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Are You Brave Enough to Try Heli-Skiing?

Due north of Vancouver lies some of the best heli-skiing in the West; the trick is to find your courage.

December 1, 2016

By Neal McLennan / Photo: John Forrest

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” I’m not prone to quoting Shakespeare, but with the din of the helicopter rotors as cover, I can’t help it in light of the motley crew surrounding me. Crouched low to my left is a pair of German newlyweds; to the right, an electrical contractor from Edmonton; beside him, a mid-50s finance guy from the Big Smoke. And above us, the heavy blades of an Agusta AW119 helicopter whirring at a lot of RPM. It’s Day 1 of heli-skiing and these are my comrades in arms. There are two types of skiers: those who have heli-skied and those who have not, and for the first 42 years of my life, I belonged to the sadly deprived latter category. Not that I knew my own deprivation, of course, because heli-skiers are the modern alpine equivalent of a secret society, living and skiing among us like normal people, even nodding appreciatively at our stories about that epic powder at our local hill, all the while knowing that we, the uninitiated, simply have no idea.

Like any worthwhile secret society, there are barriers to entry: money, location, and good old-fashioned fear being chief among them. As for the first, there’s no getting around the cost—I was at Northern Escape Heli Skiing, located just outside Terrace, and even though it’s an operation that tries to keep it real on the price, it’s still about $1,500 a day (including food and lodging). That’s several times the cost of a daily lift ticket at Whistler ($120-plus), but throw in breakfast and lunch at the Roundhouse ($60), dinner at Araxi ($100), and a room at the Four Seasons ($275–$4,500) and the gap shrinks. Among the initiated, variations on the sentence “I’d take a day of this over a week of standing in line to rip groomers” is so commonplace as to be everyone’s de facto mantra.

As for the second criterion, access is a problem for most lodges. Getting to, say, Mike Wiegele’s operation in Blue River is a six-hour-plus drive on winter roads or a flight to Kamloops followed by a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Terrace, on the other hand, has 10 direct flights a day from YVR (props to the LNG industry—for now!) and the lodge is only 20 minutes away from touchdown, so I’d barely shifted gears by the time I walked into Northern Escape’s main lodge to admire the fat skis I’d be strapping on the next morning.

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As for the fear, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been prey to it on occasion. Before this trip, I had cancelled two previous excursions in years where the snowpack was acting funny (or, if my wife insisted I had to buy a generous life insurance policy). But once at Northern Escape’s lodge, each preparatory step eased my mind. We drilled on how to locate a fellow skier buried under the snow with long sticks that snap together like tent poles, we assembled our two-part snow shovels like Army Rangers, and we learned how to pull the rip cord of our standard-issue Vario ABS backpacks so that, if the worst happened, a giant cushioning and buoyant balloon would immediately inflate around our heads. We prepared so much, in fact, that—crouched below potentially deadly snow-piled cornices hanging above us and miles from the nearest sign of civilization—my mind raced with only one thought: it’s now or never.

There’s a moment right before your first run when the chopper lifts off and suddenly you and your new companions are standing in the most foreign environment possible. There’s no one else visible for miles, just silent peaks, valleys, and cornices, and even the hardened vets break into a beaming smile before shoving off down a seemingly challenging steep face. But after a few cautious turns, you realize that whatever the angle may be, the steep face isn’t so precipitous. The snow hugs your feet and ankles (hips, too, on occasion) and guides you down the slope at a loping, friendly pace. There’s no chatter of steel ski edge on ice, no engaged thigh muscles in a desperate bid to hold your turn on some hard pack. One run in and you’re thinking, “Man, I’m an amazing skier,” and in this setting, with this snow, you are. The self-congratulatory reverie is interrupted by the return of the chopper. Crouch, climb in, disembark, ski like a champ. Repeat.

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Northern Escape supplies Vario ABS backpacks—a life-saving beauty that is not standard-issue with many operators. It has your shovel, your probe, and your airbag all tucked inside. You wear your beacon.

 

And notwithstanding the popular image of heli-skiers as live-hard daredevils, the reality is that the day is governed mostly by set ritual and checklists far more so than any normal day at a resort. The routine of putting on your potentially life-saving backpack and checking the rip cord before each run soon becomes rote. Even the skiing follows a set pattern: before shoving off, your guide explains the run, the potential hazards (like covered crevasses, invisible to the layperson’s eye), and then sets off first. Always. And your crew can request a last person, or tail gunner, who makes sure to bring up the rear. Episodes of unbridled joy are also part of this stricture. The sort of joy that causes strangers to lock eyes mid-run and just beam their respective faces off.

By 2:30 p.m., despite the gentle cushioning of the snow, your legs are shot. In a sport where the fun is purely in the downhill, it’s not uncommon to cover 35,000 vertical feet in a day at Northern Escape. To put this in perspective, I once killed it at Fernie on an uncrowded weekday, skipping lunch, and managed 14,000 feet.

At night you dine with your new secret-society cohorts. We didn’t spend much time recounting deep snow, great runs, or the odd spill. We didn’t need to. Instead, we tucked into lamb loin with rosemary and cracked more than a few bottles of Super Tuscans while chatting about our lives, stresses, and joys of the urban variety, and after dessert and a final glass or two, it was off to bed.

Mornings come early here (especially if you wisely opt for the pre-takeoff stretching session) and, as we said our good nights, I couldn’t help but think, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

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Few have skied the deep powder of coastal B.C. gnarlier than Johnny “Foon” Chilton. The skis he now creates—like these fat-but-not-too-fat Redneck Superstars—in his Pemberton workshop are like heirlooms for the steep and deep set. $1,099.

Originally published Nov. 24, 2015

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