The Heli-Ski Blog

Trees.. the Key Ingredient to Great Heli-Skiing

Posted by Mark Piquette on Jan 5, 2011 9:00:00 AM

I was out in Seattle for a CMH promo event at K2 Skis world wide HQ.  The team at K2 always puts on a great show and they are just really fun to hang out with and talk skiing.

Anyway, I was talking with someone at the promo event who asked about down days and why we don’t have snowcat backup.  Thinking back on the conversation I thought it would make an interesting post to explain why we are able to average only ½ a down day per week across our areas.

If you saw our segment in the Warren Miller movie, Wintervention, you saw something kind of rare in ski movies - helicopter skiing while it was snowing and cloudy. Have you ever wondered why ski movies tend to only show heli-skiing under blue bird skies?  Sure, partly it is due to wanting to have the best lighting possible and to show the audience the ideal conditions. More often than not, however, the reason you don’t see skiing in the snow and clouds is because the film crew could not get out and ski.  The biggest reason they could not get out and ski? Most places that sell heli-skiing and pop up in movies are missing a key ingredient…trees. Fortunately the interior of British Columbia is flush with trees.

So why are trees so important? Trees allow you to see…and more importantly allow the pilot to see. Helicopter skiing pilots, like ours from Alpine Helicopters, work under what is known as Visual Flight Rules (VFR). In a nutshell this means that the pilots must have visual reference to the ground at all times.  When it is cloudy and snowing hard, trees give this reference. Think about being above tree line in a ski resort when it is socked in with clouds…talk about vertigo…and then you drop down into the trees and finally you can see again.

In places with lots of high alpine skiing but little to no trees you have nowhere to go if it is snowing and cloudy.  And therein lies the problem for areas that lack trees. In order to have a big snowpack that allows for world-class heli-skiing there are going to be a lot of snowy and cloudy days...and unfortunately down days.

When Hans Gmoser started heliskiing, he picked the best terrain possible for the sport - the interior of British Columbia where there are trees and snow galore.  However, we take additional steps to help ensure we have bad weather terrain to ski in.  Every year in the off-season, in coordination with the province of BC, we put significant resources toward cutting and gladding runs in our home drainages to give pilots and guides predictable and accessible terrain in poor weather and stability conditions.   At CMH we are fortunate to be in a position where, every few years, we can spend over a million dollars on run development.  The result of that program is great tree skiing on snowy, cloudy days.

This work, along with the combined experience of the CMH Heli-Skiing guides and pilots (many have been skiing and flying in the areas for decades) allows us to average only ½ a down day per week across our areas.

So why not have the snowcat as back up and just go skiing no matter what? Isn’t it better to ski than sit?  Of course, we always want to ski and we will never look for an excuse to stay home for financial reasons…or for any other reason!  But rather than worry about the occasional time that we cannot fly, we think it is better to put our time, energy and resources into ensuring we heli-ski as much as possible through run development, having some of the most experienced guides and pilots around and having a great refund policy. In a regular seven-day trip we guarantee you 30,500 meters of skiing. If we don’t make the guaranteed amount of skiing we have one of the most generous refund policies in the travel industry. We don’t take you out in a snowcat and count that skiing toward your meter guarantee.  We don’t charge you heli-skiing prices and deliver cat skiing.

It was great working with the film crew from Warren Miller this past year in the Gothics.  The first day of shooting we woke up to snow and clouds. The crew was used to filming in heli-ski locations where they go for a month to get a few days of filming because they are always waiting for the weather to clear.  Looking out the window at the first day of big snow and clouds the crew thought this would be a day of sitting.  Needless to say, rotors started turning and we did some great filming in the trees and fresh powder...not just that day, but each day.  Just the way it should be.

Topics: Tree skiing, down days, snowcat