Heli-Skiing in the Selkirk Mountains
When I felt the muddy snow slush beneath my feet, I began to worry. Having arrived at the lodge with just enough daylight left for our crash course in avalanche and helicopter safety, we stood outside, probing dirt, searching for a dummy avalanche beacon. It was the week of St. Patrick’s Day and spring was in full effect. Rain soaked through the snow the week before. It was hard to imagine an avalanche when we were outside with open jackets.
There were twenty-two of us, broken into two groups of eleven. I was one of six Americans staying at Canadian Mountain Holiday’s Gothics Lodge for a week of helicopter-assisted skiing, alongside an international cast of Brits, Germans, Frenchmen, Swedes, and Canadians, hoping for snow in the next five days.
We bombarded between trees, through feather light snow that exploded everywhere. It would spray you in the face, hose you in the chest, obscure your vision, leave you with a moment to change your line and dodge a tree.
The first helicopter left at 9 a.m. every morning. We would crouch together in the snow/mud on our hands and knees, leaving an eight-foot gap for the helicopter to land between us and our guide. Inches from our huddle, it would ice our faces in a manic snow globe of rotor wash. Our Bell-212 could cover 3,000 vertical feet in less than three minutes. With the guide’s expertise, finding snow became inevitable. And while it was raining at the lodge, once we were in the mountains the sky dumped inch after inch of snow on our heads.
We bombarded between trees, through feather light snow that exploded everywhere. It would spray you in the face, hose you in the chest, obscure your vision, leave you with a moment to change your line and dodge a tree. There’s a technique: turn both skis into a single platform, bounce slightly, up and down, up and down, keep the snow under foot, arms forward, poles alternating, the rhythm of floating, always with a bounce. Then sharply contrasted – tight turns around bent trees, ski tips playing peekaboo under the snow’s surface.
The forest becomes a playground. There are logs and stumps and small jumps hidden under enough snow to launch you off the ground with a veritable jet stream trailing from your boots – splash landing in the powder, sinking to your knees, an unbreathable snowball clouds your vision and makes you wish for a snorkel.
I asked the guide how often people get lost: “Oh, about one or two every week.” Really? That often? “Yeah, but never for very long… We did have one French guy a few weeks ago who didn’t speak a word of English and we lost him for a while, like fifteen or twenty minutes, we were really concerned. Turns out, he had his radio turned down and he just kept skiing. We found him all the way at the bottom of the valley.”
“I’m doing this until I’m broke or my knees give out,” he said
In the trees, avalanches aren’t as big of a concern, but the same can’t be said about the prodigious glaciers which can be large enough to encompass entire ski resorts. Unlike the tree runs, which have many small features, glaciers have fewer, larger features – chasms, rolling hills, steeper inclines, and they’re often wide – enough room for all twenty-two of us to ski one run four times over with fresh tracks every time.
In some parts of the world, they call these conditions, ‘Champagne Powder.’ In others it’s ‘The Gnar,’ but at The Gothics, they call it “Hero Snow,” because it’s so effortless to carve beautiful sweeping turns, the snow “could make anyone think they were good at skiing,” one of the guides joked. It was more narcotic than winter sport, every turn more addictive than the last.
Out of the twenty-two guests that week, seven of them had Million Foot suits – complimentary ski suits for every million feet skied with CMH – no small feat when each trip nets about a hundred-thousand feet. The other guests jokingly called the suits “Million Dollar Suits,” but that didn’t stop one person from skiing seven million feet in seven years. “I’m doing this until I’m broke or my knees give out,” he said, summing up a sentiment that seemed to echo through the lodge: whatever the price tag may be, it’s more than worth the reward.
by R. Bradley Bermont
photography by R. Bradley Bermont