Anyone who’s spent a bit of time with CMH Heli-Skiing falls in love with the beyond-epic tree skiing in the Columbia Mountains of Interior British Columbia. Powder so deep and soft that you can’t even tell where the last storm stopped and the new storm began. Pillow drops so fluffy and forgiving that even timid powder skiers find themselves happily catching air. Old growth forests with massive trunks perfectly spaced to inspire rhythmic fall-line runs. It's that good.
But there’s a problem with tree skiing and those constant snowstorms: you sometimes don’t get to see the spectacular terrain you’re skiing through.
Unlike Heli-Skiing in treeless mountain ranges like those in Alaska where you can't Heli-Ski when its storming, in Canada the contrast provided by the trees allows pilots to see well-enough to fly even in moderately heavy snowfall. Sure, occasionally it snows too hard for them to fly safely, and when the pilot says it's snowing too hard to fly, we don't argue. Instead, we rough it in the spa until the weather improves. More often than not, the skilled Heli-Ski pilots we work with from Alpine Helicopters, and their reliable, well-maintained helicopters, keep us skiing while it snows.
Yeah, the tree skiing with CMH is as good as skiing gets, but sometimes I crave a sense of place. It’s hard to believe, but there are weeks at CMH when it snows the entire time, and we ski all day every day. At the end of such a week I'm tired, happy, and satisfied as a skier, but as a mountain lover I do sometimes wish the snow had stopped long enough to give us a look around.
Luckily, mountain weather is ever-changing, and during the average week with CMH Heli-Skiing there is a load of fresh snow as well as spectacular mountain vistas. The average week entails both full-throttle tree skiing as well as expansive alpine ripping.
I spent one week at CMH Monashees when it never did stop snowing (yeah, it was some of the most fun I've ever had with skis on), and another at CMH Galena where it snowed all but a few hours (not sure if my skis were on the ground or in the air half the time). One morning at Galena the clouds parted for a few timeless minutes and I shot the following panorama of the Galena ski terrain. While the epic skiing we did that week certainly lives in my memory, this view enhanced my experience there immeasurably:
So next time you’re skiing with CMH, and the weather starts out clear, savor it; you might spend the rest of the week deep in the hemlock, spruce and fir forests, choking on face shots and giggling madly, with hardly a glimpse of the vast mountain wonderland surrounding you.
Photo of deep powder tree skiing with CMH by Topher Donauhe.
Heli-Skiing made the front-page on CNN last weekend with a story about Heli-Ski exploration in Pakistan. The plot is irresistible. Brice Lequertier, an Everest veteran who has skied from the summit, leading a team of world-class snow riders on an exploratory Heli-Skiing expedition to Pakistan’s famed Karakoram Range, home to the highest concentration of 8000-metre peaks on earth:
We’re turning even the most severe environments in the world into a playground, and I guess the only limit to what a Heli-Skier can do is the altitude limit that a helicopter can fly and land safely. The sky isn’t the limit, but it’s close.
I cued up the video excitedly, ready for a new frontier of skiing, but I must admit, it isn’t what I expected. The journalist from Walkabout Films who narrates the story is enthusiastic and attractive, the mountains are beautiful, the filming is well done, and the scale of the mountains is mind-blowing, but for some reason the piece leaves something to be desired.
To begin with, the skiing shown in the video, while inarguably hardcore at extreme altitude, is hardly inspiring. The skiers and snowboarders, who I have no doubt are great riders, make easy terrain look really difficult.
Maybe it is the unusual high altitude snow that makes the skiers appear to be having difficulty making simple turns, or maybe it's the lack of oxygen in their legs, but for whatever reason it looks like a ski video from the world’s highest bunny hill.
Maybe it's the green army helicopter they use that made it all seem a bit more like a military exercise than having fun on skis and snowboards in the mountains.
Maybe it's just bad timing for snow quality, and at other times the region could deliver great powder skiing on the world’s highest mountains with the potential for insane vertical.
Maybe they're saving the sick footage for the feature film.
Whatever the reason, the video didn’t really make me want to book my next Heli-Ski vacation to the Karakoram; but it's still fun to see Heli-Skiing make the prime time.
Even with the prevalence of digital capture, it is only every once in a while that we see something entirely unprecedented.
