Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

© Margo Pfeiff

Opened in 2007, Revelstoke has 13 different areas and five dramatic bowls.

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Floating on clouds

Heli-skiing gets you to the champagne powder of your dreams — and you don't have to be an expert to try it

“What kind of skier are you?” asked the ski rental form in front of me. I scanned the list, but didn’t see “chicken.” I tried to calm my racing heart as Ashley Tait, Revelstoke Mountain Resort’s director of marketing, sighed over her morning latte. “James Bond has screwed up our business,” she says. “So many people are scared away because they think you have to jump out of a helicopter, skis on, in mid-air to heli-ski.” I didn’t say so, but I knew how they feel.

I was being “heli-prepped.” I met my Finnish-born instructor, Tomi, and we rode the gondola 1713 metres to the top of what became, in 2009, the highest vertical ski hill in North America, snatching the record from Whistler.

Everyone was chattering excitedly about last night’s dump of legendary champagne powder that is the big draw in southeast BC’s Kootenay Rockies. An intermediate Eastern skier, I was more accustomed to tackling vertical ice sheets. The thought of “steep and deep” has always terrified me and I was convinced that I was not good enough to tackle the holy grail of schussing — heli-skiing. Tomi disagreed. “The ideal minimum level for heli-skiing is someone who can ski blue runs with confidence and seeks out black runs for challenge.” As the gondola docked amid fluffy snow- ghost trees, I guessed I was going to find out if BC’s big snowy bowls could make a powder hound out of a timid powder puppy.

Pure BC adrenalin

Hopping on a helicopter to soar atop mountain peaks so you can carve tracks down virgin slopes is an all-Canadian sport dreamed up almost half a century ago by Austrian ski guide Hans Gmoser. His Canadian Mountain Holidays company pioneered what is now one of the world’s top adventures, and since almost all heli-skiing takes place in BC, it is an iconic Canadian sport.

Many ski resorts across southern BC offer chopper skiing, including Whistler. But the province’s southeast is its epicentre, across what is called the Snow Belt in honour of its 12 to 18 annual metres of dry, fluffy powder blanketing the Bugaboos, Monashees, Selkirks and Purcells where a string of ski resorts straddles a mountainous circuit called the Powder Highway.

I started out my week-long trip on the eastern part of that route with a private powder lesson near Invermere at the intimate Panorama Mountain Village. My instructor, Drew, gave me my first taste of powder after some basic adjustments to my style. “Ski as if you’re skiing on eggshells that you don’t want to break,” he said, “float and go with it.” I floated all right — with a head-plant into powder so deep I worked up a serious sweat just getting back on my feet. My ego finally began to recover in front of the wood stove after a lunch of tourtière and cold beer at the mountainside Elkhorn Cabin.

I still didn’t feel I was ready, so when a high-avalanche risk kept local operator RK HeliSki’s choppers grounded, I wasn’t disappointed. I drove north towards the town of Golden where I found more powder at Kicking Horse. Barely a decade old, it's renowned for its serious grades, 60 percent of which are dedicated to expert runs. I envied the ease with which fellow skiers glided towards Nirvana. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and simply grateful to have avoided the trees on my way through the glades.

Chopper training

So it was with scant optimism that I landed alongside Tomi at Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR). “If you’re working hard, you’re doing it wrong,” he told me at the start of my full-day “Cat- and Heli-Ski Prep Lesson.” First, he outfitted me with ultra-wide powder skis that felt more like mini-surfboards. “It’s all about the skis,” he said. “When you come here you should leave your downhill skis at home. These are more flexible, forgiving and will give you confidence.” Already I am feeling better.

RMR was a new resort that opened in 2007 and is growing fast. At the moment, it has one gondola and two high-speed quads servicing glades in 13 different areas as well as five dramatic bowls. When complete, Revvy will give Whistler a run for its money with 20 square kilometres of skiable terrain, 21 lifts and 115 ski and snowboard trails. Not long ago this was a no-frills haven for snowmobilers and blue-collar rail workers, so the town of Revelstoke still has plenty of inexpensive motor lodges and affordable inns. The chic Nelsen Lodge at the mountain base opened in 2009.

Like many of the mountaintops in this area, RMR’s wide summit bowls were not long ago the exclusive domain of helicopters so I get a feel and peek at the terrain I’d encounter if I survived the day. Tomi prepped me gradually from choppy ungroomed trails to virgin powder runs, then added terrain with increasingly dense trees which I’d hopefully avoid with my newly acquired powder skills.

After lunch, I pushed off the top of a run called Jalapeño, gently nudging my skis in the right direction, but letting them run the show. Suddenly, I was gliding, carving smoothly as a dusting of snow tickles my face. For the first time ever, I felt “the float.” Arriving at the base at 3PM after having skied the epic Last Spike run for a non-stop 15.5 kilometres, Tomi declared me “chopper ready.”

Mastering the float

Early the next morning I am at the nearby base for my day of helicopter skiing with Selkirk-Tangiers whose beat is an immense 200,000 hectares of mountain terrain. After strapping on avalanche transmitters and going through rescue drills, 10 of us jump into a helicopter; I am the only female — about 90 percent of heli-skiers are guys. The group’s skill level will determine if we get three or four long runs in that day.

The helicopter rose quickly into the sunny sky and we banked over towering granite spires to touch down softly on a broad mountain ridge. We leaped out — very un-James Bond-esque — and assumed the crouching heli-huddle position as the “thump-thump” of the blades resonates through my chest like an extra set of heartbeats. When the chopper took off in a tornado of snow, it left us in deep silence amid waves of snow-capped mountains.

I snapped my boots into their bindings, Tomi’s words of instruction rippling through my brain. But I didn’t need them. I took a deep breath to beat down the adrenalin, picked a line and drew my own private snowy S-curve of downhill graffiti on untracked powder across a nameless mountain. I let go and the skis did the work. The helicopter idled at the base. We hopped in and did it again. Then again. On the last run, I howled with happiness. After all, was I not a full-fledged powder hound now?

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