For the last three months, the CMH Heli-Skiing staff has been competing with the squirrels for who can be better prepared for the deep snows of Western Canadian winter.
For those of us who join CMH for the world-class powder and hospitality, it seems as though the lodges are stocked and ready for us as if by magic, so this year the staff made this video to capture the precision frenzy of preparing a CMH Heli-Skiing lodge for a winter of fun and pleasure.
Get Ready to Take Flight - Winter is Coming from CMH Heli-Skiing on Vimeo.
The mastermind behind stocking the lodges is Rick Carswell, who, with a small team, carefully inventories and stocks 40,000 pounds of non-perishable food and beverages into each lodge before the roads are drifted closed for the heart of Heli-Ski season. Perishable items are brought in to the remote lodges each week using a combination of helicopter and snow machine, but the fall stock provides the lion’s share of the calories that will fuel five months of turning deep powder dreams into reality.
Then there’s the 13,000 bottles of wine that are stocked to celebrate realizing those dreams...
Meanwhile, in the Alpine Helicopter’s hangar, the fleet of helicopters used by CMH Heli-Skiing is being tuned up for ski season and converted from fire fighting and flight-seeing machines into one of the world’s largest and most well-maintained fleets of Heli-Ski helicopters.
Ski and snowboard technicians are slapping bindings on the latest quiver of powder harvesting tools from K2, Atomic and Burton, guides are testing safety equipment and the lodge staff is putting the final touches on the comfortable rooms, luxurious spas, welcoming living areas and cozy lounges that so many CMH Heli-Skiers call, quite simply, “home”.
Photo of Gothics Lodge by Topher Donahue.
Two Belgian knee surgeons claim to have found a “new” ligament in the knee, called the Anterolateral Ligament(ALL) that could have great implications for the success of ACL reconstruction, one of the most common skier injuries.
After reading about the new ligament on BBC, I could hardly believe that something as large as a ligament could have escaped the eyes of great surgeons and MRI scans, so I called an old friend, skier, and knee guru, Dr. Gilbert Anderson, to get his perspective. “I’d be surprised if they found a new ligament,” he replied, “but what happens sometimes is they learn to break down a previously known structure into new parts.”
In 1879, a French surgeon named Paul Segond pointed out the potential of such a ligament, but it has been classified more as part of the neighboring Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL) rather than its own structure.
So new or not, here’s the exciting part for skiers: 10-20% of patients with ACL reconstructions do not recover fully. The hypothesis of the two Belgians, Dr. Claes and Professor Johan Bellemans, is that many people injure the ALL at the same time as the ACL, but that only the ACL is being properly repaired. Studying the ALL may give surgeons a better understanding of the damage that happens to the knee in ACL injuries, and potentially increase the recovery rate of patients.
But before you hammer those bump runs even harder, or ride that backseat even lower like in the photo above, thinking that ACL surgery just got better, the integration of this knowledge into clinical practice is a long ways off. While some surgeons are excited about the implications of the discovery, others made the point that it is entirely unknown if operating on the ALL would actually help ACL patients.
I know a few of you readers of the Heli-Ski Blog are orthopedic knee masters who also understand skiing – what do you knee gurus think?
Photo of ACL testing by Topher Donahue.
Want to find the nearest gas station, read reviews of a bottle of wine by scanning the bottle, or find someone buried in an avalanche?
There’s an app for that.
Turning a smartphone into an avalanche victim locator is a bold and innovative idea, and these three European companies are now marketing apps that they claim turns a smartphone into an avalanche rescue tool:
While the specifics differ in each app, they use WiFi or Bluetooth signals, and the idea is that two smartphones running the same app can be used to find each other. It's an exciting concept, however, the smartphone apps have serious shortcomings when it comes to being used as an avalanche transceiver, including:
- Battery life – International standards for avalanche transceivers require them to transmit over 200 hours. Smartphones hardly last a day, especially in the cold.
- Compatibility – These apps only work with another phone using exactly the same app while different brands of avalanche transceivers all work on the same frequency so different brands can find each other.
