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.
by Ken France
When we think about what the critical ingredients are for good heli-skiing, the obvious comes to mind: mountains, snow, and helicopters. A closer look shows it is not quite that simple.
Climate Climate is a good place to start. Latitudes that reliably support winter are required. B.C. has a maritime influence which brings ample precipitation to the mountainous regions. Coastal areas and upslope portions of the interior ranges get the most snowfall. These are the Coast Range and Caribou, Monashee, Selkirk, and Purcell Mountain Ranges. The latter four are known as the Interior Ranges and comprise the majority of the helicopter skiing in the world. Unlike the Coast Mountains, the Interior ranges are not as heavily influenced by warm maritime air coming off the Pacific Ocean, and consequently, dry powder snow (and lots of it) is the norm. Travelling east of these ranges, we head into the Rocky Mountains, which are drier because the majority of the moisture from Pacific storms has already fallen in the high ground to the west. This interior climate also has a determining impact on the vegetation and forest cover. For instance, the treeline elevation (the height above which no trees grow) in the interior wet belt is around 8,000’ (2,500m) and often the natural spacing of the trees in the forest is ideal for skiing. At the coast, treeline is around 6,000’ (1,800m), and tree spacing for skiing is often very prohibitive because of increased density. Latitude plays its part here too, with treeline lowering significantly as we travel from the 49th parallel to the northern reaches of the interior ranges at about 54 deg. N. Latitude.
So why do we want trees?
Heli-skiing in the Interior Ranges takes place between 3,000' and 11,000' (1,000m and 3,500m). Everything above treeline is white (snow or glacier) or black (rock) in color. Visual reference for both skiing and flying is non-existent above treeline on cloudy days and consequently, we can’t and don’t want to be there then.
The abundance of snow in these mountain ranges suggests that the weather is often cloudy, frequently ruling out access to “high ground.” Upper elevations (treeline and above) are also prone to wind and wind damaged snow with the regular passage of frontal systems and air mass changes. The terrain below ridge tops is much more protected, and here, snow falls straight down, leaving a thick blanket of deep powder. This terrain usually bottoms out well above the major river valleys of the towns and highways, so is generally protected from low elevation warm temperatures.
All aviators are aware that the higher we go in the air, the less dense the air gets. Things that fly like “thick” air; wings, propellers, and engines tend to get their best performance when the air is dense, cool, and dry. Helicopters live by these rules as flying at 6,000’ instead of 9,000’ dramatically increases performance. The flying penalties of the high mountainous regions of the USA and Himalayas make operations there less efficient, hence, B.C. works. In conjunction with these ideal operating conditions, B.C. has a staple fleet of appropriately sized helicopters for skiing operations because the mountainous terrain has brought them here for other summertime industries, generally in the resource sector. The equipment is well maintained and the pilots aptly trained for working in an environment they call home.
Heli-skiing in B.C. is nearly 50 yrs. old. After its inception in the late '60s, operators recognized the need for exclusive areas of operation. This need was not born of competition, but of safety concerns. Flying in narrow valleys in low visibility requires flawless communication between aircraft operating there; Guides choosing safe skiing terrain without competing pressure from other operations keeps the objective and its constraints at the forefront. These were the founding influences for creating a tenure system granting operators exclusive “rights” to non-competing commercial backcountry recreation within their tenures. The forest industry’s incursion into many of the valleys we use has given us access for storing fuel close to our primary operations, and openings in the forest for helicopter pick-ups and landings. The system has worked well, and today there are over 30 companies providing helicopter and snowcat skiing operations throughout the province.
Having a land base with very few people and numerous mountain ranges was also critical to the usage capability we see today.
So, there we have it. The place that we call home has all the perfect ingredients for the World's Greatest Skiing. Is this the year you'll come and try it?