I headed out to the Canadian Rockies again for my annual Heli-ski Trip with family and friends. The Bugaboo Lodge was where Heli-skiing really all got started back in 1965 by an Austrian mountain and ski guide named Hans Gmoser and his company Canadian Mountain Holidays.
They originally began flying with Bell 47 helicopters (MASH-type) but now fly twin-engine turbine powered Bell’s. The scenery is breathtaking and the famous Bugaboo Spires can be seen above the lodge at the head of the glacier at the end of the valley.
One of the great things about the Canadian Rockies is the altitude we ski at is lower than in the States. The lodges are around 2500′ and the tops of the highest runs are around 8000′. As a comparison, the bottom of the mountain I ski at in Utah begins at 8000′. This translates into more oxygen for the Heli-skiers and thicker air for the helicopters to operate more efficiently.
There are a number of lodges to choose from and several offer Heli-hiking in the summer, which I want to check out one day.
Everyone goes through safety training upon arrival and goes over the details of the avalanche beeper training, which we all wear. Everyone now carries a backpack with a radio, a snow probe, and a snow shovel in case of an accident. Once this is done, it’s off to the slopes for fun in the powder!
We eat lunch out on the mountain, which is delivered by a second smaller helicopter. Guides also use this helicopter for checking snow conditions and occasionally blasting to set off avalanches under controlled conditions.
Most lodges have four groups of 11 skiers and a guide per helicopter but a few have three groups. There maybe a few times where you wait for a lift while the helicopter refuels but you then get the opportunity to take a rest and enjoy the scenery. As long as the weather conditions are good, I’ve always gotten more than my share of great skiing.
Heli-skiing is not without it’s hazards. One of the really fun aspects is tree-skiing. To me, it’s the ultimate video game because every run is different and you never know what’s coming up next. You follow the technique race car drivers use in a car crash. Don’t look at the wall (or the trees) . . . look for the open spots! Sometimes they’re a bit narrower than you’d like and you end up catching a thorny branch or two.
There’s a basic rule they tell us that I’m pretty good at following, “If you can’t see over it . . . don’t ski over it!”
Of course, everyone thinks about avalanches. The weather and snow conditions can change quickly over the week but the guides are well-trained and alert to the current conditions. They’ve learned much over the years and their knowledge has increased safety.
Several years before I began heli-skiing, some of my family came to the Bugaboos for their first ever trip in 1994 and witnessed the worst accident in CMH history. They had just finished a run called Bay Street as Group One and, while waiting at the bottom, watched Group Two begin to come down from the top. Several of the skiers, with limited English, went a bit beyond where they were told to ski and the whole mountain slid from the top. Fortunately, the slide stopped just short of Group One at the bottom but, unfortunately, nine skiers in Group Two lost their lives. Out of respect, they’ve never skied the run again.
While there are still dangers, the risks have been minimized over the years and thousands of skiers still flock from all around the world every year to enjoy the great sensation of skiing lots of untracked powder.
At some point I may have to give it up but, at 58, I still feel I’ve got a few great years left in me!