Why is BC the Epicentre of Powder Skiing?
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?