Growing up in the mountains, I always felt like geologic change was real, but not the kind of thing that happened in human time. I was in awe of how glaciers grew and receded, carving the mountains into the seductive shapes that inspires us to learn to ski and climb; but I always believed that I wouldn’t live long enough to really see the changes.
How wrong I was! Just a decade of working with CMH Heli-Skiing has been enough to see dramatic changes in the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies. During the same time, geologic change seems to be accelerating in many parts of the world, and with the phenomenon reaching beyond the niche circles of skiers and mountaineers, people are aiming cameras and instruments at our planet in new ways.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this change being captured "on film" is the Chasing Ice project. By using time-lapse methods the team, led by photographer James Balog, set out to capture geologic change in a human time frame.
The results, starting with a National Geographic Magazine assignment in 2005, have received global attention. The project has continued, and with cameras trained on galciers all over the globe, perhaps it is not suprising that something extraordinary would be revealed. Recently, a team of photographers in Greenland captured something that defies all our previous assumptions about geologic change.
While shooting a tongue of glacier that has receded as much in the past ten years as in the previous 100, they stumbled into filming the largest glacier calving that has ever been captured on film. This is not a time-lapse, but instead a city-sized section of glacier falling into the sea in little over an hour:
This video clip is perhaps the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen on film. It is part of the film “Chasing Ice” which is showing in North America and the UK during 2013.
Thankfully, here at CMH Heli-Skiing, we still have a vast wonderland of safe and skiable glaciers positioned right next to epic tree skiing; but I gotta wonder; will my grandkids be able to ski these glaciers too?
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!
La Niña. El Niño. Whatever. It always sounded to me like a soundbite for the media more than a real predictor of local weather. Sure, the temperatures of the ocean currents surely have profound effects on the planet’s weather, but how much they affect things like snow quality for heli-skiers is is another thing entirely. Or so I thought.
I was always a cynic of long term weather forecasting. Then last winter happened. I don’t think I’ve had more face shots in a single winter in my entire life. Nearly every day was a powder day. And all the North American skiers I talked to - from Aspen, to Jackson Hole, to Banff to Revelstoke - had the same experience. By February, I found myself asking: “Now, was this a La Niña or an El Niño season? ‘Cause whatever this is, I want another one!”
Last winter, demonstrated in the above photo from CMH Gothics, was a strong La Niña, so this year when August rolled around and I heard La Niña was in the forecast, I started getting excited.
Curious about long range forecasts, I looked at the usual places. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates above normal precipitation and snowfall in parts of the Pacific Northwest (a good thing for heli-skiers), with equal chances for above or below average precipitation for the southern US Rockies of Colorado and Utah. For skiers interested in weather predictions, it’s worth checking out NOAA’s maps of precipitation and temperature. The map below is NOAA's the predicted precipitation for the USA this coming December through February:
For a more applicable insight into how much long term weather prediction can foecast ski quality, I looked up Joel Gratz, a skier and meteorologist who has combined his passions into one of the web’s most followed ski websites, Colorado Powder Forecast. He has an immense following, and his visionary approach is profiled here in Colorado's Denver Post.
I asked Joel straight up: How much can skiers rely on La Niña/El Niño to forecast skiing quality for an upcoming winter? For example, would you base purchasing a season pass or a ski trip based on La Niña?
Joel replied: “Weather is only one factor I look at when deciding to purchase a ski pass or plan a trip. Meteorologists can somewhat accurately predict snowfall patterns during seasons with a strong El Nino or La Nina. But this season features a weaker La Nina compared to 2010-2011, so confidence in a snowfall outlook for the winter is lower than last year. Ultimately, the quality of skiing comes down to each individual storm, which aren't predictable more than about a week ahead of time.”
Gratz wrote an article on La Niña for Skiing Magazine and, while he’s not a big fan of long term weather forecasting as it relates to ski quality either, he did make this general - and if you’re a skier, highly exciting - statement: “For North America, La Niña has some predictable consequences for snow during the winter: it snows a lot.”
To give heli-skiers some real information on the World’s Greatest Skiing, I sent Joel snowfall data for the Columbia Mountains near CMH Heliskiing areas going back as far as the 70s. From the reports, he looked at for Mica Creek weather station near CMH Monashees, he had this to say: “In short, it looks like La Niña signals at least average or well above average snowfall.”
