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Great Canadian Heli Skiing, 3/15-3/17

post #1 of 17
Thread Starter 

Last October, on my birthday, my two brothers surprised me with the amazingly generous gift of a mid-March heli-skiing trip to Great Canadian. After 5 months of wall squats, Vimeo-aided visualization, cycling, free weights…and a little skiing…the big day finally arrived.


The four of us—my brothers, I, and a friend—flew into Calgary on March 14 from three different cities. We rented an SUV at the airport and drove the 4 hours to Heather Mountain Lodge (HML). I had been following the weather every day for a couple of weeks—an exercise in futility, of course, since things can (and did) change dramatically in a matter of hours. Just the same, the Selkirks had entered a storm cycle earlier that week, and the weather forecasts did nothing to dispel my fantasy that our first day of skiing would be the fabled Yesterday (as in “sure, this is epic, but you should have been here yesterday! Face shots on every turn, etc. etc”).


It was -5C degrees and snowing lightly in Calgary—a good omen—but as we approached Banff, the temperature climbed to 0C, then 2, then 4, and the snow became sleet, and finally, a steady light rain. It was about 6C by the time we reached Golden. The runs of Kicking Horse, or at least the lower, rain-soaked one-third of Kicking Horse, were clearly visible across the upper Columbia River valley. It may have been snowing at the higher elevations of Kicking Horse, but with the pea-soup cloud cover, it was impossible to tell what was going on in the alpine.


We continued west on the Trans-Canada Highway out of Golden, arriving at HML about 45 minutes later. There are a few Burma-Shave type signs along the highway leading up to the turnoff to the lodge, and although those signs are probably meaningless to most motorists, they popped right out of the trees to us powder-hungry travelers. A typical sign had the Great Canadian logo, then some cryptic saying like “Small Groups Ahead”, and a mileage figure (6.4km, 5km, 1km…Bingo!).


HML is on the east side of Rogers Pass, just 100 yards or so off of the highway; but “just off the highway” is a relative term in this part of Canada and doesn’t really do justice to how tucked away the place feels. Other than the highway; the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks, hidden from view; and a few logging clear cuts at lower elevations, this is undeveloped, untouched, beautiful country.



The Operation


We arrived on the evening of the first, and possibly the only, down day of the 2012-2013 season. It had been raining steadily at the lodge all day and in the mountains up to about 6500 feet or so, which is above some of the lower pickups; and visibility had been zero all day. But the guides were optimistic that this pineapple express was winding down. For us, it was just enough to be here in this beautiful lodge, with three A6 helicopters out the front door and massive amounts of terrain somewhere out there, cloaked in the clouds.


Greg G, the head guide and head of everything ski-related at GCH, walked us through some details after dinner the first night, including weigh-ins, waivers, and ski selection. All the skiers (there was one snowboarder staying at the lodge while we were there), including the guides, were on GCH-supplied Armada JJs.  Greg put everyone in our group—experienced skiers, 6’ to 6’2”, 185 to 215 pounds—on 175s. It was my first time on a 5-dimension rockered ski; and hopefully it won’t be my last.


First day

It was warm and misty when we woke up, but cloud cover had lifted enough so that we could see the snowline about 2500 feet or so above the lodge. The first hour that morning was dedicated to beacon drills, helicopter safety, and general orientation, and we lifted off around 10 am.


Cathy, our understated pilot cool.gif


Our first two runs were in the Purcells, southeast of the lodge; and the snow was a little heavy but really pretty good considering how much it had rained yesterday down at the lodge. We skied Virgin and Miller Time. The terrain was gently sloped glades with a couple of steeper tree shots. The JJs handled everything well, up to and including some marginal “schmoo” (our guide’s term for rain-soaked snow) that we found towards the bottom of a couple of the early runs.


Weight—the collective weight of our group of 4, the weight of the fuel, the weight of the pilot and of the guide, even the weight of the lunch coolers—was one of several factors in determining what terrain we could access. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight, but it didn’t occur to me until we had taken a couple of runs. The other big factor, of course, was the weather: we could only land at places where our pilot could see to land. But it never felt like we were missing out on anything. There is just so much terrain up here.  At one point on Saturday we skied the same run about 5 times in a row, never crossing our (or anyone else’s tracks), finding great snow each time on almost the entire run.


One of the unexpected benefits of having a heavier group was that we got to ski with two of Great Canadian’s lighter guides, both of which just happened to be women: Sue Gould and Kristina Metzlaff. The fact that our pilot during most of the trip was also a woman, Cathy Moore, gave the trip a certain balance, for want of a better term. And it just rocked to be guided and flown by confident, competent people who are living the dream.


So…the skiing just got better as the first day went on. The skies cleared a little, and we flew over to, and spent the rest of the day in, a couple of drainages in the Selkirks to the north and west of the lodge that were less affected by the yesterday’s warm storm. We had a tasty lunch out at one of the landing zones, ate some Wheaties, drank some Cheap Scotch, ate some Buffalo Wings, and then ate some more Wheaties (all of which are named runs; but you do burn a lot of calories up here..). Sue and Cathy did a fine job of finding the best snow on what had to have been one of the most challenging guiding days all season, both in terms of avalanche danger as well as snow quality.




