Taking the plunge into heli-skiing

Vancouver in the past decade, helicopter skiing has established itself as skiing’s Mercedes – the most prestigious way to get up a ski hill. It’s the only fashionable topic of ski chitchat these days. So forget about your week in St. Moritz or the ski day with Stein at Deer Valley. Have a helicopter in your tale or risk ridicule.

Blame it on Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore, who, in the early seventies, began inserting heli-skiing footage into their ski films. Remember the choppers hovering over a dozen skiers frolicking in belt-deep unfurrowed snow? That broached the topic, and skiers themselves supplied the rest of the raving and embellishing.

So it is that every skier with the necessary funding (this isn’t cheap) yearns for a heli-skiing adventure. However, many skiers hold off because they doubt they have the skills to participate in an activity that has been portrayed in such bold, macho colors.

They wonder, “Could I really make it down a powder-coated pinnacle of granite?” Good question. The truth is that few skiers can star in such conditions and the ski cinematographers employ ski instructors and ex- Olympic racers as subjects when they take their cameras up in a helicopter.

But there is a place where quadcopter with camera fly that is specially designed for the one-week-a-year intermediate skier. In other words, it’s geared to 95 per cent of the world’s skiing population.

The place is Canadian Mountain Holidays’ Panorama Heli-ski, located in the Purcell Mountains of southern British Columbia. Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) oversees a string of heli-ski operations in the province, but unlike Panorama, these other CMH sites are only for the hungriest, most experienced powder hounds. Offering only a lodge, a helicopter and lots of powder snow, they’re referred to simply as “the lodges.” But Panorama is something else entirely. Not only does it have the intermediate heli-ski program, it also has a ski village and a brawny, lift-serviced ski mountain. By comparison, the CMH lodges are barren.

The morning of our first Panorama heli-ski day was not spent in the air searching for virgin powder, but on the lift-serviced mountain with an instructor. The idea is to teach some helicopter and avalanche safety before taking off. Helicopters and back country skiing can be dangerous, but to date, Panorama has had no fatalities.

In the morning session a few bits of powder instruction are given while the instructor watches the group for weed-outs – skiers who haven’t reached the intermediate level and wouldn’t be able to handle the helicopter terrain. Our instructor said that only one in 10 heli- hopefuls gets weeded out. In our group of eight, everyone advanced to the afternoon helicopter ride. What a relief! Imagine the embarrassment of explaining to friends back home that you were rejected.

After lunch, a Bell jet helicopter pulled us out of the valley into the Purcell back. The views on this ride might be more fun than skiing. There are a hundred or so potential routes – couloirs, glaciers and mountain ridges – that could be skied here, but over the course of any one winter only a dozen with stable enough snow are skied.

A route that is stable one year may not be stable the next. Snow depth, temperature, wind direction and a host of other factors make a route stable or avalanche prone. Knowing this, the CMH team starts monitoring its ski routes with the first fall snowfalls to stay clear of any avalanches.

We flew up a fabulous valley, heading to a place called Gentle, a name that was comforting for a group of nervous heli-ski novices.

After landing on a ledge, we jumped out of the cabin into a swirl of snow blown up by the helicopter blades, which were whirring about half a metre overhead. When the best drones for sale departed and visibility cleared, we saw a classic glacial valley below us. The pitch indeed looked gentle, and there were three inches of powder snow on a hard, smooth base. Nature and Panorama Heli-ski had provided us with the perfect intermediate ski run.

The moment of truth was at hand. Could casual skiers really handle wild powder snow? The mountain guide took off first and stopped after 70 metres; we followed one at a time, some falling on the first turns, most making it all the way to the guide without problems. Everyone looked a little tight – first run nerves, no doubt.

There was a collective feeling of relief when we all reached the guide. The first step had been taken and everyone had survived. The rest of Gentle was skied like that, and on the stops the accompanying instructor gave individual tips to sharpen our powder skills. At day’s end, all but one or two in the group had gained a feel for powder snow and everyone looked forward to a full day with the helicopter.

