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.
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.
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
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