- Antenna – Modern transceivers use two antennas, smartphones only have one, making them less accurate.
- Reliability – Ever try to use your touch screen while wearing gloves in a snowstorm, or have your OS crash during a rescue?
- Harness – Smartphones do not have a harness designed to prevent being torn away during an avalanche.
But the biggest issue appears to be the signal itself – avalanche transceivers operate at 457kHz because it transmits very well through heavy snow, rocks and wood, and is extremely accurate. Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) Director Gilles Valade explains: “WiFi and Bluetooth signals are significantly weakened when passing through snow, and easily deflected by solid objects we expect to see in avalanche debris. And the accuracy of a GPS signal is nowhere near the precision required for finding an avalanche victim.”
The apps have been tested at distances around 40-metres and up to 2-metre burials, but the tests were done by the companies that make the apps, so the tests were likely conducted in optimal conditions. Unknown factors in their performance include a person lying over the phone, wet or dense snow, and objects in the snow interfering with the signal.
So the question remains: Is there a place for these apps? After reading through the websites of the three apps (interesting reading by the way), I tried to think of a scenario where the app may have a place. One possibility is the use described as appropriate on the iSis site: skiing deep powder in-bounds at a ski area. (To iSis' credit, they are the only one of these app makers that specifically says that the technology is not appropriate for use in the backcountry.) But then you'd need a friend who has the same app as well as a shovel and probe. Rescuing a person under avalanche debris if the rescuer does not have a shovel and probe is nearly impossible. And if you own a shovel and probe you’d better have a proper avalanche transceiver as well.
The CAC has posted a press release and a comprehensive paper on the app technology with the clear message that these apps are inadequate for avalanche rescue purposes, and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) has posted the paper on their website.
Besides the warnings from these respected professional organizations, the apps are getting a lot of bad press, and perhaps the mistake being made is in marketing more than technology. Rather than promoting them as technology that turns your smartphone into a reliable avalanche rescue tool, they should be promoted more in the way Todd Guyn, the Mountain Safety Manager at CMH Heli-Skiing, described his view of the apps: "It is an interesting concept of technology and possibly useful in an unplanned, unprepared avalanche rescue. Having said that, I like to have the right tool for the right job. If you are ill do you want to go to the doctor or do you want to pull out your app? In the end it is your life."
By the end of my research I came to the obvious conclusion that smartphones are not designed - at least not yet - to be used as avalanche rescue technology for backcountry use. You wouldn’t replace the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) on your boat or the smoke detector in your bedroom with a smartphone app, so don’t use a smartphone in place of an avalanche transceiver either.
Photo: Just because this avalanche transceiver is about the same size as your phone doesn't mean your phone can do the same job.
Everyone has a strategy for getting the most out of a powder day at a ski resort. Here are 10 time-tested tactics, ranging from the aggro to the zen:
1. First Chair: It takes a special kind of skier to get to the lift half an hour or more before the lifts open, and stand there stomping like an excited race horse trying to stay warm, in order to be the first skier on the lift. While there is immense prestige with being on the first lift, it has little bearing on how many freshies you’re going to get – to have the most fun on a powder day you need to study the following strategies no matter what chair you’re on.
#2. Local discount: Hooking up with a local is by far the best way to harvest the most pow. They know which runs tend to get skied first, where the secret lines are hiding, and how to beat the crowds. If you don’t know a local, listen carefully in the lift line. The locals are usually either talking loudly about their run selection strategy, or not saying anything at all. Then follow the one who’s not saying anything – they probably know best.
#3. Sloppy seconds: One of the best-kept secrets of the ski area powder day is that sloppy seconds are some of the best turns on the mountain. I’m not talking about skiing across somebody’s tracks; I’m talking about that point when the deep piles have been knocked down, creating a consistent surface that rides like carving the surface of a lemon meringue pie. Sure, the first lap or two in truly untouched snow is great, but after that, I’d rather have sloppy seconds on a sweet line than root around the flats for another turn or two in the fresh.
