I’ve been snowboarding for 17 years, but am a complete novice when it comes to skiing—just above the beginner’s ski school lesson of forming a “pizza wedge” to slow down, and straightening out to “French fries” to accelerate.
Unfortunately for me, my snowboard boots were in baggage limbo along with the rest of my luggage and wouldn’t arrive at the remote Bugaboo Lodge in British Columbia until the following day. This meant I’d be strapping on deep-powder skis for a day of heli-skiing and basic avalanche rescue training in the ungroomed backcountry of the Purcell Mountains.
“This is going to be a long way from pizza and French fries,” I told Stu Back, one of the skiers I’d met at the lodge. It was like I’d only just taken my training wheels off, and suddenly had to ride the Tour de France.
“It’ll be a crash course in skiing,” I continued, smirking. “I’m either going to love it… or die.”
“Or just be really tired,” Stu added, knowing that I’d be using muscles I didn’t even know I had to negotiate the deep powder.
Perhaps it was poetic that my introduction to backcountry skiing—or any skiing beyond a bunny slope for that matter—would be with Canadian Mountain Holidays, the company that introduced the concept of heli-skiing to the world. Heli-ski tourism began in 1965, when mountaineering pioneer Hans Gmoser took a group of guests backcountry skiing via helicopter in the Bugaboos.
Fast-forward about fifty years and heli-skiing is now a worldwide industry; operators are found in over a dozen countries, including the U.S., Nepal, Iceland, and New Zealand.
“It’ll be a challenge,” said Nico Pineau, manager of the lodge’s ski shop, as he set me up with gear for the day. “Like life. Life’s a challenge.”
“I’ve come here a snowboarder, but I’ll leave a skier!” I proclaimed with a new resolve. After all, skiers outnumbered snowboarders 9 to 1 in my group, and I figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
“That’s what I like to hear!” veteran guide Roko Koell said. “I like converting snowboarders like I like converting vegetarians,” he boasted. “I have a 90 percent success rate.”
A Bell 212 helicopter brings groups of ten at a time out in the field, amidst the grand granite spires of the Bugaboos jutting out of the Vowell Glacier. As we homed in on where we would be begin our warm-up run, most people in the group were eagerly preparing to cross off “heli-skiing” from their bucket lists. I, however, was busy repeating my mantra: Pizza. French fries. Pizza. French fries.
Once we had geared up, the others dashed away en route to skiers’ nirvana—while I stayed behind with Nico, who had already extended a hand to help me stand up after I’d fallen into the thigh-deep powder. Things were not starting out well, and the guides were concerned about my skill level.
“This probably isn’t the best place to learn,” one guide offered. “This is a lot different from hard pack.”
After a few minutes, long-forgotten muscle memories from time spent on bunny slopes were slowly coming back, and I was doing slow S-turns down the mountain. Lean left, lean right. Pizza. French fries. Happily, I was finally finding my balance, carving lines in the powder—despite the occasional tumble into the forgiving snow.
Nico and the guides encouraged me as if I were a kid learning to ride a bike for the first time, filling me with short-term confidence–until I fell again. And again. And again. At the end of the warm-up run, my face was covered in snow—a “face shot” as skiers say.
“We have to get you those snowboard boots,” Nico told me. I accepted defeat. Fortunately, my snowboard boots arrived the next day.
Regardless of what you’re wearing on your feet, heli-skiing and heli-boarding are comparable to other deep-powder backcountry experiences. Going by helicopter (vs. a chairlift or snowcat) means an increased risk of avalanches and–if you’re skiing high enough–altitude sickness. But that shouldn’t prevent any snow enthusiast from trying it out—there really is nothing quite like it.
All the technical dos and don’ts will be explained to you by a commercial heli-ski operator before going out in the field, but there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Second, keep your gear below your waist; you should never carry your skis or snowboards on your shoulder, like you might at a ski resort. Helicopter rotor blades whir just above head level, and forgetting this basic rule can cause injury to you, your gear, or the chopper itself.
For one, make sure your skis or board is secure when you land. In some places this isn’t as much of a concern because landing sites are located on flat terrain. But if you’re touching down on the edge of a steep summit–which I experienced while heli-boarding in the North Harris Mountains of New Zealand–your gear could easily slip down the mountain in either direction. “If it goes, you’re not getting it back,” my Kiwi guide explained.
Though your guides will teach you “avalanche rescue 101” before you even board the chopper, be as cautious as you can. As the saying goes, “If you can’t see over it, don’t ski it.” CMH guide Roko Koell uses the analogy of headlights: “You have to use your high beams and really look ahead, before you use your low beams to see what’s coming.”
There’s safety in numbers with heli-skiing, and you should always adhere to the buddy system in case one of you gets caught in a tree or takes a bad tumble–let alone the possibility of an avalanche. Keep tabs on each other by maintaining constant communication. (In the Bugaboos with CMH, this is done with a Harry Belafonte-esque “Day-O!” or, in Roko Koell’s case, a distinct Austrian yodel.)
Exercising safety and common sense when heli-skiing or heli-boarding can lead even the most tentative participant to pursue an encore experience. “It’s addictive,” said Barry Stone, one of the skiers in my group who was on his ninth such trip. After finally getting the hang of it, I could see why—even without the pizza and French fries.