Gene and John eatin' their wheaties.







Gene and Randy


We got back to the lodge around 4 or so. Great appetizers and adult beverages were waiting for us in the ski room, followed by a gourmet dinner at 7. The other guests were from Finland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Calgary, and San Francisco, so it was a pretty diverse bunch. There’s a great sauna over near the heli pad, a nice little bar upstairs, and a sweet deck off of the main dining room if the weather is nice (which it was for the first couple of days).

Edited by Gnarlito - 3/20/13 at 6:03pm
post #2 of 17
Thread Starter 

Second Day

We spent the second day skiing with Kristina almost entirely in the Alder Creek drainage, I think. It had cooled off to the point where the snow up around the tree line had dried out some, and the schmoo down low had hardened into a nice crust topped with a skiff of new overnight snow. We skied a couple of tree runs early on during the day that would have been epic had the conditions been a little better, but we did do a little bit of survival skiing towards the end when we hit the breakable crust.  The snowpack was starting to heal, but it was still a little scarred.


Over the course of the day, we skied sastrugi, windpack, whipped cream, marshmallows, ok powder, good powder, and born-again schmoo (rain crust). Thanks to Kristina, we were on ok to good powder about 90% of the time.  One of the cool things about skiing in this part of the Selkirks and on transition days like Saturday is anticipating just where the snow starts to change from good to not so good (and back again) and adjusting your skiing accordingly. We didn’t have to do a whole lot of that, but it was nice to be reminded of just how wild and changeable snow can be in an uncontrolled alpine environment.



Lunch with Kristina (and a view)



It started snowing heavily around 2:30 or 3, so we wrapped up a little early while Cathy still had enough of a weather window to fly us back to the barn.


Third Day

We awoke to a lightly falling snow at lodge level on Sunday morning. The pineapple express was finally history. The alpine had received three or four feet over the course of the storm, starting out wet on Thursday and then tapering to 20 inches or so of sublime new snow on Sunday morning.


About 12 new guests arrived on Saturday night, and our group of four got out for a couple runs while the new arrivals went through orientation. We landed in heavy snowfall at the top of a run called Smoke. The helicopter sank up to its belly. We jumped out, sank in ourselves into this really nice powder, and knew immediately it was going to be a whole different kind of day.  


Smoke is a nicely pitched glade, and we managed to make two memorable runs in the trees in the kind of powder that we knew was out there somewhere but could only dream about for the last couple of days. The density of the snow was just ideal for the pitch of the run…the kind of snow where you just think through the turns and the skis turn themselves.


Then we headed up to some of the higher alpine bowls when it looked like things were starting to clear up around 10 am. But it was just a momentary sucker hole: it started snowing heavily again, so we headed back to the lodge.


The new arrivals had not yet flown out, so they didn’t know what was in store for them once it did clear up. Luckily it cleared up in couple of hours, so what could have been our last runs of the day turned out to be instead a short, sweet two-run morning before an extended lunch break.


Sunday afternoon was a reprise of some of the same type of terrain we skied all week, as well as some new areas that we just caught glimpses of between snow squalls. There were two helicopters flying today—Dirk and Cathy—and they got us to the goods consistently. The ridge at the top of Eat Your Wheaties, which had been wind packed and just something to ski through till you dropped into the bowl, was now covered with creamy new snow. Yesterday we had just one tantalizing run down Cheap Scotch, and today it was skiing more like Johnny Walker Black.


The best run, though, was Perfect Glacier. It was incomparable to anything I’ve skied before, resort or backcountry. The name says it all. We dropped in off of a 5-foot cornice and then we traversed a bit at the base of the Little Matterhorn, a dramatic alpine spire. Directly below us, skier’s left off of the traverse, were maybe 60 turns worth of knee-deep, consistently pitched perfection in a postcard setting on a bluebird day. That one run was worth the price of admission alone. Perfect Glacier was the best terrain I’ve ever skied in my life.  It was the type of skiing that made you feel at once insignificant and incredibly lucky.


We ended the day, and the trip, on JFA (Just Frackin Awesome for you Battlestar Galactica fans). The run was aptly named. The last pitch on JFA was a sweet steep shot that required a bit of a drop in and that reminded me a whole lot of first tracks on Nirvana at Snowbird on a really good powder day.


The skiable terrain in Great Canadian’s tenure is highly varied. We spent most of our time in alpine bowls like Eat Your Wheaties, Cheap Scotch, and Buffalo Wings. These bowls start out like Ballroom at Alta or Mark Malu at Snowbird, then they level out, then they pick up again—bowl/bench/bowl—for maybe 1500 or 2000 vertical feet. On some runs, there were often two or three steeper shots (think Honeycomb Canyon at Solitude or the terrain in the Gad Valley at Snowbird) at some point during the descent.


The tree skiing is superb, but we were a little limited as to what we could ski in the trees during our trip due to the effects of the pineapple express on the lower reaches of the best tree runs. We got a taste of how good it can be on Smoke and Home Run. And there are some beautiful fall-away glades, chutes, and pillow drops if you are up for that sort of skiing.