#4. All too obvious: If you can’t hook with a local, or find one to follow (or can’t keep up with the local you tried to follow), don’t ski the obvious runs. Everyone else will be there too. Instead, look for those obscure lines that require a traverse to reach, runs where you have to take your skis off and boot pack to reach, those black diamond runs hidden in the middle of mostly blue terrain. Watch for places where a number of tracks traverse off the side of the main runs – those tracks are probably from locals gettin’ the goods (Remember, though, you may get more than you bargained for by following those tracks!).
#5. Tree team: There’s always that guy or girl who jumps into the thickest trees on the very first run while even the main open runs are still untracked. To each their own, I suppose, but most of the tree team will hit the trees after the main lines are skied out. Poking around in the trees is a great way to find freshies long after the rest of the ski area is fully hammered, but it’s also a way to get suckered into lousy fall lines and slots where less skilled skiers and snowboarders have side-slipped through, removing the fluff. Explore the trees on a bluebird day so you know where to find the goods when the flakes are flying.
#6. Hey diddle diddle, straight down the middle: With the invention of the fat ski, anyone who’s an intermediate level skier can ride powder. This is great, but it means there are a lot more powder hounds on the hill than there used to be. I almost don’t want to tell you this one, since it makes me giggle every time I score on this, but quite often everyone thinks the middle of runs have already been skied, so they ski the edges, leaving large swaths of untouched snow right down the middle.
#7. IBOB - In Bounds Out of Bounds: While you may find some fresh snow here, this method will get you busted. Most ski areas have roped off areas within the ski area boundaries. On powder days, there are always a few people who decide it is worth getting their passes taken, or getting injured, so they duck the rope. Think about it: losing your lift ticket or season pass over a single run is more expensive than Heli-Skiing.
#8. Sidecountry/Slackcountry: Progressive ski areas with good backcountry terrain accessible nearby have installed gates where riders can leave the ski area legally. This is a fantastic evolution of our sport, but it also means skiers who leave the area need to realize they are entering the wilderness. The ski patrol does not usually do avalanche control or patrol outside the ski area (unless the slopes threaten the resort or roads) so you’re on your own. Avalanche and terrain assessment are essential, and remember that just having avalanche rescue gear does not mean you are safe.
#9. Patrol Beers: The whole mountain doesn’t always open immediately after a dump, but instead runs open in stages as the ski patrol determines it is safe to do so. In areas with the most rowdy terrain, the day after the powder day often results in the best skiing when the whole mountain is finally opened. It might be a good investment to take a six-pack to the patrol office, tell them you're new to the area, and ask nicely how they tend to open terrain after a storm. This can be more effective than jonesing in line for the first chair only to miss the main event when they open the backside hours later.
#10. Last Chair Larsen: This is the ultimate zen approach to the powder day. Named for a legendary ski bum, Last Chair Larsen would show up on a powder day for his first run – and catch the last chair; not just once but nearly every time it snowed. While many dozens of riders vie for the first chair, Last Chair Larsen was in a league of his own. At first, I thought he was missing the whole point of the powder day, but he seemed to be having at least as much fun as anyone else on the mountain – maybe it was those of us stressing out for fresh tracks who were missing the point…
PS. Go Heli-Skiing: If powder is your thing, take a lesson from Last Chair Larsen. Mellow out at the ski area and have fun no matter what time you arrive - then do whatever it takes to go Heli-Skiing. In an average week of Heli-Skiing with CMH you’ll rip more powder than a decade at a ski resort – and even though Heli-Skiing is expensive, from a dollar-per-powder-turn perspective it is the best deal going.
Any of you powder gurus have any other tactics you'd like to share? C'mon, we'd never use your own tactics to poach your line...
Photos of Man versus Machine at Alpental, Washington, and Man loving Machine at CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.
As ski technology has made skiing easier, the average speed of average skiers has also increased, especially on a powder day where the fat skis allow us to really get going - before we crash. Since force equals mass times acceleration, at whatever our ability, our fat, shaped skis and snowboards are allowing us all to go hurling down the mountain with more force than we used to have. While it sure is fun haulin’ tail through the fluffy stuff, the bottom line is that our increased force means that if we hit a tree, another skier, a snow machine, a lift tower, or get hit by another skier, it’s gonna hurt more.
