Heli-skiing a hell of a ride

"I spend money on really dumb things. And I don't think this is one of them"

INVERMERE, B.C. The fully loaded Bell 212 helicopter lumbers its way through snow-capped peaks and plunging valleys, cruises over a 100-metre tall cliff and settles on a narrow rock ridge that reveals a sprawling bowl full of untouched snow before us.

We 11 adventures slip out of the chopper, and huddle just a couple of metres away, awaiting the blast of tiny, biting ice crystals that will signal we are safely on our own. RK Heliski’s jet-engined helicopter backs up and away, turns and then disappears with the speed of a UFO.

‘I must have filmed that takeoff, I don’t know how many times,’ says one of our number. ‘Because it just doesn’t get old.’

Here we are: the health store owner, the 16-year-old ski racer, the refinery worker, the Brit, the young employee of Panorama resort, two journalists and a few others, jonesin’ for another hit of the addictive drug known as heli-skiing. Feeling the exhilaration, the freedom and – for at least two of us rookies – the fear of plunging hundreds of metres down runs of unmarked snow, trusting our lives to the judgment of the quiet and confident guide we met two short hours ago. It is, quite simply, unlike any ski experience I have ever known.

As we grab our gear and prepare for yet another magically exhausting run, our guide points to the nearby cornice that conceals the cliff we flew over. Matter-of-factly, and with a slight grin, he instructs, ‘Not that way; this way.’

It’s a beautiful, breathtaking day in the Purcell Mountains. Around us in every direction is a random display of the starkest, most imposing rock artistry that western Canadian wilderness can offer. Besides our group, there’s no sign of human activity to be found. For just a moment, we pause in collective wonder at the scale of the masterpiece that engulfs us.

Then we snap to the business at hand. Our guide, Rod Gibbons, already has his fat-boys down and his boots clicked in. He reminds us – once again – to chip that ice buildup off the bottom of our boots to ensure the bindings hold fast through the challenge before us. One by one, we click and strap ourselves together, and begin the traverse to the centre of the bowl.

Even if you didn’t ski, a trip to these special places would be an unforgettable experience. Oh, but you do. And you are here to once again feel the sensation of floating on a cloud of soft, forgiving, powder snow.

Ken Deveau, of Edmonton, is on his fourth trip. I ask him what kind of run he likes best.

‘I don’t care,’ he says, ‘as long as it’s steep and deep.’

The experienced skiers and riders storm ahead, kicking up wakes of dry powder that give under their fat skis. We tentative beginners struggle behind, trying to find the smooth and gentle techniques so unlike anything we’ve experienced on groomed runs. At the back, always, is one volunteer, carrying the shovel and probe that could help save us in the event of an avalanche.

Our guide, Rod, assures us that in his 27 years with RK he’s never needed to use either.

‘Never been an avalanche?’ I ask him later. Rod pauses.

‘The group that I’ve had, I’ve never had to use a transceiver,’ he says. ‘There were a few guests, not in my group, who were taken for a bit of ride, but they were never buried.’

Avalanches are rare, very rare, with reputable companies, like RK. As we were told at the 1½-hour morning safety briefing, every day starts with a comprehensive review of snow conditions on all the proposed routes. Still, we are all wearing life-saving beacons, and get full lessons in how to use them, before we climb aboard the helicopter.

Gibbons, who in addition to being a guide is also RK’s operations manager, says that guides meet every morning for at least an hour, reviewing snow conditions and discussing optimal locations for the day’s skiing. They update each other through the day, and meet again in the evening to debrief.

Heli and cat-ski companies belong to an organization called Helicat Canada, which sets standards for helicopter and cat skiing in Western Canada. It’s that organization that offers the information that helps operators maintain high safety standards.

Western Canada is the birthplace of heli-skiing – a competitor to RK introduced the concept in 1965 in the Bugaboos region of the Purcell Mountains. RK got into the game five years later, flying an airplane out of the nearby town of Radium. Within three years, it had switched to helicopters and, by 1981, it moved operations to Panorama.

Today, fully 95 per cent of the heli-skiing in the world takes place in British Columbia, according to Helicat Canada. Its mystical experience draws adrenalin-junkies from literally every corner of the world.

Not all of them are expert skiers, says Gibbons. In fact, you only need be a ‘strong intermediate’ skier with reasonable fitness – able to manage typical black diamond runs at a resort – to handle the heli-challenges of the Purcells.

First-timers – like my partner and me – often arrive after a sleepless night, ‘wired for sound,’ and full of adrenalin, says Gibbons.

‘Where we go, us guides, we’re in our element. But maybe some of our guests are way out of their element,’ he chuckles. ‘I’ve seen some pretty spectacular crashes sometimes, like we did today, but it’s just part of the fun.’

That’s because, as I learned, when you crash, it’s like landing on the biggest, fluffiest mattress the heavens can deliver.

Although male dominated, the industry has seen increasing numbers of women, now up to 17 per cent of annual visits. Women tend to be more nervous at first, but settle in more quickly than men.

Today, we were scheduled to complete five runs, averaging about 850 metres in length.

We travel through a valley, past peaks with runs that each has a name to reflect the experience: Meredith’s Backside, Big Judy, Witch’s Bowl, Pink Panther, Horsethief, Ten Test. We spend several runs in the vicinity of an area called Snowbox and Sundae Cirque, breaking for a leisurely lunch at the end of one of the magical runs. As we rest, another group of skiers – a multi-member group from Germany – is coming down a steep run. We laugh as they gingerly pick their way down, at least two of them bailing into their pillows of powder – with nothing hurt but their pride.

By the end of the fifth run, the fatigue makes me feel like I’m carrying a 40-pound backpack and I am drenched with sweat. Gibbons asks the group who’s up for one more (at an extra charge). It is with mixed emotions that I find myself once again heading toward a peak with more untracked snow. Joy . . . and dread that this will be the time I fully reveal the consequences of my fatigue.

Gibbons admits that, after 27 years with RK, he is ‘definitely hooked.’ He’s as much a heli-junkie as the people he guides.

But, as Deveau unapologetically explains, there’s no shame in being this kind of junkie.

‘Let’s put it this way. I spend money on really dumb things. And I don’t think this is one of them.’

RK and other operators also offer summer heli-hiking, which is equally spectacular, if not as adrenalin-inducing. For more information on dates and packages, visit RK’s web site at rkheliski.com.

  • RK offers three and five run powder adventures, as well as a three-day package.
  • The package includes helicopter flights, skis and poles, a certified ski guide, hot breakfast, lunch in the field, certificate and heli-pin, emergency evacuation coverage.
  • A three-run package is $798 and five runs $940.
  • Three day package of three runs is $2,274.30 plus tax or $2,679 plus tax for five runs in a day. Extra runs are $88 each, plus tax.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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