One heli of a day

Like a flying grain thresher, our Bell 205 rattles its way high above British Columbia’s magnificent Selkirk range, heading for Ghost Peak. At the controls, wearing a baseball hat and a magnificent Hors La Loi leather jacket, is the bearded Chris Potter. It is a blue-sky day. The peaks are shimmering. The snow is deep, seductive, unsullied and compliant. We’re in for one hell of a day. When you go heliskiing, a hell of a day is what you expect and what you pay for: run after run of fresh tracks in deep, sometimes steep powder, with the helicopter on call to whisk you back up again like a jet-powered skilift. But it doesn’t always happen.

I recall the words of Joerg Rosset , the Swiss-born president and general manager of TLH Heliskiing after bad weather had caused a rare “down” day: “Today was one of these days we don’t like so much” he’d said. “No real new snow, gusting winds, bad visibility. We had both machines out there, the pilots were trying their best, but unfortunately days like this happen once in a while.”

Thankfully such days are rare, and today, out in the Selkirk Range, it isn’t one of them. Our fellow-passengers are a garrulous group from Aspen, Colorado, intent on having a good time and bang for their bucks. There is also a Swiss, Peter Schellenborg, a young man enjoying his first heliskiing trip, marvelling at the way almost every square foot of the helicopter is doing its best to shake, rattle and roll. “It’s like going to Nam,” says one of the group. All that is missing is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

No matter where you do it, heliskiing is the ne plus ultra of “serious” off-piste skiers. While it becomes scarcer and scarcer in Europe, where it is banned in France, virtually verboten in Austria, but still tolerated in parts of Switzerland and Italy, heliskiing is thriving in Canada, struggling on (in spite of environmental pressures) in the American Rockies, and increasingly popular in the wide open spaces of New Zealand, Sweden, Chile, parts of the old Soviet Union and the spectacular Himalayan slopes of Himachal Pradesh, India.

But because it is a mainstream industry in British Columbia, where the sport was invented, Canada is seen as the real home of this elitist and expensive activity. The two principal players are Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) which invented the concept 40 years ago and today has a dozen heliski areas, and Mike Wiegele, based in Blue River, which contents itself with just one area – but the biggest in Canada (3,000 square miles) and probably the world, with a whole fleet of helicopters. These take either 10 skiers, or, more expensively (and exclusively), four skiers on a “private” basis, to locations in the Cariboo and Monashee ranges. But there is a growing assortment of other operators in Canada, and I have come to investigate one of the less well-known pioneering outfits: Selkirk Tangiers, based near Revelstoke.

One of my fellow skiers, Doug Carpenter, throws a Jack Nicholson grin in my direction, and informs us, above the whir and whine of the engine and the wump-wump-wump of the rotor blades, that he is Hunter S.Thompson’s neighbour in Aspen’s Woody Creek. This would explain a lot. Throughout an exceptional day of heliskiing among the peaks and forests between the Tangier and Columbia rivers, Carpenter and his Aspen chums would provide the kind of entertaining, mischievous camaraderie and boisterous bravado that can turn a day in the mountains into something very special.
Heliskiing is an emotional and physical experience that tends to bring out the boy in businessmen. It is their way of letting off steam. Talking of which, I would soon have the unique experience of very nearly falling down a deepish steam vent in the middle of a run called Outsulation. The earth’s crust in this part of the Selkirks is quite thin in places, and one or two spots are riddled with yawning cavities where warm air has a melted large holes in the snow. Hot air vents are hardly a typical hazard for heliskiers, who normally just have avalanches and rotor blades to worry about.

When you are skiing in the trees, you’re advised to “buddy up” to make sure no-one gets lost or goes into a dangerous situation alone. Fortunately, as I teetered on the brink of my unexpected and steamy fate, my companion, James Orr, a British tour operator specialising in Canadian heliskiing, would be on hand to grab my arm and hang on until the burly Peter Schlunegger, founder of Selkirk Tangiers Heliskiing, managed to pull me out. “You’d have been the first guest to fall into one of these holes since we started the company in 1978,” he grins. Schlunegger, from Wengen, Switzerland, comes from a long line of mountain men. His father, Hans, was the first Swiss to climb the Eiger’s dreaded North Face. He moved to Canada to be a heliskiing guide in the 1960s – to guide for the “father” of heliskiing, Hans Gmoser, the Austrian founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays.