Besides the simple physics, there’s the fact that modern skis allow more people to ski the powder, so on a powder day there will be more people charging for their slice of the pow harvest than there used to be (a great excuse to go Heli-Skiing). Snowboarders used to be, without a doubt, the fastest riders on the mountain. With modern skis, skiers are now rivaling snowboarders for speed.
Last year, most ski resort fatalities in Colorado happened on an intermediate groomed run after the skier or snowboarder lost control and hit a tree. This victim's average age is 37, is an experienced skier, and is wearing a helmet. According to an article in the Denver Post: “Those who died on Colorado slopes ranged from a local doctor to a snowboard instructor to a paraplegic using a sit ski. More than 80 percent were men. The youngest two were 11; the oldest, 73. Just more than 60 percent were out-of-state visitors.”
Considering the trends, here are 5 suggestions for making your time at the resort a safer experience:
- Ski good or eat wood? How about live to ski another day. Give the trees a wide berth when you’re skiing fast, and as the quest for freshies pushes you closer to the edge of the runs, slow down, way down - as in really slow - and enjoy the turns without redlining the adrenaline of powder skiing near the trees. Helmets are designed to protect you up to about a 19 kph (12mph) collision – most fatal accidents happen at 40-65 kph (25-40mph). For perspective, an ASTM study (an international standards organization) revealed that the average speed for a skier or snowboarder on a blue run, with good visibility, is 44.5 kph (27.6 mph) - plenty fast to render your helmet useless.
- Get out of the back seat. According to a study from the University of Vermont, skiers have the same statistical chance of getting an ACL injury as a college football player – or 365 times more likely than the rest of the population. Leaning back on your skis puts your ACL in a compromised position. Leaning forward doesn’t eliminate your chances of a knee injury, but it does put your knees in a stronger position, and allows you to react quicker. Besides, being centered or slightly forward on your skis will teach you to ski better than that old faithful backseat boogie. Here’s a detailed article on how to adjust your skiing habits to protect your ACL.
- Slow down at intersections, and don’t bag on snowboarders. Skiers love to say that snowboarders are more dangerous since they tend to look one way, creating what appears to be a blind spot on their backside turn. Statistics, however, tell a different story. According to a study done by the Rochester Institute of Technology, explained in this excelent article on ski safety, snowboarders are between 50% to 70% more likely to get injured (mostly wrist and upper body injuries), but they are about a third less likely to be killed on the slopes than skiers. Additionally, the study revealed that skiers are three times more likely to be involved in a collision than snowboarders. That said, snowboarders need to be aware of their blind side at all times, and beware of the trend that snowboard accidents are on the rise, while skiing accident rates are relatively flat. Both skiers and snowboarders need to heed that deceptive mistress of speed.
- Avoid crowds. Like a freeway, the ski hill tends to create bottlenecks and crowded zones. Choose runs that avoid these areas if possible, but when you must ski through these areas, make consistent turns in the fall line without stopping, give other skiers a wide berth and rotate you head frequently to see what’s happening in your blind spots – and yes, us skiers have blind spots too.
- Wear a helmet. No list of safety suggestions would be complete without suggesting that you should wear a helmet, but again, the statistics are surprising. While the number of skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets is increasing each year, with almost 70% of all snow riders helmeting up these days, the fatality rate has remained flat. This suggests that wearing a helmet is a good idea, but skiing in control at slower speeds is an even better idea; as the numbers show in tip # 1, if you hit a tree with your head at 40+ kph, your helmet will not save you. When you're near the trees or on a crowded slope, challenge yourself with technical lines and perfect technique rather than tongue-wagging speed.
On the bright side of snow riding statistics, skiing and snowboarding are no more dangerous than other active participation sports, and safer than some of them, so while you're out there on the slopes, don't forget the most important element of all: have fun!
Photo of Telluride, Colorado by Topher Donahue.
