In 1963 - 50 years ago this year - CMH began experimenting with what would become known as Heli-Skiing, and took the word’s first commercial Heli-Ski guests up a mountain with a helicopter for a ski lift. At the time, the best machine for the job was a Bell 47 B-1. The pioneers of Heli-Skiing strapped their skis to the skids with bungie cords and shuttled the group to the top, two passengers pusing the payload capacity of the reliable little helicopter to the limit.
The Bell 47 line were technological marvels for the time, setting helicopter records for distance and elevation.
- In 1949 it made highest altitude flight to 5,650 metres (18,550 feet).
- In 1950 it became the first helicopter to fly over the Alps.
- In 1952 it set a distance record of 1,959 kilometres (1,217 miles).
- In 1958 it became the first helicopter to be used for television news camerawork.
Its 178 horsepower engine had about the same power as a small car, but at the time there was nothing better for mountain flying than the Bell 47 B-1.
When Hans Gmoser, the founder of Heli-Skiing, was first approached by a couple of different skiers about the possibility of using a helicopter for a ski lift, he didn't immediatley jump on the possibility, but he didn’t forget the concept. Hans brought up the idea with Jim Davies, a skilled mountain pilot who had helped Hans with ski exploration in the Cariboo and Rocky Mountains using a fixed wing.
According to Hans, he asked Jim, “Do you think you could use a helicopter to take skiers up a mountain?"
And Jim replied, “I know I could.”
That’s how it began. But there were a couple of false starts including a trip in 1963 to the Goat Glacier near Canmore, Alberta where the helicopter worked great but the snow was hideous breakable crust, and a trip in 1964 out of Golden, British Columbia where windy conditions blew the little helicopter far from their destination, clear into the next province of Alberta, before they found a place to safely land and ski.
In 1965 Hans decided to try Heli-Skiing in a place called the Bugaboos, where a remote sawmill camp provided lodging, the endless mountain range of the Columbia Mountains provided the terrain, the now-legendary storm cycles of Interior British Columbia provided the powder – and the Bell 47 B-1 provided the power. The third try was, as they say, a charm; the snow was dreamy, the guests were ecstatic and wanted to go again the following year, and Heli-Skiing was born.
Helicopter technology changed dramatically in the late 60s and early 70s, so the Bell 47 was soon exchanged for larger, more powerful machines, but these pictures of the little helicopter servicing the very first commercial Heli-Skiers will forever speak to the world's greatest skiing and the unprecedented adventure of learning to use a helicopter for a ski lift half a century ago.
Photos courtesy CMH Archives.