Wednesday, 12 June 2024

Exploring the Value: A Journey to the Birthplace of Heli-Skiing to Uncover Its Worth

Exploring the Value: A Journey to the Birthplace of Heli-Skiing to Uncover Its Worth
Saturday, 16 December 2023 23:12

Chasing the Dream: Heli-Skiing in British Columbia's Pristine Wilderness

As I glided through the untouched blanket of powder, the British Columbian mountains revealed their majestic allure. The burnt trunks of the silent forest stood in stark contrast to the glistening white surroundings, creating a picturesque scene. My turns sent waves of fluffy snow into the air, reminiscent of a surfer navigating a tube. The moment reached its pinnacle as the sun broke through the clouds, transforming the snow into a golden spectacle. Laughter erupted from me, a testament to the disbelieving joy of experiencing the run of a lifetime.

Our guide, Ian, had carved a path through the Black Forest area above the Duncan River, in the Purcell Mountain Range. Yet, the vast expanse beside his tracks became our own playground. Choosing our lines, determining when to turn, and reveling in the freedom of skiing or snowboarding through deep powder proved irresistibly addictive. The key to consistently accessing these dreamy terrains? A lift from a helicopter.

However, the allure of heli-skiing comes at a cost – an expense that prompts many skiers to dismiss the idea in favor of multiple conventional ski holidays. Seeking to unravel the true worth of this experience, I journeyed back to its roots, the birthplace of heli-skiing – British Columbia. Home to Canada's snowiest mountains, particularly renowned for waist-deep, fluffy powder, the Purcells region in the Columbian Mountains is an unparalleled adventure venue. Its cleaved spires and extensive ski runs, descending over glaciers into uninhabited valleys, make it ideal for heli-skiing.

The remote nature of these terrains makes helicopter access the only practical way to explore them, a realization that led pioneers to the granite Bugaboos in the mid-Sixties. Decades of exploration have made CMH Heli-Skiing in Golden, British Columbia, one of the most knowledgeable operators globally. The areas, so remote that the guides and pilots have given them names, offer a unique and untouched experience.

CMH Purcell has recently introduced one, two, or three-day heli-ski packages, aiming to make this extraordinary experience accessible to a broader audience. During my trip, I heli-dropped alongside skiers of various abilities and ages, including a group of septuagenarians who typically stuck to groomed pistes – a testament to the inclusivity of heli-skiing.

Navigating the Peaks: A Dive into Heli-Skiing's Safety and Thrills

Right from the outset, safety took precedence as the guides at CMH (Canadian Mountain Holidays) placed it at the forefront of our heli-skiing adventure. In a departure from the norm, where premium adventure experiences often cater to the client, CMH founder Hans Gmoser's philosophy echoed: "In heli-ski, the customer is not king. The guide is not king. The mountain is the king!" Straying beyond the orbit of our guides meant being essentially alone in a freezing wilderness, making the learning curve steep.

The first two hours of our journey were dedicated to safety practices, including the use of avalanche beacons and radios, and lessons on best practices in the mountains. The guides, embodying both friendliness and patience, ensured we never felt rushed. A critical lesson was instilled – listening when they spoke and buddying up during descents. On a powder run through snow-laden pines, I called my turns, creating a sense of camaraderie with my snow buddy, Ben, and amplifying the feeling of exploration.

Our initial boarding of the Bell 212 helicopter at CMH's Purcell lodge hinted at the extreme landings awaiting us. A 15-20 minute ride transported us far beyond civilization, surrounded by snow-caked spires. The helicopter's descent was a spectacle, leaving us amid a pristine landscape. Engines roared, and as the chopper ascended into the cobalt-blue sky, a surreal sensation of falling away engulfed us. The guides, familiar with the expansive terrain, factored in slope angles, avalanche risks, weather conditions, and seasonal snow nuances to mitigate potential hazards.

Standing above a drop into an immaculate powder bowl, miles away from any signs of human presence, I felt an unparalleled confidence in my guide's risk assessment. "We'll drop in here," Ian advised, cautioning about the slope's bottom flattening out. Carving down the steep descent, I experienced the exhilaration of flying across the powder bowl, the wind roaring in my ears – an unforgettable rush that encapsulated the essence of heli-skiing's unparalleled thrill.

Into the Wild: A Journey of Powder Runs, Environmental Consciousness, and Unforgettable Moments

Over three remarkable days with CMH, we immersed ourselves in the exhilarating world of heli-skiing, averaging an impressive eight to 10 fresh powder runs daily, expertly guided by Ian, Tom, and Bryan. Navigating through evergreen glades, over Silent Glacier, and down majestic flanks like Upper Whitehorn, each run offered a privileged perspective on the breathtaking landscape. Yet, CMH acknowledges the environmental cost that accompanies this privilege and has taken substantial measures to monitor, reduce, and offset its carbon footprint.