“It’s a thing of beauty.” Said Dave Cochrane, the manager of CMH Bugaboos, when I asked him what he thought about the new ski baskets that were installed on Alpine Helicopter’s fleet of Bell 212 helicopters in the last few years.
It may be hard to believe that something as dialed as the CMH Heli-Skiing system would need to change something as simple as the ski basket, but the story of the ski basket, like much of the Heli-Skiing story, is long and colorful. The heli-ski ski basket has gone through an evolution every bit as significant than the evolution in snowboard, ski and snow safety technology.
To begin with, the ever innovative ski guides and pilot Jim Davies attached to the skids a simple ski rack designed for an automobile, and strapped the the skis and poles to the rack with bungie cords. (Photo at right. Note the extra gas can strapped to the side of the helicopter - there were no fuel caches in those days.) While this method would never fly (so to speak) in the modern world of safety-obsessed Heli-Ski companies and oversight from Transport Canada that has to approve every detail of air transport, it was a workable solution in 1965.
After the car ski rack was retired, the first real ski basket turned out to have a serious safety flaw. They began using a basket built to fit the helicopter - but the basket had no lid. Jim Davies explained that they figured it would work fine because when they were lifting the group to the top, the airspeed and rotor wash would tend to pin the skis in the basket, and in those days nobody ever flew back to the lodge. Instead, they always skied to the bottom of the valley or to the lodge at the end of the day, so there were never skis in the basket while the helicopter was flying downwards.
Then one day a tired skier wanted to go in early. As the helicopter quickly lost eleveation, the skis were lifted out of the basket by the airflow, and flew through the rotor. The skis were chopped in half like a carrot hit by a machete, and the skis carved a dinner plate-sized chunk out of the rotor. The pilot, none other than the original Heli-Ski pilot Jim Davies, mustered his considerable skills and managed to land the wobbly and aerodynamically compromised machine safely at the lodge.
The next basket was built to handle the speed, power and safety of modern Heli-Skiing, and it served the industry well for decades - until we changed the dimensions of the tools we use to ride the pow.
Fat skis and snowboards came along, pushing the well-designed little basket to overflowing, and requiring the most recent basket design change (above) which accommodates our larger boards without sacrificing aerodynamics and weight. The new basket required years of design innovation and approval from Transport Canada, and each one costs upwards of $15,000. But it seems the new ski basket can handle the high standards of safety, equipment and efficiency that we’ve all come to expect from the modern world of CMH Heli-Skiing.
The early birds at CMH Heli-Skiing are the ski guides, who awake while the lodge is still quiet and dark to make plans for the day; checking weather reports, avalanche conditions, and determining the safest and best Heli-Skiing possible on that particular day.
For the guests, the ultimate ski vacation begins as it should – by getting you ready to ski. A bell rings and anyone who wants to feel good on the first run meets for a ski and snowboard specific stretch class in the exercise room.
Next, a buffet breakfast with everything from cereal and fruit to bacon and eggs gives everyone a chance to fuel up in the way they feel suits them best.
After breakfast, it is time to gear up, and the CMH boot rooms, equpped with boot and glove dryers, as well as plenty of space for everyone's equipment, make getting ready easy and efficient.
On the first day, everyone participates in the safety practice, where the guides teach everyone how to use the radios, avalanche safety equipment, and the ins and outs of how to stay safe while skiing deep powder in the mountains. After the first day, everyone is up to speed with the safety techniques, and we just get straight in the helicopter after breakfast and go skiing.
We meet at the heli-pad near the lodge. We stack our skis so the guide can easily load them, and when the helicopter lands we step aboard and fasten our seatbelts while the guide loads the skis in a ski basket attached to the outside of the helicopter.
Then we lift off for ski paradise.
The helicopter lands on a flagged landing area atop the first run, and we all get out while the guide unloads the skis. After the helicopter leaves, we put on our skis, and listen to the guides instructions for the first run. Then we ski our brains out.
After each run, we meet the helicopter at a landing area the bottom of the run and repeat again and again and again until lunch. Most days, lunch consists of sandwiches, tea, soup, cookies and other snacks delivered by a small helicopter, but on special occasions during good weather, mountaintop barbeques have been known to happen in the most spectacular locations imaginable.
