Saturday, November 12, 2011

Heli-skiing: the height of adventure

Heli-skiing is intense -- at least you can rest on a ski lift. And with rates starting at $3,800 for three days, you don't dare waste a moment. 

by Julian Smith

When I first heard I'd be joining a trip with Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in Blue River, B.C., I was speechless with joy.

To many serious skiers and snowboarders, heli-skiing is the ultimate: limitless, untracked powder snow; top-notch guides, lodgings and food; and best of all no lifts, let alone lift lines.

In business since 1970, Wiegele is the granddaddy of Canadian heli-ski operators. They're known as much for their five-star facilities as the terrain they have access to: 1.2 million acres in the Cariboo and Monashee Mountains, more than all North American ski resorts combined.

Then I remembered I'd been snowboarding exactly once since our daughter was born two years ago. Toddlers: can't ski with them, too expensive to ski without them. I wasn't just out of practice; I was practically off the team.

Heli-skiing is intense -- at least you can rest on a ski lift. And with rates starting at $3,800 for three days, you don't dare waste a moment.

My trip to Blue River, a three-hour drive north of Kamloops, B.C., was a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Could I keep up? Would I blow out a knee on the first run and spend three days watching "Oprah" reruns?

Wiegele's Heli Village resort has an Old World alpine luxury, with massive buildings made of reused old-growth logs and smooth river stones. My first task after checking in -- next to a sign listing two dozen things that can kill you in the backcountry -- was to sign a two-page waiver I'm surprised didn't include the word "firstborn."

It was reassuring to hear that safety is Wiegele's No. 1 priority. Every guide has extensive safety and rescue training, and often decades of experience. The company even started its own certification program, the Canadian Ski Guide Association. Each guide escorts no more than five guests at a time.

That evening I had to watch a 20-minute safety video that boiled down to 1) ski in control, and 2) listen carefully to your guide's instructions. In the morning, head guide Bob Sayer, who runs the CSGA, took our group through a quick lesson on using the avalanche transceivers everyone has to carry.

The palm-sized devices give off a constant signal that other transceivers can detect up to 300 feet away, or under deep snow.

"Minus 12 is my favorite temperature," Sayer said, looking at the thermometer. "At minus 20 the snow is too slow, and at zero you start to sweat." A 24-year Wiegele veteran, Sayer has guided some clients for over 15 years. (Eighty percent of Wiegele's clients are repeat guests.)

Our freshly tuned skis and snowboards were waiting at the helipad, 30 feet from the door of our chalets. The helicopter roared in and 12 of us -- two guides and 10 clients -- scrambled in. We took off feeling like alpine commandos amid the noise and helmets and layers of gear.

Wiegele has access to 10 choppers, so they can fine-tune groups according to experience. Guests regularly notch up 30,000 vertical feet or more in a day, the equivalent of 11 runs from top to bottom at Mt. Hood Meadows. Children and less adventurous spouses can go snowcat skiing on nearby Saddle Mountain.

This part of the northern Rockies averages more than 30 feet of snow a year. The guides track the weather carefully using three remote weather stations and are acutely aware of the ever-changing risk of avalanche. With access to so much territory, they can almost always find somewhere with good snow.

After a five-minute flight, the helicopter set us down in a huge snow-filled bowl. After the hurricane of its departure, the shining silence was absolute.

Guide Erich Schadinger dug a pit in the snow to check for buried layers that could slide and cause an avalanche. Everything looked fine, so he and guide Scott Streadwick led us down into a skiers' playground of rolling hills, gullies and hummocks, all buried in soft, knee-deep powder.

I was the only one in the group on a snowboard -- everyone else was on fat powder skis -- and I was just fine with that. Snowboarding in deep powder is almost effortless. The board practically steers itself; all you have to do is lean back and carve turn after turn after turn.

When we gathered at the landing spot at the bottom of the bowl, the flushed faces showed that everyone else was as ecstatic as I was.

We did 13 runs in all the first day. As hard as I tried, I couldn't think of any way the experience could be any better. The helicopter rides broke up the runs perfectly, and added an extra frisson of excitement of their own. There was never more than 10 minutes between finishing one run and starting the next.

The pilot always set down within a foot of the marker posts the guides stuck in the snow. He made one impressive landing on top of a hill barely big enough for the helicopter's skids.

After three hours we stopped at a midmountain hut for a lunch of butternut squash soup, sandwiches and hot cider. Then it was back to the slopes.

My energy started flagging after lunch, especially when I had to unclip my snowboard again and again to flounder across flat spots that everyone else could skis across. Schadinger's announcement that this was our last run came as a guilty relief. I felt like we'd done two resort days in six hours.

My full-body ache faded somewhat when word came that it was free beer night in the Silver Buckle Bar. The name comes from a prize given to guests who rack up a million vertical feet. And tonight was sushi night. Tomorrow our guides hoped to take us skiing in the trees.

Two more days? I think I'll make it.

-- Julian Smith

No comments:

Post a Comment