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Ski & Board Magazine
THE ROUGH GUIDE TO HELISKIING (Ski and Board Magazine, Spring ’04)
Alf Alderson provides the lowdown on the ultimate ski trip.
Mention the word ‘heliskiing’ to skier or non-skier alike and dramatic images will invariably burst to life in their imagination. For skiers it’s the obvious vision of expanses of untracked powder lying brazenly in wait beneath achingly blue skies for the carve of your skis, all at a sky high price (but more of that later), whilst as for non-skiers – well, you’d be surprised at how many times they ask if the process of heliskiing involves actually jumping out of the helicopter on skis.
I can imagine the response you’d get if you suggested this method of hitting the slopes to the guys at TLH Heliskiing in British Columbia’s Chilcotin Mountains. For while their raison d être is to allow you to make maximum use of the mere 830,000 acres that comprise their ski domain (about the size of a small British county), their first priority is always safety. So definitely no jumping out of helicopters then, at least until they’ve landed.
But you’d have to be the world’s most jaded thrill seeker to need to hurl yourself out of an airborne ‘heli’ in order to get your ski kicks – most people will probably feel a serious adrenalin surge just from walking to the take off area ready for their first day in the mountains.
Clumping up from a huge breakfast at TLH’s opulent Tyax Lodge the macho reek of aviation fuel hangs heavy in the air, more expensive and more evocative than anything the House of Chanel has ever concocted, and before long you’ll hear the low whine of the rotors swinging into action, then the ever more frenetic whump, whump, whump as they whirl into a blurred outline above the ‘heli’.
At some point you’ll be invited to step aboard, strap yourself in, and prepare for take off. By this stage everyone other than the pilot and guide will have idiotic and slightly nervous grins plastered to their faces, but no one speaks since you can’t be heard over the thump of the rotors.
So you’re left in a noise laden world of your own to absorb the gut lurching thrill of taking off and climbing above a wilderness landscape of endless forests, frozen lakes and streams, and above it all, snow bound mountains and glaciers where immense depths of pure white powder lie smooth and rounded like pillows of the gods.
And here’s where the truth will out. Are you good enough to heliski? There are a few individuals who rightly or wrongly are confident enough to hop out of the ‘bus’ safe in the knowledge that however steep or deep it may be, they can deal with it. But the rest of us will almost invariably question our ability to cope with what is, essentially, wilderness skiing – after all, there’s not a groomed run or ski lift for hundreds of miles in any direction.
I dare say this lack of confidence is especially prevalent amongst British skiers, who often seem to underestimate their skills, so let me tell you here and now that if you can ski hard reds or easy blacks with confidence then you can heliski. And the nice people at TLH even provide you with big, fat skis to make it that bit easier.
That said, don’t be like the Italian guest TLH once had – a man who had seriously overestimated his abilities to the point where the other members of his group were waiting around whilst he took an hour to complete a run that should take 20 minutes. Not the best way of gaining undying love and affection from your new ski compadres…
But whatever I say here, at that moment when the Bell 212 has clattered back down to the valley to wait for you, the blizzard created by its rotors has cleared, silence reigns and all around are unnamed peaks and glaciers and pristine snowfields and you’re ready for your first ever heliski run your heart will probably be in your mouth.
Yet it needn’t be, for this is all that happens: your guide skis off (and note that you never, ever get ahead of him – minimum punishment for this heinous crime – you buy him a beer back at the lodge; maximum punishment – you disappear in an avalanche or over a cliff); you follow him downhill; and around 2,500 feet later you rendezvous with the ‘heli’.
Simple really isn’t it? Of course, you might just have seared into your memory for ever the sensation of floating through powder that billows up and over your thighs at every soft, scything turn; the twinkle of sunlight on snow crystals beneath a sky so deep blue it brings out reflex smiles in all who view it; and the immensely satisfying sight of your own perfect ‘S’ turns trailing behind you all the way to the summit of a mountain top that was the portal to a world far more enchanted than anything Lewis Carroll or J.K. Rowling ever came up with.