The operation's commitment to sustainability includes efforts to minimize the impact of burning jet fuel, along with initiatives dating back to the 1980s that harness micro-hydropower in remote lodges, earning them accolades for environmental stewardship. Balancing this reliance on nature with the human energy required for powder runs, we found respite in purpose-built mountain huts for lunch. With hot soup, sandwiches, and refreshing tea, we recharged before delving into another round of tree runs, perfecting the art of weaving between green boughs laden with white.

The educational aspect of the experience became evident as each run unfolded, offering insights into spotting gaps and choosing the optimal line for a seamless flow. By trip's end, it felt as though I had condensed a year's worth of powder run experiences and lessons into three intense days. The consensus among my companions mirrored my sentiments – the expense was undoubtedly justified.

At the end of one particularly awe-inspiring run, American businessman Allan, overwhelmed with awe, declared, "This is a runner-up to sex." As we gathered at the pick-up point amidst the densely forested terrain, the reality of the challenge involved in skiing this remote part of the planet sank in. Yet, our angel arrived with the distinctive chopper sound, the pilot skillfully navigating the Columbia Mountains' backcountry. The helicopter descended, a metal behemoth placing its belly right between the pile of skis and the group of Gore-Tex-clad skiers. In that moment, with the rotor's downdraft pulsating, I realized that in the backcountry of the Columbia Mountains, trust is the most valuable commodity – a sentiment that encapsulated the essence of this extraordinary adventure.

Tailored Thrills: Navigating the World of Heli-Skiing, From British Columbia to the Andes and the French Alps

Embarking on a heli-skiing adventure with CMH Purcell unfolds as a flexible and accessible experience, with an impressive guide-to-guest ratio of two to eight. Offering one, two, or three-day trips, CMH Purcell caters to a diverse range of skiing styles. Priced from $2,115 CAD per day (£1,243), the package encompasses unlimited vertical meters of heli-skiing, snacks, mountain lunches, equipment, expert guiding, and pre-ski training. The base, conveniently located six minutes from Golden, British Columbia, makes it easily reachable from London, with flights to Calgary and onward travel options.

Heli-skiing is renowned for its premium status, but CMH Purcell provides options to suit varying preferences and budgets. Opting for a smaller helicopter and a more intimate group size promises increased verticality, efficiency in navigating terrain, and greater flexibility in tailoring runs to the group's collective goals. Whether booking as a solo adventurer, being matched with like-minded individuals, or forming a select group, the experience caters to individual preferences. The price starts from $1,631 CAD (£953) per day for a four or five-day trip, making heli-skiing an achievable dream.

Venturing to the Central Andes in Chile, the Puma Lodge sets the stage for light and dry powder heli-skiing in the Río Los Cipreses National Reserve. Boasting untouched terrain, the region offers a diverse range of heli-skiing options, from glaciated Andean peaks to steep ridges and gullies. Guided by experts, skiers of all abilities can explore this pristine landscape. Priced from $8,500 (£6,781) per person for a three-day heli-skiing experience, it promises a five-star adventure in one of the world's most breathtaking settings.

For those seeking a taste of heli-skiing in the French Alps without the premium price tag, Méribel offers an enticing entry point. The resort provides a unique experience, blending off-piste skiing with a thrilling helicopter pick-up in locations across the Three Valleys and Italy. Priced from €1,070 (£918), this day of adventure allows skiers to carve fresh tracks in otherwise inaccessible sections of the Alps, adding a touch of luxury to a traditional skiing experience.

In conclusion, the world of heli-skiing unfolds as an exhilarating and diverse adventure, catering to a range of preferences and budgets. CMH Purcell in British Columbia stands out with its flexible options, impeccable safety measures, and an awe-inspiring landscape that justifies the premium price tag. From the untouched beauty of the Central Andes in Chile, with Puma Lodge providing a luxurious base, to the accessible heli-skiing experience in Méribel, the options span continents, offering skiers an opportunity to carve fresh tracks in some of the most breathtaking terrains on Earth.

Whether seeking the ultimate powder runs in the remote expanses of British Columbia, the pristine landscapes of Chile's Río Los Cipreses National Reserve, or a taste of heli-skiing luxury in the French Alps, each destination promises a unique and unforgettable experience. The carefully curated packages, expert guides, and varied group options make heli-skiing an achievable dream for enthusiasts of all levels. As these global destinations beckon, heli-skiing emerges not just as a sport but as a gateway to exploring some of the most remarkable and untouched landscapes our planet has to offer.