The Democracy of Heliskiing
Watching the events unfolding in Egypt recently made my own obsessions and little victories feel insignificant – but it also made me look into the nooks and crannies around me where the people’s voice is heard. The will of the human spirit is staggering. Even something as obscure and hedonistic as heliskiing was due to the adventurous spirit of North American skiers, not because some investor decided to create a heliski business.
While writing Bugaboo Dreams, the book that tells the story of Canadian Mountain Holidays and the invention of heliskiing, I was struck by a common thread throughout the now 46-year history of the sport: the skiers were the inspiration.
The first big change was in the early 60s, at MIT, when the first American Olympic ski racer, Brooks Dodge, approached CMH founder Hans Gmoser after a slideshow promoting Hans' ski touring business. Brooks was enamoured with the idea of using a helicopter for a ski lift in some remote, snowy mountains like those of Western Canada. Hans wasn’t crazy about the idea. Being a mountain guide, the complications of taking people skiing by helicopter must have been daunting.
But Brooks made Hans an offer he couldn’t refuse. Brooks would bring enough skiers to pay for the helicopter to leave the ground - and if it didn’t work out Hans could keep the money. Needless to say, it worked.
The second big change was when CMH opened the Cariboo Lodge in the early seventies. From the short sighted perspective of modern business, it would have been more profitable to expand the Bugaboo Lodge and pack more customers into the already established area – but the people wouldn’t have been as happy.
People wanted to go heliskiing because it landed them squarely in a vast expanse of wilderness with easy access to a nearly limitless supply of untouched powder snow. Hans knew that bringing more people into the Bugaboos would have reduced the quality of the experience for the people who mattered most – his guests. So instead of expanding the Bugaboos he built a lodge 300-kilometres to the north in the Cariboos.
The third big change was in the mid-eighties when a French ski guide named Ary Dedet suggested that skiing in small, private groups would be worth the additional expense. Again, if the decision had been made from a purely profit-based perspective, Ary would have been denied. Why not open another full-sized lodge to bring in more people?
Instead, the decision to try Private Group Heliskiing was based on the dreamy concept of skiing, dining and living for a week with just you and a few close friends - and a helicopter at your service – in some of the most epic ski mountains and snowpack on the planet. CMH opened Valemount and then McBride to cater to this more intimate heliskiing experience and the result remains one of the most popular CMH trips.
More recently, CMH introduced Small Group Heliskiing for the most addicted powder fiends, Powder Intro because intermediate skiers wanted to learn to ski the legendary powder of the Columbia Mountains, Nomads because skiers asked about skiing in more than one CMH area during the same trip, and Family Trips because veteran heliskiers wanted to share the magical experience with their families.
However - just like in a country where the people want change - there are the twin limitations of safety and sustainability. What the future of heliskiing holds is largely based on these two limitations balanced against the desires of the skiers and snowboarders who have shaped Canadian Mountain Holidays for nearly half a century.
Considering these all-powerful limitations of safety and sustainability, what do you want heliskiing to be like in another decade?
CMH archive photo of the birth of heliskiing, Bugaboos, April 1965. And a snowboarder ripping steep terrain in the Bobbie Burns, March 2008.