That's saying something - average snowfall in the Columbia Mountains is utterly epic. His quick study agrees with Environment Canada’s predictions, visible above in their precipitation forecast map for this coming December and January, which puts CMH Heliskiing areas in the red and white zone for normal or above normal precipitation.
What about you? Is the La Niña forecast changing your winter plans?
The headlines make it sound pretty grim:
“Chile volcano ruins Argentina ski season”
A National Geographic photo collection shows the apocalyptic scenes following the June 5 eruption of the Puyehe volcano.
At Cerro Bayo, a ski area near Bariloche, a meter of ash was reported - ash skiing anyone?
The photos make it look pretty hopeless - grey, ash covered streets where pristine winter whiteness should be. Some ski areas have delayed opening indefinitely.
This YouTube clip shows a woman walking out of a café in Bariloche, one of the most famous ski areas in the southern hemisphere, into a blizzard of ash. She says: “I thought it was snow, but it appears to be some kind of sand storm. It’s four in the afternoon and it’s pretty much pitch black.”
The Epicski blogs hold depressing questions like: “Anybody have news on how much ash is being dumped on Las Lenas or Bariloche? I fear this season could be a bust. :( Can you ski Vancouver in July or August?“
Others are more optimistic, with skiers posting hopeful comments about the cloud-seeding effects of ash in the atmosphere and anecdotal evidence of big ski seasons following big volcanic eruptions – but nobody knows.
However, in this era of real-time on-location reporting from anyone with a camera and an internet connection, things are often worst than they appear. Las Leñas web cams show a perfectly white ski area. The slopes look a little bony in early season, but there is no sign of ash. The Cerro Catedral webcam, trained on the upper slopes of the resort above Bariloche, one of the worst ash hit areas, shows slopes that are covered with white goodness, albeit not enough to ski on just yet.
It is perhaps a stroke of luck for the Argentine ski industry that they have not yet received much snowfall this season so the ash fell on dry ground in many places rather than on the snow. Had the volcano erupted six weeks later, after the snowpack was in place, the ski season might have been truly ruined. My best guess is that new snow will fall over the ash and within a few big storms even the worst hit ski areas should be up and running.
Any CMH heliskiers on a ski trip in South America who can share more firsthand information?
“You should have been here yesterday!” We’ve all heard it. Sitting on the ski lift listening to somebody go on and on. For weeks now, the CMH Heli-Skiing crew has been talking about how good the snow is in the Columbia Mountains. This photo, taken recently by the CMH Bobbie Burns guides on the 1300-metre Super Duper, suggests skiing is about as good as it gets around there right now.
To get a little firsthand perspective, I tracked down Kevin Christakos, Manager of CMH McBride.
TD: So what makes the snow this season so special?
KC: We have been getting steady cold snow for the past 6 weeks. This has taken the snowpack from below average in December to above average in a relatively short time.
TD: Is there a way you can describe the consistency of the powder skiing in terms of the average conditions over the last month compared an average year?
KC: Much of these past storms have come from the NW and been associated with cold air so the snow has largely been the deep cold smoke we all dream about.
TD: What are the old-timers saying about this year?
KC: That's interesting you ask. Last week Pierre Lemire was guiding here with me and we had a good discussion about how this year compares to years in the past. Pierre has had his nose in the snow here for the past 40 years and was commenting that this winter was somewhat reminiscent of the early 70's where there were a couple of huge snow winters; and similar to this winter those too had a slower start.
TD: How does having exceptional conditions affect the CMH heliski program?
KC: It makes everyone's life better, makes us look younger and has a thinning effect on women.
TD: Sign me up. Any good stories about the skiing conditions lately?
KC: We were closed for a couple of weeks at McBride, and when we returned I checked our field weather station and there was 2 meters of settled new snow on our storm board. It took me a good 10 minutes to dig the board up. All the next week every time I'd step out of the helicopter the snow was up to my waist, it's a beautiful thing.
Next week I’ll be sticking my nose in the snow at CMH and will let the readers of the Heliski Blog know if the rumors are true! But if you've been out there already tell us here how the snow is stacking up! And if you haven't, what are you waiting for?!
With near-record cold frosting windows across North America, I decided to look into a few of the techniques we always hear about for keeping our fingers warm, and find out if they are methods that really work or if they are just urban myths.
