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Skiing the Cariboos by Helicopter

British Columbia's remote Carriboo mountains are situated just right to catch the snow storms streaming in from the coast
By Andrew McLean - February 3rd, 2006

A great day of skiing puts a smile on your face, but it also puts a question in your mind. All skiing enthusiasts eventually ask it: "I wonder what the ultimate skiing experience is?" Today may have been great, but what if the snow was deeper, the runs longer, the location more dramatic, the lifts faster and it was just you and a close group of friends?

My personal quest for the greatest skiing on earth has spanned six continents over the last 40 years and ranged from remote first descents to skiing in the rain at night. There are so many variables associated with the ultimate skiing experience (location, snowpack, partners, weather, expense and terrain to name a few) that finding the perfect blend is the pursuit of a lifetime and the raison d'etre of all ski bums.

One of the reasons I was still searching for the ultimate skiing experience was that I had never been on a serious heli-skiing trip. I knew of Canadian Mountain Holidays because I grew up watching skiing movies where the producer would match a great skier with great terrain for a grand finale to his film. The skiers were usually Olympic gold medalists and the skiing was always a Canadian Mountain Holidays heli-skiing lodge in British Columbia, Canada. It was a sure-fire recipe for memorable movie ending.

The main reason I hadn't made it up to a CMH lodge earlier in my life was that I spent too much time skiing and not enough time earning--a common woe of many who pursue their passion to a fault. So when the chance materialized for a trip up to the Cariboo lodge in the CMH kingdom, I felt like a dog with a purloined steak in its mouth--both ecstatic at the opportunity, yet worried that it was too good to be true and might be taken away. As it turned out, it was taken away, but not in the manner I expected.

The Basics
The first step of launching into a CMH heli-skiing expedition is to fly into Calgary, Alberta, and work your way to the luggage carousel. After picking up your one bag (skis are provided by CMH , so there's no need to bring them), you cross the street, check into the Delta Calgary Hotel and the heavy lifting part of the trip is over. From here on out CMH takes care of the rest. For dinner that night, you can either enjoy fine Alberta beef in the hotel dining room, or trek into cosmopolitan Calgary for some excellent Indian food. In either case, you want to go to bed early as there's a 7:00am alpine start the next day.

Instead of porters or mules, like most of my trips, this one began on a huge sightseeing bus for the seven hour cross country trip through the Canadian Rockies on the Icefields Parkway, eventually reaching the small outpost of Valemount, BC. There are at least two seats for every person and safety videos are shown en route to save time once you get to the lodge. The Icefields Parkway is a treat in itself and a nice way to warm up for the scenery of the Cariboos. On the morning we traveled, a dense cloud layer capped the peaks, but for a few magic moments the rising sun snuck beneath the clouds and ignited the snowcapped summits with intense alpenglow like they were blazing match heads. When the sun rose higher, the fireworks were extinguished and the main attraction became the glacially carved valleys and rugged stratified geology of the towering peaks. Near the end of the trip, the bus rolls by Mount Robson, home to one of the steepest, most demanding ski descents ever done in Canada, and a precursor of what's to come in the Cariboos.

The helicopter staging area in Valemount is a helipad enclosed by chain link fencing. After transferring from the bus to the Bell 212 helicopter, soon your flying over rugged Canadian forests and valleys. It seems hard to believe that you could greeted by anything but bears, snow and cold wilderness on the other end. But, unbeknownst to we heli-skiing fledglings, you have just entered a magical kingdom where nothing, or almost nothing, disappoints.

The Experience
A CMH trip is the dessert of the skiing world--so good that you have to wonder if it's not somehow bad for you. I was able to get over this moral dilemma quickly, however, and came away frankly amazed at how hassle free and smooth the operation was. Instead of dealing with leaky tents, exploding stoves or camping in cow pastures, this trip was completely focused on the skiing experience.

The Cariboo lodge offers all the comforts of home, especially if your home has a hot tub, sauna, steam room, masseuse, game room, business center, WiFi, well stocked bar, palatial living room, mud room, ski store, tuning center, communal dining room and gourmet kitchen. It was the second of the 12 lodges to be built by founder Hans Gmoser, and can hold up to 44 guests in comfortable rooms (many with views of the Cariboo range) complete with maid service. The lodge was constructed in 1974 and has had a six million dollar upgrade since then.

