I carved an S-curve of downhill graffiti on deep, virgin alpine powder, floating down amid spectacular snow-covered mountain ranges beneath a bluebird sky. Suddenly, I wiped out in a dramatic “double eject,” losing both my skis, tumbling in a great puff of fluffy snow. Gail Davenport from Washington, D.C., skied up, extended a hand, and helped me onto my skis.
“You OK?” she asked, brushing snow off my jacket. I caught the reflection of my powder-caked face in her goggles and we both began to laugh.
A few hundred feet below us, our Montreal-born guide, Jean-Francois “JF” Lacombe, patiently leaned on his poles, waiting for us, offering advice. “Don’t rush,” he said. “Take it slow.”
It was Day One of a five-day women’s-only helicopter powder ski introduction in central-eastern British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains.
At times the inexperienced powder puppies didn’t, perhaps, look pretty as they careered downhill, but everyone was relaxed, having fun and learning at our own pace.
Years ago I went helicopter skiing, hated it, and vowed never to do it again. The problem then wasn’t the skiing; powder can be bliss. It was the rest of the experience.
I was a strong intermediate skier, had taken powder prep courses and then signed up for a day’s heli-skiing. I was buddied-up with a similarly skilled fellow and dropped atop a pristine summit.
At the end of the run we carefully threaded our way through the trees to the chopper only to meet with glares from our macho group mates who had skied hard and fast and were waiting for us.
They told us that unless we skied faster they wouldn’t get in an extra run before our chopper time ran out. I could see their point — heli-skiing is not cheap — but I spent the rest of the day pressured and stressed.
Since then I’ve listened to dozens of women with similar tales or who have avoided heli-skiing because they figured they didn’t ski well enough to tackle this holy grail of downhill schussing. Yet I never forgot the exhilarating feeling of making turns on fresh powder.
When I learned that Canadian Mountain Holidays, or CMH, offered a women’s only heli-ski powder introduction, I signed up. “Male guests told us in the ’90s that they wanted to bring wives or girlfriends on their heli-ski vacations, but that the women didn’t want the pressure of keeping up,” said Dave Cochrane, a mountain guide and manager of CMH’s Bugaboos Lodge.
“So we started a women’s-only group with more guides and instruction for a higher comfort level.”
The ideal minimum skill level for heli-skiing, said Cochrane, who has been with the company since 1979, is someone who skis blue runs with confidence and who seeks black runs for challenge.
“It’s not necessary to have ever skied powder,” he said.
CMH offers mixed heli-powder introduction trips throughout the winter at most of its 12 luxury lodges spread across 3 million acres of terrain, an area about a third the size of Switzerland, but there is usually only one women’s group per season.
This year it took place at its Cariboos Lodge outside the city of Kamloops; next January it will be at Bugaboos Lodge, accessed from Calgary, Alberta.
I arrived early in Kamloops to take part in a two-day heli-cat warm-up course at nearby Sun Peaks Resort run by Bodie Shandro, a ski guide and avalanche safety instructor who thinks first time heli-skiers benefit from a more intensive briefing on powder ski techniques and safety instruction. We tweaked my ski moves, then I learned and practiced backcountry safety skills such as digging someone out of a tree well and finding hidden transmitters that skiers wear in case of avalanches.
“More women are trying heli-skiing in the past decade,” Shandro said. “I see at least two or three in every group of 10 skiers now.”
In early morning I boarded a Bell helicopter, after a 3½-hour drive from Kamloops, for the 10-minute shuttle to luxury timber Cariboos Lodge, set amid snowy forested wilderness on the banks of the Canoe River not far from Jasper, Canada.
As a blizzard swirled around us, a safety briefing introduced us to the radio and small backpack with a probe and rescue shovel we would carry daily as well as transmitters we strapped on each morning.
Then we headed to the helipad for helicopter etiquette and safety. Dawn the next morning arrived with sun, bright blue skies and more than 14 inches of fresh snow that had transformed the subalpine trees into snow ghosts. We started the morning with a 7:30 stretch class and lodge manager John Mellis’ trademark yodel at 8 before he delivered the day’s briefing at breakfast. Then we grabbed our skis and assumed the hunched “heli-huddle” position at the pad to avoid being bowled over by “rotor wash” as the chopper landed alongside us.
Heli-skiing is an iconic Canadian sport dreamed up more than half a century ago by Austrian ski guide Hans Gmoser, whose Canadian Mountain Holidays pioneered what is now one of the world’s top adventures.
Even today, much of the world’s heli-skiing takes place amid the dry Champagne powder of British Columbia’s interior. Our helicopter, filled with eight women aged 24 to 65 with limited powder experience, rose quickly, banking over towering granite spires, glaciers and endless snowy peaks.
We touched down softly on a broad mountain ridge. We leaped out, huddling again as the “thump-thump” of the helicopter rotor resonated through my chest.
The chopper took off, leaving us in deep silence amid the white world of the Cariboos, a sub-range of the Columbia Mountains. Around us was skiable terrain with a 550-inch annual average snowfall.
I snapped into my bindings, breathed deeply to beat down the adrenaline, and took off through untracked powder on the Bratwurst run. Although it seemed as if we were in the middle of nowhere, the guides knew each of the area’s 319 runs, with such names as Teeter Totter, Shark’s Tooth and Enchantment High.
We were a diverse and enthusiastic group: a mother and daughter; several wives whose husbands had headed out for the day with more advanced groups; a father and bubbly daughter — we made a male exception for the delightful Bill — and several single women thrilled to experience this sport in a noncompetitive environment. We carved our way down to the tree line, following JF through glades with widely spaced trees. Then we bundled our skis, heli-huddled and shuttled in minutes to the summit again in the warm chopper.
Floating downhill, we left contrails of powder hanging in the air. We wiped out. Our skis popped off. We struggled to our feet and put ourselves together again in yard-deep powder with the help of Erika Flavelle, our Czech guide whose job it was to “pick up the pieces.” We laughed.
We cheered when someone triumphed with an amazingly curvy run. Then we hopped in the helicopter and did it all again.
Lunches were picnic-style in a sunny spot at the base of a hill, complete with soup and hot drinks served from a packed-snow “table.”
There were opportunities throughout the day to quit early and head back to the lodge for a hot tub, sauna, massage and 5 p.m. après-ski snacks at a spacious bar alongside a fireplace-warmed living room with spectacular views of the Canoe glaciers. Dinner was fine dining family-style at long tables, marvelous meals created by Nick Catherine, a former chef at the Fairmont Banff Springs.
Though we skied together during the day, our group mingled with the other guests the rest of the time, a total of 42 who included Swedes, Australians, Germans, Americans, Canadians and 22 Dutch skiers. Some guests have been coming annually for up to four decades. About 60% of CMH clients are return customers.
Our vertical-drop descents were logged daily and posted on the bulletin board. Reach the status of the Million Footer Club and CMH awards you with a special ski jacket and pants.
As the days passed the camaraderie and bonding cemented friendships on the slopes and over local British Columbia wines and craft beers. By our last day we were getting the hang of skiing in knee-deep powder and there was much downhill howling with happiness.
After all, we were on our way to becoming full-fledged powder hounds.
By the time we choppered out at the end of the week, I only had 980,478 vertical downhill feet to go to become a Million Footer.