After a fairly quick lunch, so we don’t get cold and stiff, we dig into more powder runs. Skiers and snowboarders who are tired after the morning usually have a chance to return to the lodge at lunch, as well as other times during the day. The logistics of some of the areas require that you stay out all day, but the guides will let you know this before the day begins. The lodges with the more aggressive riders and terrain are the most likely to have the fewest chances to return to the lodge, including the Bobbie Burns, Revelstoke, Galena, CMH/K2 and the Monashees.
When we’ve schralped so much pow that it’s hard to remember all the great runs, face shots, cushy airs, and fresh turns, we return for CMH après ski – an experience no snowrider should miss.
Then we gather in the dining room for a fine family-style dinner and many generous toasts to an unforgettable day of skiing and snowboarding.
Finally, we retire to our rooms - ranging from comfortable double rooms, to spacious single rooms, to deluxe chalets - for a well-earned sleep, dreaming of deep powder and endless freshies.
The best part? We wake up the next day and do it all over again!
Photos by Topher Donahue.
Interviewing CMH Bobbie Burns guide Marty Schaffer would probably be best done on a pair of skis with a recorder taped to a ski pole – Marty was skiing in his mother’s womb before he was born, and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, the only reason I caught him on a down day was because he was at his 62-year-old mother’s house helping her recover from an injury that she sustained after a jump went awry while powder skiing.
You read that right - Marty's 62-year-old mother is still going big.
I’d heard about Marty, equally comfortable on a pair of skis, a splitboard or a snowboard, and already a legend and a full ski guide at 26 years old. He was profiled on the spirited website, GetRadRevelstoke.com, where the stories of him growing up with parents who ran a backcountry lodge convinced me I had to track him down for a few more tales.
And tales he had to share. When he was 3 years old, his parents were digging out the door to the Blanket Glacier Chalet while Marty played in the snow nearby. After digging for a while, his mom suddenly asked, “Where’s Marty?”
A minute of panic ensued while they looked frantically for their son – and for good reason. They found him deep in a nearby tree well! They got him out without incident, but a treewell is the kind of trap that can kill even a strong adult without help.
With childhood imprints like treewells and backcountry lodges, it’s no wonder Marty pursues the twin pillars of mountain life, fun and safety, with almost religious fervor. “I was sort of tricked into becoming a guide,” explains Marty between chuckles. “When I was 13 or so, my dad would be guiding a ski tour with a few faster skiers, and I would take the faster guys and ski laps around the rest of the group. I didn’t even realize I was guiding. We were just skiing and having fun. I was just showing my friends the good stashes.”
Coming from such a rich background in the ski world, I had to ask Marty about the changes he’d seen. His first answer was the same one everyone gives: ski technology. Ski technology has made everything more fun.
His second answer was more surprising: “The average weekend warrior is skiing things the pros were skiing 10 years ago. Backcountry education is cool now. It’s cool to be prepared.”
Marty adds a cautionary tale at this point. During a recent freeride camp organized by Marty’s private guiding service, CAPOW!, Canadian Powder Guiding, he took a group skiing with ski pro Chris Rubens. They were skiing on mellow terrain on Rogers Pass, looking up at tantalizing extreme terrain, when Chris turned to the group, “If it were just Marty and me skiing here today, we’d be skiing exactly this same terrain. Conditions have to be perfect to ski that stuff.”
The moral of the story is that while average backcountry skiers push into more serious terrain, the ski pros don’t always ski more aggressively. “My ski pro friends are some of the most conservative skiers I know,” explained Marty.
The Blanket Glacier Chalet works in the same area as the CMH Revelstoke Heli-Ski operation. Marty remembers slogging up a skin track with his dad and seeing the Heli-Ski helicopter fly overhead. He remembers saying, “Dad, when I grow up I’m going to do that!”
He did just that. And working with CMH Heli-Skiing has proven to be more than he could have even imagined: “I still have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure it’s real! There’s a great mentorship program at CMH. Even as a full ski guide I learn stuff every week.”
