Skiing with the gods

Written by Lesley Young

As the helicopter hovered a foot above the pristine peak of Big Judy near Panorama, B.C., Kevin Delano realized he couldn’t see ground out of either window — only miles of bright blue sky. Panic struck when a guide advised him and his eight companions they would have to jump out of the wavering chopper onto a five-foot-wide perch, grab their skis from the basket on the side of the helicopter, put them on in a huddle and follow him single-file off a six-foot free fall into waist-deep snow. If that wasn’t enough, there was also the added threat of triggering an avalanche.

“My heart was racing. I was absolutely, totally scared,” says Delano, co-owner of Launch! Brand Marketing, a brand-management firm in Toronto. But the lure of virgin powder was enough to compel Delano to go for it. “It’s incredibly exhilarating. You’re far away from everything and everybody. There’s no noise. Not a sound. And what unbelievable scenery.”

Throw in the chance to carve down untouched peaks with streams of fresh snow spraying over your shoulders for an hour at a time, and you have the full promise of heli-skiing. And with Canada offering some of the world’s best heli-skiing destinations around, you have plenty of options to join in the fun.

“It’s like cocaine, but more expensive,” jokes Marty Van Neudegg, director of marketing at Canadian Mountain Holidays, one of the biggest heli-skiing operators with more than 15,000 square kilometres of terrain in the Purcell, Selkirk, Monashee and Cariboo mountains of eastern B.C. (The three original founders of CMH in the early 1960s, Hans Gmoser, Herb Bleuer and Mike Wiegele, are heralded as the inventors of heli-skiing.) No wonder it’s addictive. Most runs offer 6,000 to 10,000 vertical feet of fresh powder, which can take skiers 30 minutes to one hour to descend. And the action is almost non-stop, you’ll usually fit in eight to 12 runs per day with as few as three minutes between finishing one and starting the next — 10 minutes if you switch mountain ranges. “I’m in constant amazement,” says Delano, “and the days just fly by.”

To get the most from the experience, you should be an intermediate downhill skier who can handle, for example, the advanced black diamond runs at Ontario’s Blue Mountain or Whistler, B.C., and ski about 15 to 20 days every winter. Being physically fit will give you the endurance and cardiovascular capacity for a full day of power skiing. While you may experience mild breathing difficulties as a result of skiing at high altitudes (9,000 to 10,000 feet), contrary to common belief, skiing in fresh powder is actually less demanding than regular downhill. “It’s like you’re floating,” says Delano. “You may not have to be as physically in control as when you are downhill skiing, but you do have to be mentally focused at all times.” Still, Delano is exhausted by day’s end and recommends plenty of recovery time.

An avid downhill skier who averages about 20 to 25 snow days each winter, Delano became hooked on heli-skiing when he took a trip to Panorama with his business partner five years ago. Now, he usually takes clients on his once-a-year heli-trips and chooses locations that offer the option of traditional downhill for those who prefer the security of a chairlift.

Phil Dubois is another heli-skiing fan: “I’ve always loved to ski in fresh powder,” says the president and CEO of Vancouver-based CityXpress Corp., a developer of online auction and classified-ad software. “It’s a totally different sensation than downhill. It feels effortless.” Dubois has taken three heli-skiing trips since being introduced to the sport by his wife six years ago. Both fit and avid downhill and backcountry skiers, Dubois and his wife quickly grew enamoured with being airlifted to one remote, spectacular run after another. The pair have already booked three days in Revelstoke, B.C., for next March.

Most tour operators will provide you with special wide, “fat boy” skis, which provide more stability in powder, poles (you don’t want to damage your own loading them in and out of the chopper) and an avalanche transceiver. You will also get at least two hours of safety training before hitting the slopes, something that shook Delano the first time he went heli-skiing: “It made me realize an avalanche could really happen.”

To minimize the danger, guides will map out each day’s route after considering wind, temperature and snowfall. They’ll also test the stability of the snowpack before you start skiing.

The heli-skiing season runs from mid-December to April, with peak season in February. Be warned: skiing such virgin territory doesn’t come cheap. A one-day excursion can cost about $700, while you’ll pay around $3,500 for a four-day trip. A deluxe seven-day vacation can set you back $10,000. “I’d go more often if it were cheaper,” says Dubois. Whichever destination you choose, ensure you’ll be skiing in remote terrain — you don’t want the sight of regular downhillers detracting from your backwoods experience. And be prepared to lose skiing time should bad weather strike — operators won’t take chances. More than likely, though, you’ll use up your limit before the day or trip is over, and tag on more runs for an extra fee.

Heli-ski once, says Delano, and you’ll be a heli-skier for life. The only real downside, he adds: “is having to go back to downhill skiing.”

Where to heli-ski

Canada is recognized worldwide for its unmatched heli-skiing terrain, says Iain MacMillan, editor of Ski Canada magazine. So how to choose? When picking a destination, you’ll also need to decide on a heli-ski operator. Here are MacMillan’s top picks:

Rocky Mountains

Revelstoke, B.C.-based Mica Heliskiing offers small group tours (four people), and its terrain — 4,700 sq. kms. on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains alongside Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefields — is famous for its “pillow drops,” says MacMillan. “They have smaller A-star helicopters, so you are not stuck with 10 or 12 Type-A personalities.”

Cariboo and Monashee mountains

Based in Blue River, B.C., Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing “sets the standard” for heli-skiing, says MacMillan: “The terrain, the lodging — it’s in a class of its own.”

Coast Mountains

Catch a ride to ski with TLH Heliskiing from either Vancouver or Whistler, B.C. and enjoy 300 named and mapped runs in the South Chilcotin Mountains, a subdivision of the Pacific Range of the Coastal Mountains. Says MacMillan: The terrain is jagged and just gorgeous.

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