When a Heliski Run Dies
Last winter I was standing on the rim of the Canoe River drainage, stunned by the view across some of the biggest glaciers left in British Columbia. Above us, the 3516-metre bulk of Mt. Sir Wilfrid Laurier dominated the sky. I turned to ask Dave Gauley, our heliski guide and assistant manager of CMH Cariboos, about skiing from the big peak’s summit. He told me that it used to be a CMH ski run, but that a big crevasse opening had effectively killed it.
With ten years experience as a professional freeskier, Gauley is not one to be easily deterred by terrain challenges. He mentioned something about trying the descent, not doing it, climbing out of a big crevasse - and then skied away and dropped into the Canoe. Distracted by big terrain and stellar heliskiing, I forgot about his unfinished story.
Earlier this week I was daydreaming about big mountains, remembered Dave’s story, and caught up with him – he’s easier to catch in the summer - and here’s what he had to say:
If you skied it (Sir Wilfrid Laurier) from the summit to the valley (which they used to do) it would be 2500 metres vertical. I’m not sure how that ranks with other CMH runs, but it's pretty frickin’ long. I tried to ski off the summit, but there is a big, melted-out crevasse a few hundred metres below the summit you have to climb out of.
The North Canoe Glacier (which would be the lower part of the run) also has huge crevasses, and an icefall that it did not used to have. I think when they built the Cariboo Lodge in 1974, it was in the middle of the biggest snow decade in the area. From talking to oldtimers like Kiwi (Gallagher) and Ernst (Buhler), as well as (people) who grew up in the area - that's kind of their memory.
So I think the changing of the glaciers is a combination of back then they were really lucky with a huge snowpack to fill the crevasses, and glacier recession is now coupled with less snowfall. Bingo - less terrain to ski.
Other runs in the Cariboos are changing quickly too, like pretty much everything at the apex of the Premier Range on all the big ice (“big ice” is guide speak for glaciers) is becoming trickier to ski. Crazy Horse, Little Matterhorn, Penny, Ned's Moon, Thompson Glacier, Jerry's Perch, The Zipper… These are just a few runs that are becoming difficult, or are no longer possible to ski.
Another thing that has changed is that they were much more aggressive on glaciers in the old days as well. Those first Euro guides did not know anything about tree skiing, so they almost exclusively skied on glaciers. What was acceptable risk then would in no way fly today.
I heard, maybe from Bob Geber, that the Bugaboos has lost 30-50% of their glacier skiing from the original area over the last 40 years. Just look at the S&S Glacier. I skied it on a guide exam in 1997 - we were roped up shitting our pants - and they used to take heliski groups down there!
Sounds like a good reason to book a heliski trip now before we lose more ski terrain! Are there any of you lifelong heliskiers out there who can remember the natural closures of ski runs being a sad day?
Photo of skiing Ned's Moon in 2010 by Topher Donahue.