1. Mittens are warmer than gloves.
Method. Keeping your fingers together rather than isolated makes a big difference. With today’s technologies, gloves work in surprisingly frigid conditions, but if you have a problem with circulation or get cold more easily than most, mittens are your best chance of staying warm – provided you don’t need the dexterity. Many experienced heliskiing guests use mittens because it doesn't take a lot of finger coordination to hang onto a ski pole and giggle.
2. Blowing on your fingers will warm them up.
Myth. While the warm, moist air from your breath will initially feel warm, the damp skin will quickly cool again and the moisture from your breath will make your fingers and gloves colder in the long run. A better method commonly used by mountaineers is to put your gloves somewhere warm, like inside your jacket, (it doesn’t help if your gloves are lying on the ground, filling with snow while you’re warming your hands) and put your hands against the warm, dry skin of your neck. Even better, be really, really nice to your adventure partner so they’ll let you put your hands up their shirt.
3. Put cayenne pepper inside your gloves.
Mythical method. This does stimulate circulation, but the trade off when you rub your eyes later in the day is hardly worth the slight increase in circulation. Putting chemical heat packs in your gloves works much better and doesn’t require first aid eye irrigation if you get your finger near your eye while adjusting your goggles.
4. Train your hands to stay warm.
Method. Drive to work without wearing gloves, throw a snowball or two with bare hands, and generally push your own comfort zone with the cold at times when you will easily be able to warm up again. Getting your hands used to the cold at home will make the cold in the mountains less shocking and more manageable.
5. Drink some schnapps.
Myth. While a sip of alcohol gives the sensation of warmth, in reality it cools your body overall because alcohol causes your blood vessels expand, bringing more blood to the surface where it cools before returning to your core. The dehydrating effects of alcohol compound the problem and the loss in coordination will be hardly worth the brief sensation of warmth.
Riding a ski lift can be a brutally cold experience. Put on your hood, stash your ski poles under a leg so you don’t have to hold them and pull your fingers into a fist before your hands get cold. Of course, if you’re heli-skiing with CMH, the ski lift has a heater with twin jet engines and you get to warm up between every run.
Early season can be a knuckle-biting time for heli-ski guides. With zero artificial snowmaking, and countless skiable acres, heliskiers need enough natural snowpack to cover jagged rocks, tangled fallen timber, and thick underbrush. This season, snowfall started slowly, but by all accounts the powder machine has installed itself over the Columbia Mountains and the white room is open for business.
CMH Galena: December 4, 2010. Photo by Mike Welch.
For a little firsthand glimpse of what it’s like out there, I tracked down Kevin Christakos, the manager of CMH McBride, John Mellis, manager of CMH Cariboos, and Jason Semenek from the CMH Banff Office who updates the multimedia for CMH online and is testing a couple of CMH webcams so we can see conditions for ourselves.
TD: Does it feel like heliskiing time out there in the high country?
KC: Ya, it always feels like time to go skiing when December hits. Today was a dark and snowy day in Golden, and it felt like the kind of day you want to be skiing in the trees.
TD: Do you still get excited about skiing this time of year?
KC: Ya, I wonder if that will ever change. By the end of November I'm usually on skis. Now I often start with nordic skiing. Our ski hill opened last Friday. I pulled my oldest boy out of school to go skiing with me. He was worried he'd get in trouble but I convinced him it would be okay - I guess if I'm convincing my kids to play hooky to go skiing with me that would classify me as keen.
TD: What was the snow like during guide training?
KC: When we started I was pretty much busting through to ground when I walked, but it snowed almost every day and by the end you could really feel the snow starting to settle as it had snowed about 50cms in total. Winter often comes on fast and it is amazing this time of the year how fast the skiing gets good once the snow tap gets turned on.
TD: Where and when is your first week of guiding this year?
KC: We'll be setting up in McBride right after New Year, and the first guests are all snowboarders so I’ll guide on a snowboard. I look forward to spending the week on the dark side…
TD: Since CMH doesn't make snow like a ski resort, how much snowfall does it
take to open a heliski area?
KC: How much snow you need on the ground depends a little on how dense and settled the snow is, but a good target would be 1-1.5 metres at treeline.
TD: How much snow is there at treeline now?
KC: What a coincidence. There are about 1-1.5 metres.