“In those days,” says Orr, “it was a bit like a gold rush, with European ski guides trying to stake their claim to the best heliskiing territory in the great mountain ranges west of the Canadian Rockies, like the Selkirks, Monashees and Purcells. Selkirk Tangiers was lucky enough to acquire a licence for some of the best heliskiing terrain in the world.” At 35, our lead guide, Larry Dolecki, is firm but friendly. He is one of that breed of mountain guides you feel you could trust with your life. Yet he has an endearing modesty about his skills.

“Snowcraft is not an exact science,” he says. “And the longer you do this job, the more likely it is that eventually you may make a mistake. It’s vital for me to be constantly aware of avoiding terrain traps.” These can cover all kinds of dangers particularly areas where an avalanche might funnel snow into one location, which would be more likely to bury skiers. Guides are not immortal. In the event of an avalanche, the lead guide is the most vulnerable. Occasionally, one dies. This is why it is essential for the guests to be briefed about rescue techniques: they may just have to rescue the one man they are depending on for their own safety.

Lunch, taken “on the hill”, is also a chance to catch up with our pilot. Like the vast majority of heliski pilots, Chris Potter has never skied. “I don’t want to go breaking my legs,” he grins, relaxed now after his helicopter-safety lecture that morning, when circumstances dictated a little more severity.
“Chris, part your moustache hairs so that our German and Swiss guests can see your lips move,” one of the guides had suggested during the briefing session in a field blanketed with snow a few miles from Revelstoke, the nearest town, which had just celebrated its first green Christmas for 40 years.
These briefings are rather like the pre-flight safety talks we all have to sit through on aeroplanes. Most heliskiers have heard it all before, but it doesn’t do any harm to refresh their memories. They are frequently illustrated by horror stories that spread round Canada’s dozen or more heliskiing operations like myths. Potter had been warning us not to approach the helicopter carrying our skis, but to drag them along by their tips in the snow. “Sure, there are dangers associated with heliskiing” he’d said. “But then you could always just stick to cross-country.” Warming to his theme, he continued: “At CMH a couple of years ago a skier suddenly put his skis upright above his head and promptly broke the rotor blade. They’re $60,000 apiece. “Canadian or US dollars?” asked one wit from Aspen. “US,” said Potter. “It would have been three million in Canadian!” he joked, as many Canadians do, about their weak dollar. “These helicopters are expensive, unfortunately. These things burn a gallon and a half a minute.” Typically, heliski companies pay around Canadian $2,000 an hour for helicopter, pilot and fuel.

Too many down days a week, of course, can deny a skier his or her minimum expectation of 100,000 vertical feet, take the shine off a heliski holiday, and complicate financial arrangements. Normally the emphasis is the other way round: the client almost always gets the minimum vertical, and pays for extra. In an exceptionally bad week, the clients get a refund or – if they are regulars, and are coming back the following winter – they can “spend” their un-skied vertical the following year.

But after a great day’s heliskiing, such thoughts are forgotten. No-one is counting the cost, though they may be counting the verticals. And at dinner – usually a gourmet occasion since, apart from skiing, there’s little else to do apart from exchange stories and eat – everyone basks in a collective euphoria. As James Orr says: “The elation and feel-good factor are so high that even George Bush and Saddam Hussein might well enjoy each other’s company.”

© Arnie Wilson

James Orr Heliskiing 0207 483 0300 Email info@heliski.co.uk www.heliski.co.uk
Selkirk Tangiers Helicopter Skiing, Box 130, Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada, VOE 2SO. Tel +1 250 837 5378 Email selkirk@rockies.net www.selkirk-tangiers.com
CMH + 1 403 762 7100 www.cmhski.com
(UK agents: Powder Skiing in North America 020 7736 8191)
Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing +1 250 673 9170 Email mail@wiegele.com www.wiegele.com
TLH Heliskiing +1 250 558 5379 Email info@tlhheliskiing.com www.tlhheliskiing.com
Ski Club of Great Britain 0208 410 2022 Email holidays@skiclub.co.uk www.skiclub.co.uk
In Italy and Switzerland: Momentum Ski, 0207 371 9111 Email sales@momentum.uk.com www.momentum.uk.com

(Financial Times: Pink Snow supplement, 2003)