The kitchen is run by a chef from Quebec who takes very seriously the challenge of providing delicious food that manages to be healthy even as it delights. Whether it was just breakfast, an afternoon snack or full-blown Christmas feast, the food was so good it led to stomach rubbing comments about getting the dreaded "Heli Belly" or "Hut Butt." Having recently returned from a trip to Patagonia for some first descents near Fitz Roy, where we were pummeled by wind and ate freeze-dried entrees for a month, our Cariboo Lodge afternoon snack of a smoked turkey/pesto/mango chutney wrap with a spinach tortilla in the glass walled main room amounted to full-on culture shock.

The lodge has a casual feel to it that masks the serious preparations that go on behind the scenes. Superficially, the idea is to relax and enjoy yourself, but the real purpose of being there is to indulge yourself with as much skiing as possible. To make the most of this, the lodge runs on clockwork precision. When they say the first group is on the heli pad and flying by 9:00am, they mean 8:59am plus or minus a few seconds, not 9:05am. By staying in radio contact and using a second helicopter and assistant guides, they manage to keep all the groups moving at once, and also accommodate people who need to take a rest. It is a fine art, even if it is realized invisibly.

The Heli-Skiing Guides
The lead CMH guides are a personification of the company's dedication to excellence. Coming mainly from Europe, Canada and New Zealand, they are skilled and experienced--the most highly certified uber guides on the planet. For starters, they are required to be UIAGM certified, which is harder to get than most college degrees. To gain certification requires years of apprenticeship, then passing rigorous exams in alpinism and rock climbing, as well as skiing. Membership in this elite group entails being capable of safely guiding anyone, anywhere, anytime in any mountains. As if that wasn't enough, they also have B.C. heli guiding certificates, many of them are Level III ski instructors who stay current on avalanche, weather and medical training as well as being fluent in multiple languages. In short, they are the epitome of professional mountain guides.

Heli-skiing in the backcountry may seem a benign pursuit full of sunshine and powder, but in reality, it has lethal hazards. The most dangerous element of this kind of skiing is not falling down the mountain or crashing in a helicopter, but the risk of avalanche. CMH is very forthcoming about the dangers and provides safety equipment and training as part of every trip. The Columbia mountain ranges are steep, wild and can receive up to 65 feet of snow per year, which makes for some monstrous avalanches.

CMH guides and managers mitigate this danger by using their vast terrain to choose the safest, most appropriate place to ski, whether it is something lower angle or in the more protected trees. As the Cariboo lodge manager and lead guide Ernst Buehler says, "People always ask how the skiing is, but really the more important question is how stable is the snow." If it is stable, the guides are willing to take you just about anywhere, if it is not stable, they will find more suitable terrain.

Peaks & People
The mountain systems that make up the Columbia Mountain Range are prime hunting ground for the ultimate skiing experience. The Columbia Range is sandwiched between the Coast Mountains to the west, right on the Pacific, and the Rocky Mountains to the east, similar to Colorado, with higher, dramatic peaks get less snow and have much colder temperatures. The Columbia Range is a skier's perfect middle ground as it get lots of snow, has huge skiable peaks but relatively moderate weather.

The Columbia Range consists of a number of smaller ranges, of which the Selkirks, Monashees and Purcells are the crown jewels. On a slightly smaller scale, the Cariboos, Adamant and Bugaboo ranges fill in the gaps. The Cariboos are well known to skiers, yet my interest in them was exponentially whetted by Karl Klossen. Karl has worked as a guide and avalanche expert all over the world and has seen more snow that almost anyone on earth. When I asked him where he thought the best skiing on earth was, without hesitation, he replied, "The Cariboos."

What makes the Cariboos the best of the best is that they are located a bit further north and have a slightly different orientation than the southern mountain ranges. Not only are they are first in line for the cold, wet storms that sweep down from the artic, they act as a scraper blade to harvest snow from the storms as they sweep by. The skiable terrain at the CMH Cariboo lodge includes 382 named runs ranging from open glaciers to sublime tree skiing.