Writing from the CMH Cariboo Lodge on Friday, John Mellis gave me this update:
“It's been snowing for the last 30 hours. 25cm new at the lodge, 60 cm for total H.S. here. I haven't been up high yet. But I know winter really kicks in around tree line. It was an exceptionally wet, cold summer up here. The glaciers more than likely did quite well.”
Johnny is excited about the aftermath of a cool summer for good reason: The Cariboos contain some of the biggest glaciers in the Columbia Mountains. A cold, wet summer means crevasses will fill in more quickly so the glacier skiing there, and in the high alpine of the other CMH areas, could be setting up for the best season in many years.
Jason Semenek is currently testing the new CMH webcams, which are still being optimized for updates from the remote locations, and they can be viewed with the CMH Snow Report. Jason also updates the CMH slideshows and multimedia, which right now feature some choker powder photos from CMH Galena that are worth the visit - unless of course you'd rather not see how good the skiing is right now...
Australia just had its wettest September on record. Winter wheat prices are up 26% in the US due to a dry winter forecast for the Midwest. Argentina’s corn and soybean crops are suffering from drought. Rubber and rice prices in Southeast Asia are rising due to flood damage to crops and mines in recent months. What on earth, you may ask, does this have to do with heliskiing?
Two words: La Niña
This phenomenon of cooler than average waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean has far reaching impacts, and each of the above stories mentions La Niña as a factor. On the bright side, for those of us looking to ski or snowboard in the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada, the impacts might be just what the doctor ordered.
The media is abuzz with stories about what this might mean. Statistically, La Niña conditions produce above average precipitation and below average temperatures for the Pacific Northwest, with warmer and drier conditions in the Central Rockies and the Great Plains.
With ski towns from Crested Butte to Revelstoke humming with rumors of this winter being “The Big One” I had to track down a couple of snowfall experts to see what all this might mean for skiers.
First, I asked Karl Klassen of the Canadian Avalanche Centre what he has observed during La Niña winters. The CAC does not keep these kinds of records, but he shared this perspective: “It probably depends on the strength of the La Niña (which is shaping up to be the strongest in 50 years) and how and where the resultant systemic pattern establishes itself.”
To translate this into brah speak: “If you’re in the sweet spot, you’re gonna get puked on.”
Next, I talked to Uwe Gramann, a mountain weather guru based in British Columbia. Uwe worked for Environment Canada for 8 years before starting Mountain Weather Services, a consulting company that provides focused weather information to ski companies, snow professionals, and avalanche control clients.
While Uwe sounded confident about the statistical aspect of long-term weather predictions, he was quick to point out that the local reality can be quite different. “To put it in perspective, if you go buy an old car, statistically you can say it will be less reliable, but if you drive out of the car dealer and a hubcap falls off, a lot of other factors could have caused the problem.”
Uwe proceeded to point out another underlying problem with long-term weather predictions: Everything is based on a seasonal average, so a couple of singular events can tip the scales. “All it takes, to make it statistically a colder than average winter, is a cold front or two to tip the average.”
“From a statistical perspective,” explains Uwe, “We (southern British Columbia) are expecting a colder winter with higher precipitation.” He referred me to this map on the Environment Canada website showing a happy blob of higher than average precipitation right over the snowsport epicentre of the Columbia Mountains.
Uwe also pointed out that, earlier in the season, the long-term weather models (using different data than the La Niña/El Niño predictors) were suggesting a warmer and drier winter in southern British Columbia. However, in recent runs, the weather models have switched, and are now in agreement with the La Niña historical predictor of higher precipitation and lower temperatures.
Finally, making everything as clear as crud, last night I had dinner with a ski patroller, who recalled a presentation by a weather specialist who had looked into snowfall records from a specific ski area in Colorado and compared them to the La Niña/El Niño phenomena. As she explained it, about half of the big winters were La Niña, and about half of the big winters were El Niño. Also, about half of the weak winters were La Niña and about half of the weak winters were El Niño. Go figure.
So nobody can be sure what to expect, but statistically, if you don't plan a ski trip, it will never happen. So all things considered, including the overall trend of climate change causing unpredictable and severe weather, including record-breaking snowfalls, here's my advice: carve out some time to go heliskiing - if this is the epic winter of all time in British Columbia, you want to be part of it.
Choker conditions at CMH Monashees photo by Topher Donahue.