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...