Snow Flurries: British Columbia Heliskiing
by Kim McHugh
(Photos courtesy of Randy Lincks/Andrew Doran — TLH Heliskiing)
The storm clouds made themselves at home in the mountainous valley like a sports fanatic in a La-Z-Boy chair, dropping snowflakes the size of quarters. Normally this would be good news because of the foot of fresh powder, but I am at a heliskiing lodge in Gold Bridge, British Columbia and the inclement weather is preventing the helicopter from taking off.
I sit in the lodge with 40 anxious powder skiers and snowboarders and wait. After an hour the storm shows no signs of letting up and the mood is sullen.This was the last day of a three-day trip to Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa, home to TLH Heliskiing and a luxurious lodge. The two previous days were postcard perfect with deep powder, sunshine and untracked snow, so to be trapped inside spending the day playing billiards was hardly anybody’s idea of a good time.
About the time the moods hit bottom, the storm suddenly quit, the clouds parted like curtains at a Broadway show and the sun beamed. Fifteen minutes later, we were airborne. In another 15 minutes, the 12 passenger, jet-powered Bell 212 helicopter deposited 10 powder hounds and two ACMG certified guides on a ridge about 7,500 feet above sea level somewhere within the boundaries of the Southern Chilcotin Mountains.In front of us stood 830,000 acres of untracked powder, an area of land 100 times the size of Whistler/Blackcomb (two resorts I had visited just days earlier) and 150 times the size of Vail in Colorado.
Our guide refreshed our memories about backcountry hazards, and then slipped over the edge, linking 20 turns in the newly fallen snow. Floating through 20 more turns, he reached the bottom and waved for us to follow.
One by one, our group eased into the snow, floating effortlessly on lodge-provided Rossignol skis and Magtek snowboards, whooping and hollering as we turned.
For me, the allure of heliskiing in Canada was a combination of practicality and emotion. At a resort, where access from high-speed lifts and intensive grooming can quickly eliminate untracked powder, in the backcountry, it can remain untouched for days and even weeks. On a purely visual level, I believe no ski area in the western United States compares with the Canadian Rockies in terms of vastness and sheer beauty.
After adjusting my goggles, I pointed my skis downhill and took off. Designed to float through powder and crud, the skis easily negotiated the terrain. Throughout the day the group made its way down runs with names like Playoff, Gun Josie, The Swiss Peaks, Moon Doggie and Cinnabar Ridge, convening at the chopper for the five-minute ride back to the summit.
At lunch, over thick soup and hearty deli sandwiches, we talked about powder as an aphrodisiac, agreeing that we would go to great lengths to find it. Some in our group even chased powder storms to New Zealand and Chile, places where it is winter during North America’s summers.What is cool about a heliskiing/boarding adventure is that it appeals to a wide audience—from experts looking to rack up lots of vertical meters to intermediates wishing to ski or ride helicopter-served terrain perhaps for the first time.
“Since TLH introduced unlimited vertical and a minimum guarantee, less than one percent of our guests have failed to meet their guaranteed vertical,” said Conny Amelunxen, Lead Guide for TLH. “With typical conditions we normally log over 37,500 meters in a week. A few groups every year will log give or take 60,000 meters.”
The big weeks for vertical are normally in March and April when the snow pack is deeper and generally more stable, but January and February can offer some of the coldest, lightest snow. With 375 mapped “runs” and access to several climatic zones in the Coast and Chilcotin Ranges, TLH enables guides to find terrain best suited to its clients.
“Some folks are here for a peaceful week in the mountains, others come for the steeps, and some like exploring new areas for more of an adventure.” added Amelunxen. “With a single group and two guides per machine we can offer so many options.”
At dinner the first night—over wild rice and mushroom soup, a Caesar salad, pan-seared salmon and cheesecake—I discovered that TLH offers several packages, including its Signature, Small Group and Private Platinum experience, which caters to up to ten people. Besides the highly personal attention, one particular aspect of the Platinum package caught my ear—check out the details here. (www.tlhheliskiing.com/heliski-packages/private-platinum/).
Breakfast each day was a flurry of pancakes, eggs, bacon, French toast, and hash browns accompanied by oatmeal, granola, breads and fresh fruit. Prior to heading out every morning, we were apprised of backcountry hazards, including avalanches. Each of us was given avalanche survival items, including a PIEPS, an electronic device that projects a signal.
If I was swept away in a slide, my chances of being found quickly—and alive—improved considerably by wearing the unit. Although the avalanche danger was moderate, it gave me comfort knowing I had it on. Wearing an ABS balloon system backpack also provide peace of mind.
Moving into the last few runs of the day, I began to get “Elvis” legs, a condition where my muscles were so tired, my legs trembled in an up and down motion. These last runs add 200 turns to my day and I am spent. Later that afternoon, as I packed up and boarded the helicopter for the one-hour flight to Vancouver, I knew this adventure would be forever tattooed in my mind.
Season: Late December through April. Typically, the most powder falls in January and March—the busiest months. Make reservations in advance, as the trips will book quickly.
Packages: Packages, which include meals, heliskiing and lodging, are available from three to seven days. January and April represent the best values. Early pre-payment discounts are available. The Whistler Combo package gets guests two days at Whistler/Blackcomb as well as heliskiing.
Pricing: Prices ranges from around $4,900 (CAN) per person for a 3-day package to just under $12,000 (CAN) per person for a 7-day package.
Transportation: Fly into Vancouver on United, Air Canada or Alaska Airlines. Round trip helicopter service is also available from the Pan Pacific Hotels in Vancouver and in Whistler. RT helicopter service is also available from Vancouver or Whistler (additional fee).
Health: You should be in good cardiovascular and muscular shape. Also, altitude sickness is a very real condition. Symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness and a raging headache. Doctors recommend drinking plenty of water a few days before arriving at a higher altitude and while you are visiting.
Ability: You should be at least a strong intermediate level skier or snowboarder. Being in good shape is a real plus.
Gear: New, wider all-terrain skis make staying on top of the snow easier, especially for intermediate level people. Guides, who are well trained and ACMG certified, are also excellent at giving pointers. TLH Heliskiing includes the use of skis and snowboards in its packages. Dress in layers, bring goggles and, as an extra safety measure, wear a helmet!
Operators: Bella Coola Heli Sports, 604-932-3000, www.bellacoolaheliskiing.com; Canadian Mountain Holidays, 800-661-0252, www.canadianmountainholidays.com; Great Canadian Heli-skiing, 866-424-4354, http://canadianheli-skiing.com; Crescent Spur Heli-skiing, 800-715-5532, www.crescentspurheliskiing.com; Last Frontier Heliskiing, 888-655-5566, www.lastfrontierheli.com; Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, 800-661-9170, www.wiegele.com; Purcell Helicopter Skiing, 877-435-4754, http://purcellheliskiing.com; Selkirk Tangiers Heliskiing, 800-663-7080, www.selkirk-tangiers.com; Whistler Heli-skiing, 888-435-4754, www.whistlerheliskiing.com. Look here as well: www.helicatcanada.com.