There’s something about heli skiing with an outfit like Great Canadian that simultaneously dislocates and grounds you. I can’t stop thinking about it, so I’m not getting anything done at work, but I can’t remember when I’ve had a better time. To have all this skiing, to share it with like minded people, to do it in a place where the creature comforts are plentiful….it is addictive! If you don’t have a bucket list, start one now, and put heli skiing at the top.


Just want to give a shout out to all the Gregs—Greg G, Greg Porter, Greg the Bartender—our pilots Cathy and Dirk, our guides Sue and Kristina, Rachel, to Ina, Randy, and especially my brothers Gene and John for the trip of a lifetime.

Edited by Gnarlito - 3/20/13 at 5:02pm
post #3 of 17

Nice report, & well timed in my instance.  I am heading up there for the 1st week of April!


Would luv to hear more or see more pictures/video.





post #4 of 17
Thread Starter 

Thanks JF, I just put some raw footage up there mostly as a placeholder. As soon as I get hold of it, I'll post some of the many pics and some edited GoPro footage from my brother. . Hope to get it posted up here in the next few days.  It should paint a better picture.

post #5 of 17

I will look forward to it.

post #6 of 17

Great stuff!

post #7 of 17
Thread Starter 

A few more shots from St. Paddy's Day at GCH...






















And some higher-res versions and some addtional photos from by brother

Edited by Gnarlito - 3/22/13 at 1:35pm
post #8 of 17

Nice!  Luv the glacier shot!


post #9 of 17

thats a pretty epic present.

post #10 of 17

Epic indeed!!


I just revised my bucket list ... I'm up to a total of 1.

post #11 of 17
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the feedback! Here's a video trip report...


post #12 of 17

Perfect timing with the video, I am leaving tomorrow!



post #13 of 17

Great trip and super report. Thanks for sharing. Oh, and Gnarlito, you have some very, very cool brothers.


If you have some time, it would be great to see a review of the Armada JJ ski. Sounds like you got to ski it in a lot of different conditions and terrain.

post #14 of 17

Been up here for 2 days.  It has been really warm, but still some good snow up high & on the most northerly facing aspects.










post #15 of 17
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the video and the photos, JF! Looks like you got to some of the high glacier runs. I don't have any other heli-ski operations to compare it to, but I can't imagine anyone doing it better than Great Canadian.


Andes Rider,  the JJs are very versatile. There was almost no learning curve involved. They seem have a large sweet spot. I was skiing tentatively at one point when we hit some sastrugi and wind-scoured hardpack on a short ridge-top stretch, but I was overcompensating: once I saw how everyone else was skiing this stuff, I let go and trusted the skis, and they handled the hard snow nicely.


At the other extreme of the conditions spectrum, we hit some heavier stuff where one careless turn would put you over the handlebars, but it was relatively easy to adjust to these conditions without going into some weird Slow Dog Noodle powder-jet-turn mode. I guess the best thing I can say about these skis is that you can trust them to stay predictable when things around you are changing. They are like the Segway of skis in that respect...they react predictably to your body movements.


Before I actually skied them, I thought that the tail rocker was just overkill, sort of like a spoiler on a mini-van, especially for someone who isn't airborne and landing switch on every other turn. But I was wrong. We had a couple of places where we had to drop in a few feet to get to a nice shot, and the rocker makes it easier to maintain your balance in these situations. Also, I was a little leery that we would end up surfing over really good powder, and not in it.... I live for the type of skiing where you are in deep and not just on top.  And that was never an issue with these skis. They stay under the surface if you want them to. Last but not least, JJs are the daily drivers for the guides at GCH, all of whom are accomplished all-conditions, all-terrain skiers.

post #16 of 17

You definitely had below average conditions for cat/heliskiing.   If weather keeps you out of the high alpine AND it's been warm enough that the low elevation tree skiing is not good, that's very unlucky.  That was the first of my 2 days at Wiegele in 2007.  Fortunately the second day a hole in the clouds opened up, so we got up high and racked up a lot of vertical, somewhat like your 3rd day. http://www.firsttracksonline.com/boards/viewtopic.php?t=2782


It's very common to have the weather issue and more occasionally to have the elevation issue. Thus my strong desire to be somewhere with a lot of high quality terrain in both high alpine and trees.  In general the Purcells are known for the former and the tree skiing is not as good as in the Selkirks and Monashees.  I've had single days with RK and Purcell which reinforced that opinion.  Great Canadian may be better being a bit farther north with some of their tenure in the Selkirks.


In terms of the operation itself, I've heard nothing but good things about Great Canadian though I've never been there.  My focus in Canada has been much more on snowcat (53 days lifetime) vs. heliskiing (17 days).


I find tail rocker to be a powder specific tool but a very good one. It's easy to smear turns and you can turn on a dime in tight trees if necessary.

post #17 of 17

Heli-skiing looks so good, and 4ster, you do have the life, and are such a great photographer, as is original poster

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