of helicopters. This picture shows it in action, and I like it. Going to pick up the next group of small group heli-skiers in Kootenay.
4. Wait a second... Oh. I see what I did here...
5. And for the last picture, I will put up a picture that I took. Because I can. This is also the best view of any helicopter- because if you are looking at one like this, it is coming to pick you up for your next run. Giddy up at CMH Galena!
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!
Watching the events unfolding in Egypt recently made my own obsessions and little victories feel insignificant – but it also made me look into the nooks and crannies around me where the people’s voice is heard. The will of the human spirit is staggering. Even something as obscure and hedonistic as heliskiing was due to the adventurous spirit of North American skiers, not because some investor decided to create a heliski business.
While writing Bugaboo Dreams, the book that tells the story of Canadian Mountain Holidays and the invention of heliskiing, I was struck by a common thread throughout the now 46-year history of the sport: the skiers were the inspiration.
The first big change was in the early 60s, at MIT, when the first American Olympic ski racer, Brooks Dodge, approached CMH founder Hans Gmoser after a slideshow promoting Hans' ski touring business. Brooks was enamoured with the idea of using a helicopter for a ski lift in some remote, snowy mountains like those of Western Canada. Hans wasn’t crazy about the idea. Being a mountain guide, the complications of taking people skiing by helicopter must have been daunting.
But Brooks made Hans an offer he couldn’t refuse. Brooks would bring enough skiers to pay for the helicopter to leave the ground - and if it didn’t work out Hans could keep the money. Needless to say, it worked.
The second big change was when CMH opened the Cariboo Lodge in the early seventies. From the short sighted perspective of modern business, it would have been more profitable to expand the Bugaboo Lodge and pack more customers into the already established area – but the people wouldn’t have been as happy.
People wanted to go heliskiing because it landed them squarely in a vast expanse of wilderness with easy access to a nearly limitless supply of untouched powder snow. Hans knew that bringing more people into the Bugaboos would have reduced the quality of the experience for the people who mattered most – his guests. So instead of expanding the Bugaboos he built a lodge 300-kilometres to the north in the Cariboos.
The third big change was in the mid-eighties when a French ski guide named Ary Dedet suggested that skiing in small, private groups would be worth the additional expense. Again, if the decision had been made from a purely profit-based perspective, Ary would have been denied. Why not open another full-sized lodge to bring in more people?
Instead, the decision to try Private Group Heliskiing was based on the dreamy concept of skiing, dining and living for a week with just you and a few close friends - and a helicopter at your service – in some of the most epic ski mountains and snowpack on the planet. CMH opened Valemount and then McBride to cater to this more intimate heliskiing experience and the result remains one of the most popular CMH trips.
More recently, CMH introduced Small Group Heliskiing for the most addicted powder fiends, Powder Intro because intermediate skiers wanted to learn to ski the legendary powder of the Columbia Mountains, Nomads because skiers asked about skiing in more than one CMH area during the same trip, and Family Trips because veteran heliskiers wanted to share the magical experience with their families.
However - just like in a country where the people want change - there are the twin limitations of safety and sustainability. What the future of heliskiing holds is largely based on these two limitations balanced against the desires of the skiers and snowboarders who have shaped Canadian Mountain Holidays for nearly half a century.
Considering these all-powerful limitations of safety and sustainability, what do you want heliskiing to be like in another decade?
CMH archive photo of the birth of heliskiing, Bugaboos, April 1965. And a snowboarder ripping steep terrain in the Bobbie Burns, March 2008.
We’d been heliskiing with CMH Revelstoke all day long deep in the Monashee Range of the Columbia Mountains. The day was winding down, everyone was a little tired, our clothes were a little damp from equal parts sweat and powder snow, and the already low winter sun had just dropped below a cloud band when we heard on the radio that the helicopter had been forced to return to Revelstoke for a repair.
Although it appeared that the buttery-smooth world of CMH heliskiing had just come to a grinding halt - it was really just revving up.
