Helicopter Skiing in British Columbia
After 6 years of coming here it is about time I share what my now annual heli skiing adventure in British Columbia is like. The place I’ve been going to every first week of December is called Mike Wiegele Heli Skiing. It is a combination of the most picturesque and breathtaking mountains in the world combined with a 5 star resort. With over 1 million acres of powder filled terrain that includes 1,000+ peaks spanning the Carribou and Monashe mountain ranges in the Canadian Rockies, it is a skiing destination second to none.
After each incredible day of skiing, winding down in the luxurious accommodations in one of the 4 properties here is just what the doctor ordered. More on that later since it’s really secondary to the skiing experience but equally excellent and unique.
The only downside yet still enticing characteristic of this place is the location. Located in Blue River, Canada it is a schlep and a half to get to. Coming from the east coast of the US I need to take a flight from Newark to Toronto, Toronto to Vancouver, Vancouver to Kamloops then drive for 3 hours. Blue River does have a private runway for those that don’t want to fly commercial :-). Another option to avoid the 3 hour drive is to arrange for one of the helicopters to pick you up from the Kamloops airport. Many travel much further, from Europe and South America. Everyone agrees that the travel time is very worth it.
My journey begins with a 4 AM unwelcome alarm, followed by the flights above and then meeting up with some of my posey in Kamloops, the group is named Calypso. We then either get a ride, rent an SUV or hire a car service for the final leg. I’ve done the ride in great conditions and in white knuckle white out conditions at night. The former is so much less stressful but in all instances, 15 minutes after arrival it is a distant memory and the vacation begins in earnest.
Fast forwarding to skiing…. Ok, skiing prep actually. The resort provides each guest with powder skis and many brands to chose from. You have to bring your own boots and they adjust the bindings on the skis of your choice. You can change skis as many times as you want during the trip. The on premise ski shop has everything you need or may have forgotten.
Last step before takeoff is transceiver and avalanche rescue training. Highly unlikely on the runs the guides and pilot carefully scope out but always a possibility. Everyone needs to wear a transceiver and a shovel pack that contains a collapsible probe and shovel for finding and digging out potential victims.
In my 6 years of skiing here we haven’t used them once. We do fly over avalanches all the time and hear them once in a while. Again, the guides and pilots are trained professionals and do an awesome job of keeping everyone out of harms way. As one of my German buddies put it to me, “the only danger to you around here is you”. Personal joke, long story.
Take off….after the gear loading, seat-belting and the game of knee Tetris is complete we finally take off from the resort to a destination yet unknown, at least to us. Weather conditions are the main determinant to which mountain range we fly to and once there our eagle eyed and powder guru guides and pilot pick a landing spot. Flight time, 5 to 10 minutes.
Landing and de-choppering (is that a word?) on a peak or close to one is yet another of many unique and heart pounding experiences. Due to all the snow there is never a flat level surface to land on. Landing zones are marked by wooden stakes that have orange ribbons on them that are put in place the prior week during guide training and remain for the season.
Danni expertly sets down the bird and maintains near full throttle (in case we need to suddenly take off) while it starts to settle into the super deep powder. It’s landing skids get completely submerged into the snow and it comes to rest on the belly of the helicopter. Somewhat level due to weight distribution but not always. Once The pilot feels it is safe, he lowers the throttle for our final thump onto terra firma and our 2nd guide (tail guide) who always sits by the door opens it for all of us to exit.
Coming out, every single time, is like stepping into a cloud. Without skis on, you immediately sink into waist deep snow. It takes considerable effort to swim forward and allow the rest of the group out of the chopper. Since the tail guide is the first out he goes over to the ski bucket on the other side and removes all our skis and snow boards. Lastly, the lead guide comes out of the front left seat, checks to make sure we are all out and that the main door is closed. He then closes his door and gives the pilot a thumbs up to take off and leave us.
The incredible noise and wind generated by a helicopter takeoff is soon replaced by utter silence with only majestic scenery completely enveloping us. The first time of the week blows everyone’s mind, even the ones doing this for over 20 years. Frankly, each of the next 60 or more times has an equal effect. It is breathtaking.
The silence is always broken by a very loud “Yeah baby!!!”, “Holy Moley!!!!”, “Let’s go skiing!!!” or “This again?!?!?”. And the ski/snow board distribution begins. All skis are labeled with our names and the tail guide starts calling out names, getting a “here!” as a response followed by a torpedo in the form of your skis being thrown in your general direction.
Putting these on in a resort on hard packed snow is a walk in the park compared to trying to put on skis in deep powder that is freezing the snow to your warm boots and not being able to lay the ski flat on the ground for binding entry. The proper technique calls for placing both skis at about a 35* angle into the snow up to the rear binding. Followed by removing the ice that has formed on your boots by kicking the bottom against the bindings and then attempting to clip in. Many times success is achieved after the first attempt. Many times it is not. Try and try again until your skis are on or someone helps you. No skier left behind.
While everyone is putting their skis on the lead guide has gone about 30 yards and scoped out the run he’s chosen. Once we’ve all gathered by him he reminds us how many people we are in total. That number is important because in case of an avalanche we need to know how many we are looking for. I mention this because it’s a reality and a required safety routine but in my opinion you’re more likely to be bit by a shark before you fall victim to an avalanche under the supervision of these pros.
I’ve written a lot already without getting to actual skiing yet. I’ll let the pics speak for themselves since it is really hard for me to put “unreal” into words.
After each run, heli pickups come in multiple flavors. One is, we ski to a spot that has been pre determined between the lead guide and the pilot and the bird is silently waiting for us as we come out of the trees or down the slope one by one.
The other option is after we’ve gathered at the end of a run the lead guide radios for a pickup.
We repeat all of the above about 7 to 10 times a day starting at 9:15 AM until 2:30’ish. Runs last about 15 to 30 minutes, longer later in the season. During the week we cover about 120,000 ft of vertical descent burning 700 liters of fuel a day. There have been a few days in the past 6 years where bad weather resulted in a down day or delays where we just sit by a raging fire in the chalet and wait to go up again when it clears.
Once we’re done for the day and are flown back to our chalet we finish what ever was left of the lunch, typically hot soup and more of the above and that is when the drinking program begins. What better way to end an epic day of skiing than with a few shots of Russian Standard, some beers or some wine!?
|In menorah formation to commemorate Chanukah|
The time between this and dinner is spent napping, working, getting a massage, hitting the sauna and/or gym or plain old chilling and recuperating from the day’s cold and exertion by a fire. By 6 / 6:30 it’s time to head to the main bar for some more pre-gaming.
We spend time re-telling the tales of the day’s adventure. There is always something funny to replay and come down on the person(s) in the middle of it. All in good fun and never mean spirited. I typically provide great fodder for these conversations.
|I only fell twice (with a camera near by)|
Any write up about this place would not be complete without a shout out to our lead guide Erich, affectionately known as Powder Daddy. He is one of the matriarchs of this place. He skis like no one I have ever seen in my life, while carrying a very heavy emergency backpack. He is in phenomenal shape and has an après ski workout routine that would exhaust you by just watching him. Lastly, he has been featured in 3 Warren Miller films. Thank you Erich for finding the best powder runs time and time again and keeping us safe.
To finish up, another big shout out to our pilot Danni for taxi-ing us to and from every run all day every day for 8 days straight. Every single take off and landing is done with such care and precision that it’s beautiful to experience and be part of. I greatly enjoy our many diner conversations with him and with the rest of the crew as well. Love your fly by’s Danni!