Heli-skiing big vertical: Wisdom after 14 million feet
The most falls I've ever seen heli-skiing happened when we were all tired from a day of great skiing, but one of the guests was chasing some number of vertical feet and needed one more run. The guide judged it safe, with plenty of daylight, to do another run and soon we found ourselves in a spectacular couloir. The problem was that an old avalanche had left the couloir dotted with icy blobs frozen to the surface under a blanket of powder. Even the guide didn't know they were there. It was impossible to see the ice blobs, but when you ran into one it was as if somebody had just hit your skis with a sledgehammer. Everyone took spectacular tumbles on that run and thankfully nobody was hurt.
Skiing oodles of vertical is great, but nobody wants to get hurt helping you to reach a milestone of vertical. For some dos and don'ts of going big, I asked Andy Epstein, a veteran of 14 million vertical feet with CMH and one of the biggest fans of chasing vertical you'll ever meet. I caught up with Andy as he packed for a trip to CMH Monashees.
TD: Do you do train for skiing so that you are ready for 60,000 meter weeks (double the CMH guarantee of 30,000 meters) in the early season?
AE: All of us keep in shape over the summer, however, the best exercise for heli-skiing is skiing, preferably powder skiing. Cardio training is great, and can prevent one from getting winded, but there is nothing like skiing to get those leg muscles in shape.
TD: What are the factors that have to line up to allow you to have a week of huge vertical?
- First of all you have to get out (of the lodge) on time. To get out at 9am, you need to shoot for 8:30.
- You need to fly every day - sometimes fog or wind prevents that.
- You need long runs. The longer the runs, the more vertical you will have. It takes time to put your skis on and off plus loading and unloading. We can do about two 900-meter runs per hour for 1800 meters per hour. We can also do three 1500-meter runs in 2 hours. So that's 2250 versus 1800 meters per hour. (Most skiers prefer good snow to big vertical, so in some conditions CMH guides will shorten runs to give skiers the best and safest skiing conditions.)
- Fast and strong skiers are a must, and they need to follow directions. (With 3 or 4 groups skiing on different schedules from a single lodge, CMH can cater to a wide range of skier preferences and abilities, but skiers like Andy often prefer small private group heli-skiing where one group has exclusive use of a single helicopter.)
- Finally, you must have excellent conditions. In poor snow or poor flying conditions, getting big vertical is impossible.
TD: How much is it acceptable to pressure the guides and pilots to go for more vertical after they are ending the ski program for the day due to hazardous conditions?
AE: Not acceptable at all.
TD: Other tips or no-nos for heli-skiing big vertical?
AE: When the guides are comfortable with the group, and they see everyone can ski that kind of vertical, they are more likely to go for it.
- They will do it when the skiing is really good and when they see that all the skiers are strong.
- Communication is also important. If you fall, and lose a ski or get lost, by radioing the guide he can rest assured that you are ok.
- You also have to respect the guide's wishes regarding keeping the tracks tight when he asks and by not going where he tells you to not go.
TD: In general, I find going back to the same places in the mountains deepens my appreciation for every element. Can you explain how your appreciation has changed over the years?
AE: All I can say is that my love for the sport has not waned a bit over 32 years. I still enjoy it as much as I did the first time.
TD: Anything you’d like to add?
AE: You never know who is going to become a die-hard heli skier. I have brought people from home and most of them enjoy the experience, but very few get hooked the way I did. I have found that the people I have met up there who feel the same way I do are the ones I enjoy skiing with the most, and who I trust the most. The group I am skiing with now has, for the most part, been skiing together for over 10 years and if they were a baseball team, they'd be the Yankees!
Springtime offers the most consistent conditions for weeks of big vertical. Long days, good conditions top to bottom on the longest runs, perfect snow for easy skiing. And there are a few months of resort skiing beforehand give you a chance to get those legs in shape. Check out our heli-ski space availablity for heli-ski opportunies this season - and read Delia Robert's fit tip post on training advice for heli-skiing.