Heliskiing Unlimited Vertical!
Scott Willoughby, Denver Post: Heli-skiing downsizing for more intimate, safer experience
The Great Canadian Heli-Skiing company uses six-seat A-Star helicopters, above, for their operation, taking up four riders per guide to terrain near the border of Canada’s Glacier National Park. The Selkirk and Purcell mountains of British Columbia are renowned for dry powder snow, below, that falls well into the spring.
Heli-skiing downsizing for more intimate, safer experience
Special to The Denver Post
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
GOLDEN, British Columbia - Awaking to a bluebird dawn at the base of Rogers Pass, the sun glints off the surrounding crown of Selkirk Mountain peaks and reveals a blanket of freshly fallen snow. My second day at Great Canadian Heli-Skiing proves a far cry from the first.
The day before had been divvied up in near equal parts skiing, studying and salivating as we were intermittently grounded by a storm. Skiers and snowboarders were systematically grouped by ability level and body weight before we were meticulously instructed in the finer points of avalanche safety and the ground rules designed to ensure the whirring rotor blades didn’t thwack off any wayward skis or stray appendages as we piled in and out of the spry A-Star helicopters.
We managed some quality skiing during that stormy orientation, but this was another day altogether, a day holding the promise of powder and big-league Canadian vertical. Breakfast is consumed through manic, adrenaline-fueled grins, equipment loaded and, only moments later, we are buzzing up Rogers Pass between the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges and into the vast, icy wilderness along the border of Canada’s Glacier National Park. Our pilot eases down atop an open powder bowl and we slip out the door, ducking into a huddle as the helicopter leaves us to behold this alpine paradise.
From the farthest reaches of the 800-square mile Great Canadian Heli- Skiing permit - a lengthy slope known as “Eggs Benedict,” 12 miles from the base lodge - we take in the expansive Selkirk Range towering higher than 11,500 feet, as well as Columbia Peak, the “Apex of the Continent.” One-upping our own Great Divide, runoff from the Columbia Ice Field flows to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
It seems almost unfair that there are only four of us admiring the infinite majesty atop Eggs Benedict, but that’s the way things work at Great Canadian, a somewhat undiscovered Golden-based outfitter pioneering a new business model it refers to as “boutique” heli-skiing. Making use of the smaller six-seat A-Star helicopters and limiting skiers and snowboarders to four per guide (24 per day), the boutique model results in a more intimate skiing experience that maximizes vertical and safety by minimizing downtime and exposure to hazards. The 100,000 vertical-feet mark is easily achieved in less than four days.
“I would never say our product or our mountains are better than anything else, but the small groups we ski in are what differentiate us,” Great Canadian owner Greg Porter said. “It’s the intimacy. Why do people go to the mountains? To escape the crowds. We just take it to the next level.”
The Selkirks and Purcells of interior British Columbia are among the most famous skiing mountains in the world, particularly among that hard-core element of powder skiing enthusiasts who travel the globe in search of perfect snow. With copious amounts of light, dry powder snow falling well into the spring, spectacular scenery and immensely diverse terrain, the ranges draw skiers the world over.
The region has proven especially popular among Colorado skiers, with Great Canadian attracting 40 percent of its business from Coloradans taking advantage of a two-hour flight from Denver to Calgary. Among them is former University of Colorado ski racer Dave Hoff of Woody Creek. Hoff, who claims more than 10 million vertical feet of skiing in British Columbia since 1967, is a regular to the Rogers Pass area and has sworn off helicopter skiing out of anything other than an A-Star.
“It’s a totally different experience than skiing with the bigger helicopters,” said Hoff, 65. “The quality is dramatically better and it’s intrinsically safer because you have a lower ratio of skiers to guides and you are not stringing skiers all over the mountain.”
Skiing these mountains is not the adventure in first-descent peak bagging or “slough management” you find in places like the precipitous Alaskan Chugach, but big avalanches do occur on Canada’s continental snowpack, such as the shocking slide in January that took the life of snowboarding legend Craig Kelly and six others in the Selkirks. All told, 13 of 19 clients on a ski tour led by veteran mountain guide Ruedi Beglinger of Selkirk Mountain Experience were buried in the incident, suggesting there were perhaps too many people exposed to the danger of a potential slide at once. Although Canadian outfitters are quick to point out the differences between ski touring and helicopter skiing, the overlapping potential for catastrophe is obvious, particularly within the standard business model of renowned heli-skiing operators such as Mike Wiegele’s and Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) that make use of larger-capacity Bell 212 helicopters.
“Backcountry heli-skiing comes down to guides managing groups of any size, but having smaller groups is just a better scenario for a variety of reasons,” Porter said. “Fewer people are exposed to potential avalanche hazards, groups are easier to manage and lines of communication are improved.”
The logistical realities of guiding a large group in the backcountry can pose a clear and present danger. With as many as 120 people sharing terrain on a given day in a traditional heli-skiing scenario, it’s common to have a dozen or more skiers at the bottom of a run when the next group begins its descent. Spreading clients out takes time and disrupts the flow of the ski day. But in the wake of the deadliest avalanche season in modern Canadian history, commercial operators and clients are reexamining the archetype, with many new outfitters choosing to shuttle smaller groups in A-Stars like Great Canadian.
“It’s more personal and a much safer scenario to be in a small machine,” said Peter “Swede” Mattson, owner of Bella Coola Heli Sports, now in its second season. “We’re not exposing people to hazards and have more control over groups. If there’s a weak link in a group, it’s much easier to change things around.”
Bella Coola is among a handful of similar boutique operations to open following the Great Canadian model within the past two years, and industry insiders expect the trend to continue.
“The large tour groups have done well for 30 years, but by increasing the amount of personal attention that a guide has per guest, I think we are improving the product,” Porter said. “It’s a new philosophy and no doubt a positive thing.”