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.

Fun At The Fair

LUXURY BRANDS WILL INTRODUCE THEIR LATEST KEY MODELS AT BASELWORLD. HERE ARE THREE.

DIOR VIII MONTAIGNE

Two years after the launch of the Dior VIII, Christian Dior is introducing a variant, the Dior VIII Montaigne, which reflects founder Christian Dior’s fondness for gray by reinterpreting the watch in steel.

The new timepieces take the pillar line in a more feminine direction, with slenderized horns, a slimmed down case and a softer version of the bracelet featuring pyramid-shaped links. Whereas the Dior VIII came in two sizes – 33 mm. and 38 mm. – the Dior VIII Montaigne is available in 25 mm., 32 mm. and 36 mm.

Laurence Nicolas, president of Christian Dior watches and fine jewelry, noted it was a departure from the sporty black ceramic models that made up the core of the Dior VIII collection.

“Steel is essentially a way for us to talk about the Dior gray,” she said. “No doubt, it will also allow us to attract customers looking for something more understated, particularly with the 25-mm. watch. It has a very timeless feel, a refined but discreet elegance, especially with the alligator strap, which is also a novelty for us this year.”

The collection consists of 20 references ranging from stainless steel quartz watches to a limited-edition Grand Bal automatic timepiece featuring a pink gold oscillating weight on the dial decorated with mother-of-pearl marquetry and set with diamonds.

With prices ranging from 2,800 euros to 58,000 euros, or $3,900 to $80,770 at current exchange, the line will go on sale worldwide in July.

The ad campaign, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, will break on June 20.

CHANEL J12-365

Chanel hopes the new version of its cult J12 watch is the kind women won’t want to take off.

It has dubbed the timepiece J12-365 to reflect its appeal as a more feminine spin on the sporty black and white timepieces launched in 2000, which have been credited with popularizing the use of ceramic in watch manufacturing.

Nicolas Beau, international director of watches at Chanel, said the case has been made slimmer and slightly smaller, with a diameter – coincidentally – of 36.5 mm., compared with 38 mm. to 42 mm. for the previous versions.

“Originally, the J12 was a unisex and rather sporty watch,” he noted. “We wanted to create a totally feminine version.”

The watch has been stripped of its rotating bezel, giving the dial a fresh feel, accentuated by guilloche finishing and a running seconds subdial at six o’clock. Diamond settings are now placed inside the case, instead of on the bezel.

“Opening up the dial makes the watch feel quite big. It is 36.5-mm. wide, but the visual perception is almost identical to a 38 mm.,” Beau said. “That remains an important element of the J12, which has always had a strong presence, both visually and on the wrist. Only now, you have the comfort of a small watch.

The watches come in black or white ceramic with accents of stainless steel or beige gold, a new alloy exclusive to Chanel.

Priced 4,500 euros to 15,000 euros, or $6,270 to $20,890, they will go on sale in June.

EMPORIO ARMANI SWISS MADE

Emporio Armani is taking its watches upscale with the launch of Emporio Armani Swiss Made. The 51-piece range, which goes on limited release today, will be officially unveiled in Basel and start shipping globally in July.

Giorgio Armani said the timepieces, inspired by the Thirties and Forties, were “not overly precious” and designed for everyday use.

“Designer watches are usually just beautiful objects. I strive instead for something more,” the designer said. “I have created a new watch collection for Emporio Armani that while being elegant, streamlined and subtle, is also wonderfully functional.

“I wanted to create the most precise watches – when it comes to technology and manufacturing – and to match this precision with the most precise design, which is where my expertise comes in,” he added.

Kosta Kartsotis, chief executive officer of Fossil Group Inc., the licensee for Emporio Armaniwatches, said Armani brought his exacting eye to the design process.

“Throughout his career, he has melded old-world craftsmanship with modern technology to create indelible images in the fashion and design industries. The creative process for this collection was fascinating,” Kartsotis said.

Prices range from around $700 to $1,500.

The launch is part of a broader move by Fossil to bring Swiss technology to its fashion brands, specifically by increasing its production capacities for watch movements and cases in Switzerland, with an eye to catering to Asian demand in particular, said Luis Samaniego, senior vice president of luxury brands at Fossil.

