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Heli-Skiing in British Columbia's Bugaboo Mountains

What we learned from a gang of powder-shredding, heli-raising 80-year-olds in southeastern B.C.

Heli-Skiing in British Columbia

The helicopter slows down to a hover as it descends to the Vowell Glacier. I look out at the expanse of blue and white. There, in the rotor-whipped haze between heaven and earth, I make out a group of skiers tracing smooth S’s in the snow, as if they’re braiding the white tresses of a mountain goddess. I glance at the seven other skiers inside the helicopter, all of them 65-plus-year-olds who’ve been coming here for decades as part of Canadian Mountain Holidays Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures’ (CMH) Nostalgia Week, an annual gathering of heli-ski veterans. They’re grinning and telling me I’m in for the best powder on the planet. But I’m a newbie, so my stomach is churning equal parts excitement and performance anxiety.

Our drop-off spot sparkles with snow crystals and sunshine. Reaching almost 3,500 metres, the granite Bugaboo spires circling us have crowned this part of the Purcell Mountains, not far from Radium Hot Springs in southeastern British Columbia, for more than 90 million years. Soon we’ll be tracing lines beneath the jagged peaks that poke through vast swaths of ice. Giddy, we hop onto our skis and one by one drop in behind our guide, floating downhill in our bright orange, blue and green jackets, like a ribbon of Himalayan prayer flags. By the time we get to the bottom, my apprehension has turned into an overwhelming urge to do it again.

Canadians take great pride in having invented hockey, but few of us know that heli-skiing was born here, too. After the Second World War, two Austrian ex-pats, Hans Gmoser and his right-hand man Leo Grillmair, moved to Edmonton and then Calgary in search of work. On off days, they’d hike and rock climb Banff’s backcountry, in search of uncharted hills to ski. Soon, they started leading tours and needed a faster uphill ride, so the duo hired a two-seater helicopter. By 1965 they founded CMH in Banff, the world’s first heli-ski company, taking brave skiers to terrain no one had tracked before. Since then, heli-ski lodges have popped up all over the world, but B.C. remains the leader, accounting for 80 percent of the sport’s global market thanks, in part, to the famously light and dry snow that falls in abundance on the Columbia range, the spine of the province’s interior.

Heli-Skiing in British Columbia

At the Bugaboos Lodge, a rough-hewn timber structure that’s gotten better with age (a spa, gym, climbing wall and mountaineering museum occupy us during downtime), I settle in for prime rib and Okanagan cabernet with the elder statesmen and -women of the mountains, including Grillmair himself. Now 87, he strides into the lodge’s drying room to drop his boots, and spins yarns about first ascents and misadventures that led to broken skis, climbing ropes and legs (the last one acquired in an effort to impress some girls). He still skis but sticks to the soft deep stuff, which is easier on the body.

Andy, an 82-year-old regular, says this winter will be his 70th trip. “In the 1980s, we just stayed in a bunch of trailers they’d put together, and I was not a great skier, but everybody helped me learn. That’s the most amazing thing about heli-skiing – you’re going to use every single skill you’ve learned over the years all in one day – or one run, even.” And Brenda, a Vancouver Island gal who’s just shy of 75 and rides a motor-cycle, tells me about her first time back in 1975: “The snow was sparkling like there were diamonds in it. I did 40 turns and couldn’t believe what I’d done. It’s addictive,” she says.

Heli-Skiing in British Columbia

The group is divided up according to ability and desired difficulty, and I ski with the Powder Masters, going a bit slower than the daredevils who jump off cliffs and pop pillow-topped trees. CMH has us shredding runs with names like Seventh Heaven, Powder Pig, Route 66 and Top of the World. To get to the slopes each morning, we shuffle out to the helicopter pad with our pontoon-like skis (the wider the better for floating on top of the powder), where our main guide, Jeff, checks that our avalanche transceivers are on. It doesn’t take long to master the heli-huddle, crouching shoulder to shoulder with one knee on the ground for stability when the chopper lands (the thrust from the rotor can topple you if you don’t brace yourself). I’ve also gotten used to the blades chopping the air into chunks of sound, and the pilot setting down the machine less than two metres from us.

