YOU can’t see much from the back of a twin-engine Bell 212 helicopter when it’s packed with eleven adventurous skiers. Resembling ski-masked marines on a mission, we sit opposite each other, tightly buckled into our seats as we fly through the Canadian Rockies in spectacular fashion.
Heli-skiing is the ultimate off-piste, backcountry skiing experience, in a natural snow-covered wilderness with only a handful of other skiers around. There are no ski lifts or snow-making machines involved and you don’t have to hike up a mountain first. Instead, you reach the endless un-tracked powder peaks with an exhilarating ride in a private helicopter.
The hardest thing to get your head around is the price; heli-skiing doesn’t come cheap and an average seven-day trip starts around £4,000. But if you’re a passionate skier and want that once in a lifetime experience on some of the world’s best snow, it’s worth splashing out.
One of the biggest misconceptions about heli-skiing is that you have to be an expert to do it. You don’t. You don’t have to jump out of a helicopter either; the pilot will actually land before you get out.
I join heli-ski experts Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) for a seven-day trip to the Cariboo Lodge, an isolated, rustic property deep in British Columbia’s Cariboo Range. CMH are the original heli-ski operator with forty-five years of experience behind them. There are many heli-skiing operators around the world, varying in price and duration, from day jaunts to weeklong trips and longer.
For some, first time heli-skiing can be a daunting experience; many skiers will ask if they are good enough and most people will have never been near a helicopter before. Skiers soon find themselves a couple of metres away from the machine’s pounding rotors with snow blasting into their faces.
Jonny Mellis is the Cariboo’s area manager for CMH. “Canadian heli-skiing doesn’t require any mountaineering skills, but skiers do need to be competent and confident on skis or a snowboard, and capable of skiing intermediate groomed resort runs. Most people who heli-ski are not experts, but they should have a good level of fitness. We take people to areas that will suit their ability, and once they get used to the powder conditions, they’ll be amazed how fast their technique will improve. You will get more out of your heli-ski trip if you are relatively fit and try to go skiing a few times beforehand,” he says.
It takes a lot of energy to ski day after day in deep snow, and if you fall or lose a ski on a steep slope – as I did – you’ll soon realise how tiring it can be clambering up-hill to get it in waist-high snow conditions.
The remote Cariboo Lodge is cut off by deep snow during the winter season, when the only way in or out is by helicopter or snow mobile. Once at the lodge, there is nowhere else to go and you’ll see a lot of the same people; you’ll eat, fly, ski and hang out together. The only options are perhaps going show shoeing or using the spa facilities. The snowshoe track loops around the lodge, but don’t roam too far, because the Rockies are full of surprises, including rapidly changing weather, unstable terrain and curious local wildlife; bears have been known to come out of hibernation early.
Most heli-ski companies start their weeklong trips by teaching skiers about avalanche awareness – an unlikely event, but not impossible. Skiers are given a small backpack, which includes an avalanche transceiver, a collapsible shovel, a probing stick and a VHF-radio to communicate with guides and fellow skiers in case of an emergency. The transceiver helps to find someone’s position under the snow, while the probe stick helps to pinpoint the person, and the shovel is essential for digging them out.
An average heli-ski week at the Cariboo Lodge has forty-four guests, who are put into four groups of eleven skiers; the maximum number of passengers the helicopter will carry, excluding the pilot and guides.
Our mornings start with a recommended stretch class, then during breakfast the guides brief us on snow conditions and tell us what runs we’ll ski that morning.
With transceivers, backpacks and skis at the ready, we move to the heli-pad and huddle down with our backs to the helicopter to avoid being whipped in the face with rotor wash, as the machine comes in to land.
Helicopters are loud and attempts to talk fail, but it’s an exciting way to travel. Flying between the high peaks, over wide-open spaces and skimming over treetops to reach the top of snow-blessed mountain peaks is exhilarating.
Heli pick-ups and drop-offs are perfectly timed, giving guests the maximum time to ski. We skied at altitudes between 1,100m and 3,000m, the latter being the upper reach of the highest drop-off location in the Cariboos, where the average snowfall at 1,800 metres is 1,400cm and the skiing area covers 1,489 square kilometres, and with over 300 runs.
Our pilot lands our flying ski lift on a mountain cornice at the top of a high altitude run called Twilight, with sheer drops all around and snow blasting from the rotors. There’s no room for pilot error here.
