My first time heli-skiing I was nervous. Not because of the skiing – I’d been skiing my whole life and knew that once the boards were on my feet it would be the same as it ever was. Not because of the helicopter – I knew CMH Heli-Skiing's partner, Alpine Helicopters, has one of the most well maintained fleet of helicopters on the planet. Avalanches make me nervous anytime I go skiing, but I knew I was safer with CMH and their world-renowned snow safety system than any other time I'd spent in the backcountry or sidecountry.
So why was I nervous? In hindsight, I think I was nervous because Heli-Skiing was something new. Like the first day of school, or learning a new skill, doing anything for the first time is a little scary.
By lunchtime of the first day, my nervousness had disappeared, and was replaced by utter fascination and absurd amounts of fun. Looking back on my own maiden voyage, and watching other first timers go through the same transformation from intimidation to fun, there are five things that seem to help the most:
1. Get to know your guide, and follow their directions. I knew our ski guide was a seasoned veteran of Heli-Ski guiding, but for some reason after we talked for a while at the pickup and got to know each other a little, I felt like the seed of friendship had been planted, and everything felt more relaxed. It’s a lot more relaxing when your guide becomes your friend. Follow their directions and you’ll stay safer, become ever better friends, relax even more, and have more fun.
2. You don’t always need to hurry. At my first pickup, I was trying to bundle my skis as quickly as possible to prepare them for the ski basket, and my guide noticed my haste.
“Island time, man.” he said, “No need to hurry.”
When he said that, I felt every bone in my body relax. There are times when it is important to bundle your skis quickly so the helicopter doesn’t have to wait, forcing the rest of the groups to wait, but much of the time you can take the time to bundle your skis slowly. The best way to know is to simply ask your guide:
“Are we in a hurry?”
If there is no need to hurry, don’t. Learn to bundle your skis properly and you’ll be faster at it later. If there is a reason to hurry, ask for help. Your guide or another experienced skier or snowboarder will be happy to give you a hand.
3. Learn to put your skis on in deep snow. Even on the most epic powder day at a ski area, underneath the powder is a hard-packed ski area base, making it easy to put on our skis and snowboards. While Heli-Skiing, we sometimes step out of the helicopter into waist deep powder with more soft snow underneath the fresh, making it a tricky process to get into your skis or board - until you get used to it. When you first experience this, ask you guide, CMH staff, or other experienced rider to show you how to put on your skis or board in deep powder. If you don’t learn this trick, you’ll fight with your board(s) at every landing, wasting energy and becoming frustrated; not a good way to start each run. Also, if you loose a ski mid-run, where the snow is usually even deeper, much deeper, than on the landings, you’ll be able to put it back on much easier. Also, ask for tips on getting up if you fall down. On one board or two, getting up after falling can be one of the most exhausting parts of riding deep powder.
4. Ask your tree buddy to ski right behind you on the first couple of runs. Unless you’ve skied a lot in the backcountry, Heli-Skiing often provides the deepest snow you’ve ever ridden. It is pretty intimidating your first time, but with the fat skis we use at CMH, and a friend to help you out if you fall, even intermediate skiers learn quickly how to ride the pow. Regardless of the size of the group you’re skiing with, your guide will ask you to always ski in pairs - the buddy system. If you’re nervous, ask your buddy to ski behind you for a couple of runs. This way if you fall, you’ll have someone right there to help you get up, and even if you don’t fall, it’s nice to have a friend backing you up. After a couple of runs, take turns going first - but always stay together. In no time, the intimidation quickly transitions to insane amounts of fun.
5. Pay attention during the safety training, but don’t stress over it. At the beginning of each CMH ski trip, every guest goes through a short training exercise, covering the use of radios, avalanche transceivers, avalanche rescue technique and helicopter safety. It’s hard to learn if you’re stressed out. Instead, get into the beginner’s mind and just listen to what the guide is telling you. The avalanche equipment is important, but because the goal of the CMH guide team is to keep you out of danger in the first place, the vast majority of CMH guests, even thouse who've ripped millions of vertical feet with CMH, will never have need to use the avalanche equipment. Instead, focus on learning these just-in-case skills and then go have fun. If you ever go backcountry, sidecountry or cat skiing, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.
While the safety and helicopter efficiency systems that CMH guides have developed over the past five decades are complex, for guests the system is designed to be simple. The guides and the rest of the CMH staff are there to help you have the time of your life. Get ready to have the most fun you’ve ever had with your boots on.
Photo of the fun kicking in for a first time Heli-Skier at CMH Gothics, by Topher Donahue.