The Heli-Ski Blog

What Does Climbing Have to do With Heliskiing Anyway?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jul 8, 2010 9:29:00 AM

D BCAD09 0680Behind the coffee machine in the CMH Gothics Lodge hang drawings of early climbers in the Alps navigating glacial crevasses and arresting falls.  Photos of climbers from 5 different decades adorn the CMH Bugaboo Lodge.  Most CMH lodges are equipped with some kind of climbing wall.  Ski guides are often overheard talking about climbing adventures.  But the two sports are so different.  So what’s up with all the climbing culture in heliskiing? 

If you look at the hard skills side of guiding, the rope techniques that are learned while climbing give skiers a powerful tool for exploring technical terrain.  And of course, if someone falls in a crevasse or gets stranded on a cliff, climbing skills become an important part of the rescue.

However, these days, the two sports have diversified so radically that many ski guides can work competently and safely without studying the climbing part of the guide certification process.  Basic rope skills are taught during ski guide courses and heliskiing is so specialized in its system, and intimate knowledge of the local mountains so important, that any guide must work for several seasons in an area before taking on the responsibilities of a lead heliski guide.  So is the climbing, hiking and mountaineering really all that important?

To become a full mountain guide, the top certification in the UIAGM, a guide must show competence as both a skier and mountaineer.  From the view through your goggles or out the window of a helicopter or gondola, this might seem unnecessary; but in the bigger mountaineering picture, skis, climbing boots, ropes, and carabiners are all just tools for exploring different parts of the same thing - the mountains. 

Exploring the mountains as a climber, hiker or mountaineer teaches guides about subtleties of the mountains that you don’t see while exploring on skis.  Mountaineers gain intimate knowledge of things the vast majority of skiers will never experience such as:

  • The way ice and snow bonds to rock in different conditions.
  • The invisible transitions from snow to ice that happen on big peaks.
  • Travelling on snow types that are rarely encountered on skis - like rime, penitentes, and glacial ice.
  • Vertical and overhanging snow formations a skier will rarely touch.
  • Rock quality and the terrain features that hide under the winter snows.
Perhaps the best answer lies in the perspective a guide gets while climbing up or skiing down mountains.  To put a really complicated thing very simply: skiing teaches guides how to look down the mountain and climbing teaches them how to look up.  For the past 45 years CMH has watched the sport change, but one thing has remained the same: the mountains are the best teachers - and the guides, climbers and skiers who explore the mountains in all seasons are the best students.

It's not only our guides who benefit from all season mountain adventures.  If you want to add to your perspective of the mountains, check out the CMH Summer Adventures.  It's more than you think...

Photo of skiing below the biggest peak in the Selkirks, Sir Sanford, in the CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.

Topics: Gothics, Bugaboos, CMH Heli-Skiing, Guides, winter mountaineering