Another alluring feature of the Cariboos is that they are both remote and rugged, and that means very few visitors. The CMH lodge is the main operation in the area, and with 575 square miles of permitted terrain serving only 44 guests at a time, it is like each person has been allocated an area the size of North America's largest ski resort, Whistler Blackcomb. The vast scale is actually hard to imagine. It is accessible only because CMH uses helicopters.

By using the powerful Bell 212 helicopters, CMH can fly up to ten guests plus a guide all at once. While one group is skiing, the helicopter picks up and drops off three other groups in the same area. Once a zone has been tracked out, all four groups are shuttled to a new area.

The protocol for heli-skiing is simple, yet always exhilarating and nerve wracking. Skis are strapped together and stashed in a pile off to the side where they are tended by the guide. The guests form a "heli huddle" about ten feet away and the helicopter lands right in between the guide and the guests in a deafening roar of noise, wind and blowing snow. The pilot idles the helicopter while skis and people are loaded, then the doors are secured from the inside and the chopper whisks you off for another run.

CMH tries to evenly divide groups based on skiing ability, as the groups can only travel at the speed of their slowest member and tensions can run high on a deep powder day. As the slowest member of our group said on the first day "I'm glad nobody is yelling at me like they have in the past!" If the pain of waiting is just too much, CMH offers private charters for just you and your friends. The price? As the cliche goes, if you have to ask....

While heli-skiing in general and CMH in particular have always been equated with the utmost in skiing luxury, if you are serious about skiing, the price is surprising. A week of skiing ranges from $5,400 to $9,500, which isn't inexpensive. However, when you consider the growing cost and diminishing quality of resort skiing, it isn't bad either. CMH guarantees a minimum of 100,000 feet of skiing, after which you can pay as you go for additional lifts, which most guests choose to do.

Before leaving, I wondered if I would be outed as a ski bumming dirt-bag by an oil tycoon while staying at the Cariboo lodge. This was far from the case. Skiing, and all things related to skiing, is the common language at CMH. The friendships that are formed at lodges extend around the world and up to 70 per cent of the guests are return customers, many of whom make plans to ski with people they met on previous trips.

Family Week
This trip was unique for CMH as the week I was there was an all-time first: it was Family Week pilot project. Although CMH allows guests as young as 12 years old, there are certain dangers associated with taking kids heli-skiing. First and foremost is that it may skew their skiing expectations for life and nothing else will ever be the same (which is a risk most of them seem willing to take). A secondary concern, which Family Week specifically addresses, is the adage, "there are no friends on a powder day," and it is almost always a powder day in the Columbia mountain ranges. Accordingly, on a standard CMH trip, you can expect a skier-eat-skier powder feeding frenzy. But during this first Family Week, the pace was much more mellow, with an emphasis on keeping families together and having fun.

For the Family Week debut, seven out of nine families brought kids and roughly half of the entire group was under 21 years old. According to the Assistant Lodge Manager, John Mellis, the main difference with Family Week was that during bad weather, the guests weren't playing drinking games. Overall, Family Week was so well received that the tradition has been carried forward and will be held over the December holiday season in the Adaments lodge in 2006.

It is a tribute to CMH's professionalism and competence that they would even consider allowing kids under 18 years old to ride helicopters in the mountains, ski in avalanche terrain and skirt the occasional crevasse. In fact, the guides and staff went out of their way to accommodate kids, as demonstrated by the elaborate Christmas celebration which included Santa arriving in a Bell 206 helicopter to dispense gifts under a beautiful tree. When it comes to the actual skiing, it is more a matter of ability than age, a basic tenet that applies to adults as well.

From an adult standpoint, skiing with someone else's kids can be problematic, especially if they are like Hillary Sapp, a 12 year old ripper from Gardnerville, Nevada. Disguising her true intent with a disarming smile and blonde ponytails, Hillary repeatedly materialized in front of me just in time to poach the best powder shots. Luckily, she was durable and cut-proof, and survived being "accidentally" run over multiple times as I fought to reclaim my rightful lines.

The Million Vertical Feet Club
CMH does a precise job of tracking every inch of skiing you do and totaling it up for you. Guests with a million vertical feet or more barely qualify as "regulars" at the CMH lodges. Two million feet is a sign that you are getting serious, whereas three to five million earns you local status. Over five million feet gets you into the respected CMH veteran's realm and beyond that is the stratus of CMH legends.