Despite economy, watches are timeless

The sense of ongoing regional gloom did not spoil the relatively upbeat mood of the recent Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair.

The show is one of the leading trade fairs in the world for the fine watch and jewelry industry, surpassed in scope only by the World Watch and Clock Fair in Basel, Switzerland.

Hong Kong watch exhibitors were looking to add to already healthy export orders. Through May, exports to the U.S. and Europe, Hong Kong’s leading markets, increased by 9 and 11 percent, respectively. Last year, combined watch and clock domestic exports and reexports from China (sales by Hong Kong manufacturers working on the mainland) topped $6 billion.

Unlike many trade fairs staged in Hong Kong, this one boasted a significant U.S. presence, with heavyweight importers and volume retailers in attendance. The show, which ended its five-day run Sept. 13, offered 800 exhibitors from 15 countries. Some 80 percent were from Hong Kong, slightly up from last year. Some 15,000 visitors walked the fair.

Big buyers like Kmart or Wal-Mart want new designs every day,” said Kimberly Fayet Whiley, director of Far East operations for Fantasma, a New York wholesaler that produces licensed character watches in Hong Kong and China. “That’s very difficult for most manufacturers, even the largest ones, so buyers will still look at what wholesalers are offering.”

Egana International, a leading Hong Kong manufacturer with worldwide licensing and distribution rights for brands such as Esprit and Cerruti, had a steady flow of visitors.

“In addition to the Esprit watch line, which we have built up over the past four to five years with distributors in 44 countries, we’re here showing Esprit’s silver jewelry line, which we introduced earlier this year,” said product manager Eva-Sofia Schlachtberger.

She said she made new contacts from Australia, Asia and the Mideast at the fair.

“We see more European buyers at Basel, while U.S. buyers are mostly looking at low-end here,” she said.

For many of the 39 prestige imported brands that exhibited with their Hong Kong dealers in the Premier section, a new feature of the show, the fair seemed to have been a success.

“We’ve had very positive results and met with lots of new China customers,” said Nigel Luk, general manager of the wholesale department for Cartier, which operates eight stores in China.

Luk said the market there was stable and showing growth the last three years.

“The TDC [Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the fair organizers] have also joined Hong Kong dealers in jointly sponsoring trips for China buyers,” he continued. “We used to show in Beijing, but the Hong Kong event is more cost effective. We also have lower insurance costs and are able to show a larger collection.”

“We really like this event,” echoed Daniel Rogger, vice president of sales and marketing for Tissot, a division of the Swatch Group. “We’ve met so far with Chinese retail buyers from about 30 cities.”

Rogger added that Chinese consumers were rapidly becoming more sophisticated and were some of the most demanding in the world.

“Although rural people still like gold or goldplating, urbanites prefer stainless steel,” he said. “Our retailers tell us that whereas only five years ago Chinese-made watches dominated the market, now up to 80 percent of watches sold in major cities are imported. Also, more and more Chinese are going after sporty or diver watches and chronographs. This was unheard of even a year ago.”

Helping to spur sales of imported watches in China are plummeting import duties — now in the 20 to 25 percent range, down from roughly 110 percent a few years ago.

L.A. Gear moves into watches

L.A. Gear, Los Angeles-based fashion athletic shoe company, has expanded its focus from feet to wrists. The firm has added a line of watches, starting with the holiday season. The watches are being produced in a company factory, recently purchased in Hong Kong.

Robert Greenberg, president of L.A. Gear, estimated first-year wholesale sales of $2 million. “The L.A. Gear name will attract the customers attention, and that is what we are initially relying on,” said Greenberg. “We’re looking to find our own niche in the watch market.

Greenberg said the company is adamant about keeping the watches distinctly different from other sport watches on the market. “We have our own silhouettes, colors and band treatments that are true to the L.A. Gear name.”

Since the watches wholesale for $18, greenberg hopes to see consumers buying them in multiples, wearing two or three at a time.

Aimed at the teenage market, the collection consists of 35 different styles categorized into two lines: sport and basic. All watches have metal cases and either Japanese or Swiss movements. Leather and plastic bands come in pastel and bright shades, and two expandable bands are also included.

“Nineteen-eighty-nine is our year of unbelievable growth,” said Greenberg, “and the watches will add to that.”