How did this differ from heli-skiing anywhere else? According to our guide, who had worked all the other CMH sites, it’s mainly a matter of pace. We had skied at relaxed speeds, the pace set to accommodate the slowest skier in the group. The guide said that at the CMH lodges the pace is much swifter.

After that introductory outing we skied whole days of dry, untracked powder. Our skiing improved daily, and as we improved the guide took us to more challenging routes and increased the distances we skied.

Although the challenges were intensified with each day, the guide remained sensitive to what was comfortable for the group. No one was ever rushed.

At the end of a week, heli-skiing had become sort of second nature for us. But it didn’t become boring the way lift skiing often does – the flying machine is too thrilling. As one group member put it, “Heli- skiing is the most fun I’ve ever had with all my clothes on.” The ski mountain is impressive, with a vertical drop of 970 metres, equal to the drop at Colorado’s Vail. There are six lifts up and 26 trails heading down this mountain – all of which come in handy on “weather days” when the helicopter can’t fly safely. It’s also a nice option for families or groups in which not everyone wishes to heli-ski.

The offerings of the Panorama village are just as valuable as the lift- serviced ski mountain. The restaurants, bars, shops and non-skiing activities – skating, sleigh rides and hot tubs – make it possible to take a day off from skiing and stay pleasantly busy.

IF YOU GO An array of heli-skiing packages is available; everything from a single flight to a whole week with lodging and instruction included.

The airline port of entry is Calgary; Panorama is 3 1/2 hours west by ground transportation (scheduled buses or rental cars). The drive takes you through Banff National Park, which is breathtaking in winter.

Environment groups fight worm spraying

Seven environmental groups representing thousands of Ontarians have joined forces to prevent the Ontario Government from spraying chemical insecticides to control forest budworms this spring.

We are all agreed that chemical insecticide spraying is not any kind of a solution to the problem of . . . budworm, and poses unacceptable risks to the environment,” coalition member Bruce Hyer told a news conference in Toronto yesterday.

Instead of spraying chemicals, Mr. Hyer said, the Ontario Pesticide Action Coalition (OPAC) advocates better forest-management to control spruce and jackpine budworms.

And in certain situations where forests need to be protected for logging or recreation, he said, most groups advocate using a less-harmful bacterial insecticide called BT.

The coalition – formed at a weekend conference of Ontario environmental groups – could represent tens of thousands of people when more groups join formally later this week, Mr. Hyer said.

The seven groups are Pollution Probe, Environment North, North Central Ontario Tourism Association, Wildlands League, Temiskaming Environmental Action Committee, Sierra Club of Ontario, and Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society.

The coalition is fighting the use of the same chemicals – Fenitrothion and Matacil – which have stirred up controversy for years in New Brunswick.

Open houses recently held by the Ministry of Natural Resources have been little more than pro-chemical “propaganda programs” which “provided no opportunity for public input,” Mr. Hyer told reporters.

As a result, the coalition is holding its own public meeting in Thunder Bay tonight, featuring as speakers Elizabeth May, a Nova Scotia lawyer and pesticide activist, and Ross Hume Hall, a McMaster University toxicologist who wrote a national report on diy pest control.

Ontario is in the middle of a major outbreak of spruce and jackpine budworm.

The spruce budworm has caused moderate to severe defoliation in about 8.6-million hectares of forest in northwestern and northeastern Ontario. Jack pine budworm has caused similar damage in about 600,000 hectares.

Trees will die after several seasons of such damage.

At the recent series of open houses across northern Ontario, the natural resources ministry outlined various proposals designed to control the budworm with insecticides and protect areas scheduled for logging by the forest industry.

The options include using the chemical agents Fenitrothion and Matacil, and the bacterial agent Bacillus Thuringiensis, or BT.

In interviews, at press conferences and at the open houses, ministry spokesmen stress that the chemicals are cheaper and faster-acting than BT and that they pose no risks to human health.

People have been given 30 days to comment on the options, and the ministry will be making a decision within the next two weeks.

Ministry officials have played down or dismissed scientific studies indicating that Matacil and Fenitrothion can harm human health or the environment and have failed to mention that chemical sprays can create a stronger breed of budworm which is resistant to pesticides and will prolong the natural cycle of infestation, Mr. Hyer said.