To put a million vertical feet of skiing in perspective takes some backing up. To start with, that equates to 190 miles of vertical, which at an average slope angle of 30 degrees is 379 miles of skiing. Skiing this far on groomed slopes is one thing, but to do it totally off-piste in a range of wild snow conditions takes an accomplished skier. While the norm may be blissful powder, the reality includes bumping over deadfall, busting through crud and surviving glop, all of which guarantee that you can only become a millionaire the old fashion way: by earning it one turn at a time. Intermediate hacks need not apply.

On a "standard" trip, guests will hit their guaranteed minimum of 100k of skiing on their third or forth day. In years past, rabid groups were able to crack 200,000 feet of skiing per week, although new flying regulations have made that harder, if not impossible to achieve. Even at 150k per week and skiing two weeks per season, it will still take you three to five years to earn your Million Foot CMH powder suit, which has now been upgraded to matching pants and jacket from Marmot. Any way you carve it, a million feet of skiing is a lot of turns.

Which makes people like Carolyn and Ned Damon legendary. Carolyn and Ned have respectively skied 12 and 14 million feet of vertical with CMH, which is a staggering amount of skiing. Conservatively, that is 8-10 weeks per season or almost full time at a CMH lodge for 10-12 years. It boggles the mind to think of some of the incredible skiing they must have had, and has enticed others as well. One guest who stands a chance of catching up to them has reserved an entire lodge for a week of personal use and just skis by himself or takes the staff out. These are some of the most avid skiers on earth and you most likely have never heard of them.

Of course the real vertical pigs are the guides who have been there all season long for decades on end. When asked how many million feet they are up to, they politely feign ignorance, possibly to avoid upstaging a guest, although I suspect they secretly keep track and it is a very, very large number.

Each million-foot milestone is calibrated and celebrated by the staff and other guests. Skiers know to the run or even fraction of a run, when they are going to turn their vertical odometer over and celebrate mid slope by passing through a colonnade of upheld ski poles or break through a ceremonial ribbon.

Playing the Odds
One reason CMH can guarantee at least 100,000 feet of skiing per week is that the weather usually cooperates. The helicopter pilots fly by sight and need about half a mile of visibility to operate safely in the mountains. Historically, CMH only has five days out of a twenty week season when the weather is too socked in to operate. Tragically, most of those five days occurred on our trip. If it wasn't snowing, it was raining. To make matters worse, the lower elevations didn't have much snow, the upper elevations were cloaked in unflyable clouds, and the sides were all threatened by avalanches. On days when we could fly for a few hours, our choice of terrain was restricted to a few short nearby shots. The closest we came to experiencing the Cariboo range was to look at a scale model of it through a glass coffee table.

Everyone from the guests to the staff were understanding of the unfortunate situation. The CMH veterans said they had never seen a week like this in 30 years of skiing, so the company went out of its way to issue credit for future skiing. All told, instead of hitting our 100k in the first few days, the trip totaled 42,000 feet for the entire week. But that is how skiing goes--you can't win if you don't play, and occasionally there will be shut outs.

As if to set the hook for a future return, the clouds parted the morning we had to leave and we were able to fly to a high glacier for three classic runs. After getting dropped off on the summit, we looked out over the CMH Cariboo terrain which stretched as far as you could see with stunning peaks, beautiful glades and endless skiing opportunities. Mt. Robson beamed with alpenglow in the distance as we carved long sweeping turns through miles of silky snow, then finally come to a stop just as the Bell 212 swooped in to whisk us away for the last time.

With all of the associated variables, "The World's Greatest Skiing" is an outlandish claim only a company like CMH could make with a straight face. Even if they can't control the weather, they stack the odds in your favor of finding the perfect skiing experience by removing obstacles that might detract from your pursuit of powder. With the terrain, snow, lodges, guides and facilities already in place, all you have to do is come up with the leg strength and willpower to match.

Getting There
For more information on heli-skiing in Canada, check out the offerings from Canadian Mountain Holidays and British Columbia Tourism and Travel Alberta.

 


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