We shuffle inside and make our way up to Chalice, a run so wide it takes a whole day to track it out. The descent starts out mellow enough, which warms up my legs. Then it dips through a steep fall line that smooths before it hits clusters of alder trees. Our guides, Jeff, Kathy and JMac, ski at the lead, centre and tail, respectively, weaving us through tight turns in the woods, then out into the open powder. When we get to the bottom, we wait for our ride to pick us up for the three-minute flight back to the top, and then repeat a dozen times. At lunch, the other three groups join us for an alfresco meal beamed in by a smaller heli. Sitting under the pale sun at the base of Chalice, we dig into soup and sandwiches, tea and cookies. It could be the post-run endorphins, the oxygen-starved atmosphere or maybe the gasp-inducing view of the rough-hewn rock pinnacles standing sentinel in the valley below us, but I feel like I’ve reached a momentary state of grace.

Heli-Skiing in British Columbia

That is, until I fall. Being somewhat competitive, I hate feeling like an underperformer, but eventually my quads conk out or I lose balance, and getting up after tumbling deep into the white stuff takes muscle power, unless you score a helping hand. Everyone tells me not to be so hard on myself, so the next time I go down, I make a snow angel – from the waist up, because, well, my skis are tucked under three feet of powder. I might as well enjoy the moment. Andy sees me and nods approvingly. “Don’t take yourself too seriously and you’ll keep skiing forever.” he says. Forever seems like a long time. A hankering for an IPA by the fireplace wins out at the moment, and by four o’clock we’re back at the lodge, clinking pint glasses and tucking into pita bread with artichoke dip. We drink to the best terrain money can buy. (The price is as steep as the slopes, ranging from $6,000 to $14,000 per week, because keeping a helicopter airborne for even a single hour costs around $4,000. But for these devotees, “the holy grail of skiing,” as they call it, is worth the price.)

By my last day at Bugs, I feel like I’m on family vacation with a bunch of wise aunts and uncles who have a knack for blending life advice with tips on my form. “It’s like when I said you should keep your arms forward and ski more aggressively,” says Bob, age 75. “Same with any other activity in life: Don’t hesitate.” Perched at the top of a steep, narrow chute, Andy tells me, “As you age, you might want to adjust how you ski, or slow down a bit so you don’t get into trouble.” Then he pulls on his goggles and drops in, followed closely by Brenda. Bob gives me a fist bump and pushes off the edge, too. I wait until he gets to the bottom before I point my skis downhill. I know he’s looking, so I try to emulate Brenda’s fluid moves. But there’s an elegance to her form that can only be earned through decades of adventure and experience. And so, I stop trying and in my own imperfect way head down to the group. At the bottom, we exchange high-fives, and I vow never to retire my skis.


What the Heli? A pocket glossary

Heli-Skiing in British Columbia

Flat light

When shadows are virtually non-existent, the contrast on snow is low. This makes it impossible to fly and difficult to ski because you can’t make out the ground beneath your feet.

Snowbase

This computer program lets guides track conditions, including snow pack, weather, avalanche risk and more, for planning a day’s outing in the morning or debriefing in the late afternoon.

Sucker hole

A fleeting opening of blue sky on an overcast day will have heli-skiers suited up and ready to head out in a flash.

Vertical

On a day with great visibility (that is, the pilot has no problem taking you places), you might clock 9,000 vertical metres, which is the number of metres skied in terms of elevation drop, while on a “low-viz” day you might have to settle for 1,500.

Weigh-in

Guides keep track of everyone’s weight, adding 30 pounds for gear, so they can distribute the helicopter’s loads evenly among groups.


Safety First: Bugaboos Essentials

Arc’teryx

Day Pack

Trust B.C. brand Arc’teryx to design a day pack for the province’s wild slopes: Sturdy straps let you tether skis and poles to the exterior, and easy-access pockets let you grab your probe, shovel and whistle on the quick.
 
Arc’teryx Khamski 31 Day Pack, $280, arcteryx.com
 
Backcountry Access

Transceiver

At 335 grams, this avalanche transceiver weighs less than a bag of trail mix and is one of the lightest on the market. It lasts for around 250 hours and sends signals up to 55 metres.
 
Backcountry Access Tracker3 Avalanche Transceiver, $370, backcountryaccess.com
 
Backcountry Access

Extendable Shovel

The same ultralight, super-strong aluminium often used in bike frames and airplanes makes for an (almost) indestructible tool.
 
Backcountry Access B-1 EXT Shovel, $60, backcountryaccess.com
 
G3

Avalanche Probe

Should a ski buddy end up buried under six feet of snow, an aluminum steel probe lets you narrow in on his or her spot by poking the avalanche pack wherever a transceiver beacon indicates a person below.
 
G3 Speed Tech Probe, $69, mec.ca
 

Tags

BRITISH COLUMBIA     CANADA     SKI DESTINATIONS     SKIING    

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