The ski guides reassured us that we would not have to wait long for another helicopter, but that we should keep moving to stay warm. At the end of the day, in the heart of Canadian winter, the cold moves quickly into a tired body. One of the guides built a fire and some skiers huddled around it for warmth. Some of us with a little more energy to spare sidestepped up the hill and made a few more powder turns to keep the blood flowing.
It was hard not to imagine worst-case scenarios and the group good-naturedly shared our inner fears.
“Do you think we’ll have to stay out all night?” one skier asked.
“Do you think they’ll bill us for the extra vertical of sidestepping up the hill?” another joked.
“Where are they going to get an extra helicopter?” a third asked.
It didn’t take long for the skiers with extra energy to tire from sidestepping, and everyone snuggled around the fire while CMH went into evacuation mode. Surprisingly, evacuation mode while heliskiing with CMH also included a 1000-metre powder run.
Using the smaller jet ranger support helicopter, four or five skiers at a time were shuttled to a ridge high above the valley where the group was stranded. There, the first skiers would wait until the rest of their group and the guide arrived. Once a full group was gathered on the ridge, they put their skis on and dropped into a huge bowl that drained towards Revelstoke.
I was part of the last group to fly out, and by the time we began the final ski run, the familiar rhythm of a Bell 212 echoed out of the clouds below. Since Alpine Helicopters keeps a backup 212 always ready for CMH in Revelstoke, the delay had cost us about an hour and we still enjoyed a final ski run – and a really good one at that.
We shredded the town-sized bowl before traversing right to a long ridge dotted with trees and filled with over-the-head powder that disappeared into the mist rising from the Columbia Valley below.
We waited no more than 10 minutes at the bottom of the run before the backup 212 returned for the last group. On the ride out, I marveled at the system that is CMH Heliskiing.
Without the extra 212 stationed in Revelstoke, a helicopter repair could shut down a day of skiing. With the extra 212, and three other CMH Lodges - the Gothics, Adamants, and Monashees - operating nearby, there are multiple layers of support in case of a real emergency, and very little lost skiing in case of a minor mechanical delay.
The other CMH areas have backup as well, with the Cariboos, McBride, and Valemount watching each other’s backs to the north, and the Bugaboos, Bobbie Burns, Kootenay and Galena ready to help out in the south. No other heliski operation in the world has this kind of backup.
For example, another time when a weather delay left multiple groups in danger of being benighted far from the Bobbie Burns Lodge, the helicopter from the nearby Bugaboos was recruited to join the Bobbie Burns helicopter in shuttling skiers home; and turned a potentially desperate night of shivering into a quick flight back to the lodge for a gourmet meal, a massage, a few stories in the hot tub, and a deep sleep in a warm bed.
Heliskiing with CMH is sort of like flying with a reliable airline. If one plane has technical issues, another can take its place almost seamlessly. If a delay causes you to miss a flight, it is usually not a long wait until the next one. But unlike a big airline, CMH will not leave you in the woods if you’re a minute late to the pickup!
You heliskiers out there, do you have any stories of the CMH safety net working for you?
Photo of the CMH system at work in Revelstoke by Topher Donahue.
The last Heliski Blog entry is an atmospheric video of Alpine heliski helicopters in action in the Columbia Mountains at CMH Gothics. To compliment it, here are my five favourite photos that capture the most thrilling and versatile ski lift in the world.
