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.