Heli pilots should have many hours of flying experience, and be used to flying in high altitude and in all sorts of weather conditions, from high winds and whiteouts. When asking about or booking a trip, don’t be shy to ask about the pilot’s experience.
The heli’s door slides open and we clumsily climb out in our ski booted feet and immediately sink into deep snow. Once the helicopter takes to the air, the snow settles and we are left in silence.
Usually there’s a relaxed group of skiers during a heli-ski week, but not this week. It was my first time heli-skiing and I was in at the deep end, skiing as part of a group of nine men and two women, all of them with over three million vertical feet of experience and one skier on his twentieth visit to the Cariboos.
We click into our fat powder skis, which are wider than normal piste skis and help you to turn and stay on top of the snow.
With heli-skiing you don’t just ski off randomly, you must follow a guide and for safety, you ski in pairs. On reaching a safe spot, we pick our line and glide down thrilling wide-open runs, through wooded areas and along narrow ridges in deep snow, sending it flying in all directions. Skiing through the trees is fun, but avoid skiing close to them in case you disappear into a deep tree well, which are very hard to get out of. Tree wells are created because trees act like an umbrella, blocking snow from falling around the trunk, thus leaving a void big enough to fall into.
I end one run in spectacular fashion, by tripping over my own skis that are submerged under deep snow, then flying through the air and landing face first. I might have injured myself on a normal groomed run, but in the Canadian Rockies, the snow is so deep and soft I didn’t feel a thing.
Heli-skiing is associated with having a macho reputation, but things are changing and more women are hitting the high powder and giving the guys a run for their money. I came across a couple of old-school, dodgy-mannered guides on the mountain, but the younger guides, with their modern approach to skiing, make up for any old-school short-falls. CMH runs popular female only ski weeks, which some prefer, because the macho element is removed and they can fully focus on skiing.
The Rockies are considered to be one of the best places to go heli-skiing and one of the coldest; the region can throw up a mixed bag of weather, with temperatures between three degrees C and minus eight degrees C or lower and you’ll need to dress for the occasion.
Specialised heli-ski gloves are recommended – the long cuffed hestra style that covers the forearm – and it’s best to dress in layers, with a good quality thermal base. We were advised to wear bright colours when skiing because it helps to spot people in the vast mountain range.
CMH guarantee that on a seven-day £4,515 trip, guests will have the opportunity to accumulate at least 30,500 vertical metres (100,000 vertical feet). Additional vertical metres skied beyond the guarantee will cost between Canadian $125 (£80) to $160 for every 1,000 extra vertical metres. The group average changes weekly throughout the season, based on weather, group dynamics, safety, and snow conditions. My group covered a daily average of 6,566 vertical metres, a weekly amount of 44,491 metres.
But the one element that can mess up a precisely planned ski trip is the weather; if it’s bad and the helicopter is grounded, you won’t be skiing.
Après-heli ski is all about the sauna, massage and stretching in preparation for the following day, when you hit the heights again. Dinner is a four-course, energy-food affair that includes steaks, salads and lots of wine.
Later, guests drift off to the bar or to their beds to rest their weary bodies in preparation for the next day.
Heli-skiing attracts a mixed bag of international female and male skiers of varying ages and ability. I skied with people aged from eighteen to eighty years old, but the one thing we all had in common was a passion for skiing and seeking out the best snow.
NEED TO KNOW
Lisa Young travelled with UK based Heli Ski specialists Pure Powder
• +44 (0)20 7736 8191
Pure Powder offer seven day CMH heli skiing trips to the Cariboos, British Columbia from £4,515 per person (including 6.5 days of heli skiing, transfers, accommodation and all meals. Flights to Calgary and insurance are extra).
No need to bring your own skis, as the lodge have a wide range of the latest fat powder skis to try out.
For a powder novice the CMH “introduction week to powder skiing” is recommended, it’s specifically designed for first time heli-skiers (five days from £4,025 pp) and a female only ski trip “Girl Powder” (four days from £2,825 pp).
CMH Heli Skiing was founded in 1965, it’s the original heli ski operator and provides access to the world’s most comprehensive and spectacular wilderness skiing experience. CMH has an unrelenting focus on safety and can boast the most experienced guiding team on the planet. www.purepowder.com/cmh.cfm