#1 Pilots Like Face Shots Too – More than one heliski pilot has told me that this is one of the things they love about transporting heliskiers. Flying through snow flurries in the beautiful valleys of the Columbia Mountains:
#2 Bugaboos Ship and an Ocean of Summits – A Bell 212 in the Bugaboos juxtaposed against endless mountains is a view familiar to every heliskier, but few photos capture the iconic heliski moment:
#3 Adamants Mountain Machine – Nobody steps off a chairlift or gondola, and then stares in awe as the lift goes back down the mountain. When the helicopter leaves, like here in the Adamants, every heliskier’s eye is on the machine and even the guide waits until the impressive spectacle is over to give directions and prepare skiers for the run ahead:
#4 Helicopter Emerges from Gothics Clouds – When the helicopter pops through the swirling clouds in front of you, while you’re in the middle of ripping 1200-metres of powder in the Gothics, even the most stoic heliskiers stop to laugh, point, sigh, giggle, and be thankful for the opportunity to experience the unique thrill of heliskiing:
#5 Bobbie Burns Lunch – THIS is heliskiing. Sitting down to lunch after a 10,000-metre morning in the Bobbie Burns. Cool sunshine, big terrain and deep snow provided by the Columbia Mountains; hot tea, nourishing soup, gourmet sandwiches, and irresistible cookies provided by the Bell 206:
The helicopter element of the CMH heliski program is fascinating. On your next heliski vacation, check out the complicated logistics orchestrated between the pilots, guides and lodge that makes your ski trip of a lifetime as seamless, safe and fun as possible.
Photos by Topher Donahue
If you have been to the new Warren Miller movie Wintervention or have gone to one of the CMH promo events going on across the globe, you have seen some fantastic film footage of CMH.
I brought a 1TB hard drive to Warren Miller last week and came home with about 600GB of all the footage that was shot in the Gothics...I was blown away by all the footage that I had not seen yet.
The footage that was shot with the cineflex is so fantastic. I put together a quick video of just flying around in the helicopter. The skiing at CMH is incredible but so is flying around in the helicopter! The team at Alpine Helicopters are the best in the business.
I hope you enjoy.
Anyone who has been heliskiing with CMH knows there are two seats in the helicopter that are always taken: the pilot’s and the guide’s seats. Nobody questions the pilot’s choice, but why does the guide always get the best views?
To find out what goes on up there, I asked Peter Macpherson, the assistant area manager of CMH Bugaboos. Here’s what he revealed about the coveted front seat:
Why do we ride shotgun? Primarily sitting up front is for safety. It allows you to gain a lot of information about recent avalanche activity, not only on the run you are skiing, but also the adjacent runs and even whole creek drainages.
You can view the hazards on the ski line, like crevasses and cliffs, just minutes before skiing it.
Also, if there is an accident, the guide up front can get an aerial overview of the site or the injured skier’s exact location and then radio pertinent information to the guides on the ground and the pilot.
Second to safety is skiing quality. You get a relatively unobstructed view of the run from the air. You can loosely assess skiing quality by getting a look at the snow surfaces. You can determine if there is a lot of wind affected snow and sun crusts, as well as how soft it may look. Skiing all winter on the same terrain gives you a good eye for these subtle changes.
You can also determine which lines have been skied by other groups, adjust accordingly, and take your group to a fresh line or a line that best suits your group’s ability. It provides an opportunity to have an overview of the run and the all-important pick up.
While lead guiding (each day, one guide is designated lead guide) I make a great number of decisions from the front seat. Particularly, if weather and snow conditions are changing or if we're skiing in an area that we have not been to recently. Many times lead guides will decide to ski, or not to ski, a run based on what they have observed from the air.
You can’t learn everything from the air however. Decisions made from the air are generally macro terrain decisions where as on the ground they are micro terrain decisions. For example, I may choose the ski line from the air, but while on the ground I may ultimately ski around certain features on the intended ski line.
With the pilot, all experienced heliski pilots from Alpine Helicopters, we mostly talk about the logistics of the day. Things like flying conditions, landings that will work with which loads, pick ups that will work with which loads, which runs are going to be skied, fuel flights, and how the other guides and groups are doing.
Then there is also the “office water cooler” conversations that occur between people who work together a great deal: sports, music, politics, gossip - the usual.
Because you get in and out of the helicopter 8-15 times a day, you learn things about other guides. How do they wear their seatbelts? Who needs to turn the headset to max volume to hear and who is deafened by max volume? Who drinks water during the day and who does not?
Sitting up front holds a great deal of responsibility, but it is perhaps the best seat in the house.
Photo at the "water cooler" in CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.