Since skiers are grouped together on the basis of their stated ability (don’t lie because no-one will be impressed if they spend every run waiting for you – this is costing serious money) you should have no problems in keeping up with the rest of your group and as the day goes on you’ll be taken to more challenging runs. Yes, the old cliché steeper and deeper is where it’s at, and the great thing about skiing in the Chilcotin’s talc-dry powder is that you actually want steeper as the depth of snow slows you down on gentler slopes.
That said, deep powder also takes a lot more out of your legs than piste skiing – some training beforehand is no bad thing otherwise you’ll find your body arguing with itself by mid-afternoon as your brain wants to continue forever whilst your legs are saying one more run and we’ll seize up completely. You don’t get to this point in the day without a lunch break though – a sumptuous picnic delivered by the world’s most expensive delivery service, and taken in some of the world’s most spectacular surroundings.
By the time you get back on the slopes for the afternoon you can expect to have done as much as 20,000 feet of vertical and will be well versed in the art of clambering in and out of the ‘bus’, clipping into your fatties and floating off down another 2,500 ft or so of fluffy perfection. Some runs will be easy cruises down wide open bowls, above which the occasional mountain top and rock face will emerge from beneath it’s duvet of snow; you may edge along narrow ridges before dropping down challenging steeps; fly past huge, translucent blue blocks of ice defining one of the Chilcotin’s many glaciers; or continue below the snow line for some of the finest tree skiing this side of Planet Tree.
Whichever of these options and combinations you take it’s safe to say that by the time you’ve made the final run of the day, hopped into the Bell for the flight home – only15 minutes or so even though you were 45 kilometres or more beyond ‘civilisation’ – and arrived back at Tyax Lodge you will be one of the most sated and happy people on the planet.
And if you’re not, there’s no hope left for you.
Don’t underestimate your ability – if you’re a good intermediate or better then you’ll have a blast heliskiing
Don’t overestimate the cost – ok, it ain’t cheap but it’s money well spent on a ski experience you’ll never forget. Two days skiing at TLH starts at around £850, whilst package prices from the UK are given below. It may seem expensive, but look at it this way – if you save the price of a pint every day for a year you’ve pretty much got a weekend at TLH. Bargain or what?
Don’t bother taking your own skis – heliski companies invariably provide fat skis and prefer you to use them rather than your own
Do think about linking your trip in with a week at Whistler, or maybe a lesser-known BC resort such as Sun Peaks. You’ve travelled all the way out here to some of the best snow in the world so you might as well make the most of it.
Do take a compact camera along – however rubbish the pictures you get back they’ll still be way better than anything you’re likely to have taken on a ‘regular’ ski trip.
Do check on your ‘vert’ – TLH guarantee a fixed amount of vert depending on the package you opt for (eg three days = 43,000 ft) but if you go over this it’ll cost you around £30 for every extra thousand feet. Since people have been known to exceed their allotted footage by as much as 30,000 ft it can work out as a major additional expense.
And finally, however good a day you’ve had try not to overdo it on the booze afterwards. Heliskiing next day with a hangover just ain’t no fun!
HOW TO GET THE ULTIMATE HIGH
You can book Canadian ski packages combining one or two BC resorts and three days heliskiing with Frontier Ski, 6 Sydenham Avenue, London, SE26 6UH www.frontier-travel.co.uk 020 8776 8709.
The cost for seven nights at the Delta Hotel, Whistler and three days skiing at TLH (flights and lift tickets included) is £2759 per person. For an additional £350 you can get a further five-day package to enjoy great skiing at Sun Peaks in interior BC, which includes accommodation, lift tickets and return flight to and from Kamloops Airport.
TLH – www.tlhheliskiing.com – includes full details on the TLH experience including prices for independent travellers.
Whistler – www.tourismwhistler.com – Canada’s biggest and most famous resort is just a few hours drive (or a one hour helicopter ride) south of TLH’s operation at Tyax Lodge.
Sun Peaks – www.sunpeaksresort.com – quality skiing in interior BC at one of Canada’s newest and best designed resorts, where lift queues are virtually unheard of.