Talking with Marty was entertaining, and revealing of the cutting edge of both recreational and professional skiing, but as it should be, talking with Marty mostly just made me want to go skiing.
Showing wisdom beyond his years, Marty concluded: “I’d like to think things haven’t changed too much. It’s all about fun and safety, the same as it was when Hans (Gmoser, the founder of CMH Heli-Skiing) was taking people ski touring in these mountains all those years ago. It’s not just about powder snow – it’s the whole thing.”
It was a painful interview for Marty. He could scarcely contain his enthusiasm. “It’s totally bluebird in Revelstoke and the stability is great! I can’t believe I’m inside!”
Photos: Marty checking the air for the pilot in CMH Bobbie Burns by Carl Trescher, Marty dressed up as a mountain guide with his dad's old gear for Halloween from the Schaffer family archives, and waiting in the lift line at CMH Bobbie Burns by Ryan Bavin.
Last night I heard a horrifying rumor about Heli-Skiing in British Columbia. One of the CMH Heli-Skiing staff was enjoying herself in the lithium-rich springs of the Halcyon Hot Springs Resort, the legendary springs where the CMH Nomads South program is based, and she heard someone say:
“I’ve heard that when Heli-Skiing the snow is so deep they simply lose people up there.”
Wow. I spent three years researching a book, Bugaboo Dreams, that tells the story of Heli-Skiing from its invention by CMH Heli-Skiing in the mid 60s through the state of the art today. In the process I interviewed dozens of guides, including competitors of CMH, attended guides training, and went through accident statistics with the president of CMH. I heard hundreds of stories, and never did I hear even a whisky-induced whisper of a skier getting lost in the deep snow.
It makes me think that people who have never been Heli-Skiing must have the most outrageous and inaccurate perception of what we do out there. One of the greatest unknowns is how skiers avoid getting lost in the fantastical tree skiing terrain of the Columbia Mountains that CMH Heli-Skiing calls home.
Well, here’s how it works:
The Track. When a ski goes through fresh powder snow, it leaves a really obvious track, so the guide leaves a pronounced trail all the way down the hill. Then the next skier leaves a track next to the guide's track. And so on. Stay close to the guide’s track, and it is virtually impossible to get lost.
Guide Instructions. When a run enters the trees, or the guide reaches a place where he or she plans to traverse or enter new terrain, they stop and give instructions.
For example: “The group ahead of us skied to our left, so I’m going to ski to the right of their tracks leaving space for you on my left. Stay to the left of my tracks. When we break out of the trees into a meadow, stay to the left to the heli pickup. Stay left of my tracks and you can't go wrong.”
The Buddy System. Early in the day, the guide asks everyone to pick a ski buddy to ski with in the trees. For the rest of the day everyone skis in teams of two, or sometimes three if there are odd numbers, while following the guide. The buddy system consists of five important aspects:
- Take turns going first - just because it’s really fun going first.
- The first skier leads the way, keeping an eye on the guide’s tracks and listening for the second skier.
- The second skier yodels, whistles, cheers, yelps, howls, sings, whoops, and makes noise frequently so the first skier can hear that everything is ok.
- If the first skier suddenly stops hearing the second skier. STOP IMMEDIATELY. If the first skier falls over, it should be obvious to the second skier...
- Most of the time, the other skier shows up and you both carry on down the hill. If the second skier doesn’t show up really soon, CALL ON THE RADIO for the other skiers in the group to watch for them. Usually, they have just fallen, and are searching for a ski or pole, and a little help from another skier can save a lot of waiting and exhausting work.
The buddy system is so important because tree wells are a very real danger in tree skiing; a hazard not unique to Heli-Skiing. Any backcountry areas or ski resorts with deep powder have tree well hazards, and using these techniques anytime while skiing deep powder in the trees is a good idea.
Tree wells form around trees, where the falling snow is pushed away from the trunk of the tree by its branches. The tree forms a hole in the snow called a tree well. If the snow is four metres deep, the tree well can also be four metres deep.
