Skiing:For virgin snow, there’s nothing like helicopter skiing

Last month I wrote about the joys of learning to ski as a beginner. This month I would like to zoom to the other end of the spectrum and share with you the joys of learning to ski as an expert.

Suppose you were in the lucky few humans who were born in the northern part of North America, the wealthiest part of the world. Even better, your family was of comparatively modest means or better – able to afford snow sleds or other toys. Upping the ante, suppose you were fortunate enough to have a father, brother, uncle, or friend who introduced you to skiing at a young age, say 30 or less.

Best of all, suppose you had children with more generosity than good sense who bought you a day of helicopter skiing in Canada! Being one of those extraordinary few, let me tell you how it was…

We gathered at the Powder Hut of Whistler Heli-skiing to meet our guides. Neil Brown, a fit and competent 55-year-old, guided my group of five intermediate to advanced skiers. Neil was a ski area designer for a few years, a professional ski instructor for a decade or so, and has been a guide for Whistler Heliski for 17 years. He introduced us to the avalanche safety gear which is worn by all prudent backcountry skiers so that your friends can find you under the snow in the unlikely event that you are, well, under the snow. Then we rode the bus to the heliport.

At the heliport we got a basic education in how to load and unload from the helicopter and the basic safety features of the aircraft. Then we packed ourselves (literally) into the chopper and took off. If you have ever flown over the mountains and looked down at the enormous snowfields near the peaks, you have an inkling of what we experienced. Every skier dreams of dropping into such expanses and taking a few runs.

Suddenly a cliff appeared on our right side and the ground came up under us. The bird came to rest on the snow and we leaped out. Following instructions we knelt down under the rotors for a couple of minutes while Neil unloaded our skis from the basket on the other side of the helicopter. With a huge rush of noise, wind, and blizzard, the chopper shot into the air and was gone. We stood up and found ourselves in a silent paradise. We were on a pinnacle barely bigger than the helicopter itself, surrounded by an enormous candy factory of pristine powder-covered slopes!

We stamped into our skis and followed our guide down a steep slope of perfect powder, cutting fresh tracks through virgin snow. On the average ski hill you are lucky to cut fresh tracks down a short run once a year. We had acres of fresh powder just begging us to take another turn. If someone else had already been there moment before, I simply turned away to find my own track.

Before long we stopped at a steep slope leading into a narrow gully below a huge ice cliff. We were on the face of an enormous glacier. This was the best path between one level of the glacier and the next. I struggled to negotiate my way down the gully until I remembered to reach as far down the slope as I could with my ski pole to get my body perpendicular to the slope. At this point my skis would tip on their edges and turn just as a bicycle wheel will. It seems counter intuitive to reach out over a steep slope but it works every time. Once I regained faith in the ability of my skis to turn whenever I asked I started having fun.

At midpoint of the incredibly long 3,000-plus-foot run down the glacier, my ski tips dove into a deep pocket of snow and failed to rise to the occasion. I went arse over ski tips and tasted the freshest untouched powder of a lifetime of skiing. Tasted just like a margarita but without the tequila! Gratefully several other members of the party joined me in similar escapades so I didn’t feel like the only clown in the circus.

We finally bottomed out on a snow flat where we prepared for a pickup. We stacked our skis in a pile next to a short pole with a flag on the top. Then we crouched on one knee next to the guide pack about 12 feet away. Soon we heard the helicopter coming over a ridge and saw it appear in the distance. It was amazing how fast it came in – and how large it appeared as it approached. It looked like a bus arriving at about 30 miles per hour! Within moments the pilot dropped it neatly between the post and our feet – with inches to spare. We clambered in on one side while our guide loaded our skis into the basket on the other.

And off we went to our next run – a different ridge and a different terrain. The bottom of this enormous run down another glacier was on a frozen lake bed next the bottom of the 100-foot-tall cliff of deep blue glacier ice. While we shared a great lunch of sandwiches, soup, tea, and cookies, one of our guides hiked off through knee-deep powder to fetch a block of 6,000-year-old ice for our Scotch at the end of the day.

After another helicopter-caused blizzard of wind and snow, we found ourselves on another narrow ridge with an incredible view of many snow-covered ridges of British Columbia. Neil told us that this run would be a bit steeper than the previous runs but it would actually be easier to make turns since any little hop would make our skis turn. This was avalanche country, so he would take the first run. When he got to the bottom he would wave for the first skier to follow him. After that each of us would follow when he waved again.

He smoothly took off over the lip of the ridge, made two turns then disappeared from view below the steep slope. We waited – and waited – and waited. Finally he reappeared, a tiny figure on a relatively flat area far below. Never one to wait for the ax to fall, I followed him down. The slope was so steep my elbows scraped the hillside above me but he was right, it was really easy to turn since there was so little between me and open space to the outside. Life is all attitude and once my heart stopped pounding I had a ball. The snow was deep enough that I never went very fast forward, though the downward motion was a bit extreme. Before long I was with Neil on the relatively flat land (only tilted 45 degrees or so.)

If you can ski reasonably well on black and double black runs in powder snow, you’ll be comfortable on a heli-ski tour, given a competent guide. Whistler is a great place for an introduction to the sport since it launches from a major resort. You can sign up for a single day instead of committing to a whole week. If the weather doesn’t cooperate you can postpone your trip and enjoy the lift-served runs instead. Given a bluebird day and good snow, heli-skiing can be the thrill of a lifetime.

So buy good gear, practice your turns, and raise children who are generous enough to buy you a great 60th birthday present. I’ll see you on the glaciers!

Douglas Cochrane is a former ski patrol member who lives in Yachats.