While deep powder skiing in the trees, be it in a resort, while ski touring, cat skiing or heli-skiing, change your technique around trees:
CMH Heli-Skiing guides
- Don’t stop right above a tree - It is easy to tip over while trying to stop, so stop with at least a couple of body lengths of space between you and the nearest tree in your fall line.
- Don’t turn right above a tree if you can help it - Often you can turn a little earlier, or wait a bit to turn below the tree, or go straight into a clearing, to avoid a hard turn directly above a tree.
- Take it easy - You’re going to get more powder turns than you can imagine in a day of Heli-Skiing. No need to squeeze in that last turn before a group of trees. Instead, give the trees a wide berth.
are almost uncanny at helping skiers in the trees and showing everyone a good time. We’ve skied in snow so deep that we step out of the helicopter and sink up to our armpits. Our areas see nearly 50 feet of snow each winter. We’ve skied when it’s snowing so hard that we ski back to the lodge rather than use the helicopter for the last flight, but we’ve never, ever, in 48 years of Heli-Skiing, had the snow so deep that we “simply lose people up there.”
Photo of tree buddies during an epic storm cycle at CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.
Next month, K2 athlete Collin Collins will be joining a group of CMH Heli-Skiers for four days of Steep Shots and Pillow Drops in the Selkirk Mountains south of Revelstoke. They will be based out of the CMH K2 Rotor Lodge in Nakusp and will be some of the fortunate few to help usher in the inaugual season of CMH K2.
Collin Collins is one of the new breed of skiers, park trained and backcountry savvy, with the cat-like ability to take his jibbing skills into the untouched wonderland of British Columbia’s most famed Heli-Ski terrain. To get an idea of what that combination is like, I tracked down Collin and this is what he had to say:
TD: It sounds like you're pretty good in the park. How do you apply those sorts of skills to the backcountry?
CC: Well, it's always a different scenario depending on the terrain I'm skiing, but I definitely love to bring tricks to natural features when the conditions are right, so I'm always looking for some nice cliffs and cornices, and longer lines where I can bring everything together; some good turns, steep shots, and air time! I grew up without a park, so I learned to ski the whole mountain and turn everything into my playground. I tend to build a lot of backcountry jumps too. It's really fun to learn new tricks and play in the park, but I've always loved skiing powder more than anything.
TD: How hard is it to stick a trick off of a soft lip in the backcountry as opposed to a hardpacked park edge?
CC: It's quite a bit more difficult, you don't have that firm takeoff to pop off, so setting a trick is usually much more challenging. You need to have some finesse and be light on your feet. And then landing in powder can be very tricky, you have to be strong. But the more you do it the easier it becomes.
TD: While heliskiing with CMH K2, what kind of features will you be looking for to throw down on?
CC: I'm super excited for the legendary deep powder and hopefully some big pillow lines. And as I mentioned, always looking for nice cliffs with steep landings.
TD: What are you looking forward to most about Heli-Skiing with CMH?
CC: Just stoked to explore new terrain and ski some deep powder. It should be a very unique experience with some cool new people. Getting rides in the heli is always a privilege, too, so I'm looking forward to that!
TD: How old are you?
TD: How long have you been skiing?
25 years or so. Pretty much my whole life.
TD: What is you home ski area?
CC: Sun Valley, Idaho
TD: Any advice for younger riders taking park skills into the backcountry?
CC: Just have fun! It's definitely not easy, but it's worth it, be ready to work hard and struggle a bit. I encourage kids to get out of the park more often and ski the whole mountain, it'll make you a much better skier. Skiing powder is the greatest thing on earth. Nothing beats stomping a trick into bottomless powder.
TD: Have you had any close calls out there?
CC: Not that I can think of; I've been pretty lucky out there so far.
Collin is sponsored by K2 Skis and Saga Outerwear, and will be ripping it up with CMH Heli-Skiing on January 3-7. A ski pro to inspire, CMH guides to mange safety and find the best lines, and you. I'm jealous already.
Photo of Collin surfacing for some fresh air by Alex O’Brien/K2 Skis.