February 6: Whistler, British Columbia
From the Fairmont Chateau Whistler
I woke up an hour before my alarm clock was set to go off. The only time this happens is when I’m going skiing and know it will be a sick powder day. It had snowed 28 inches in the last 36 hours and today I was going helicopter skiing for the first time in my life with Whistler Heli-Skiing. Not only was the powder going to be deep but I wouldn’t have to fight 6000 other maniacs for the goods. It was shaping up to be an epic day of skiing but had the storm passed so the helicopters could fly?
It was still snowing heavily outside my window at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler when I peered out. Noticeably absent were the gusty winds that kept the helicopters grounded yesterday. Not sure if we would be able to fly, I optimistically dressed in my ski clothes, grabbed a bite of breakfast and waited for the “Go” or “No Go” phone call. At 7:45 my phone rang, “Please head down to the Crystal Lodge at 8:15 so you can meet your guide Dale…” I was out the door and in the elevator before they had a chance to finish.
I met the nine members of my group at the staging area and our guide Dale ran through the basics of backcountry skiing and helicopter safety. It was a brief but thorough introduction and Dale’s professionalism and knowledge were obvious. Before I knew it the safety talks were over. We piled into a Bell 212 helicopter and took off in the direction of untracked powder.
In five minutes we climbed 2000 feet and set down near the top of the tree line. Any higher and the falling snow would make it difficult for the pilot to land and for us to see during the ski down. When the helicopter flew away it was just our group in the middle of a vast untracked wilderness. No day lodge, chairlift, or powder hungry hordes in sight, just acres of untracked powder snow.
We partnered up and followed Dale down a gently sloping ridge for 20 turns before stopping above a steeper slope. Dale made a ski cut to test the slopes stability and then ripped off effortless turns until he stopped 200 feet below us. We skied the slope one at a time and it quickly became apparent that our group consisted of a wide range of abilities. Some of us jumped off of a small cornice, made two turns and straight lined the rest. Some of the guys fell in the deep snow and looked for skis. But we all had the same wide smile on our faces.
During the two runs we made before lunch the snow was epic but it felt like we were stopping to regroup as much as skiing. Unfortunately this was necessary in the trees where visibility was restricted. If we had gone further before regrouping it would have been easy for someone to pick up the wrong drainage and become hopelessly lost. My vision of heli-skiing always involves arching huge turns down a wide-open powder field. The reality is that the weather and snow conditions dictate where you can make your turns.
On our third and final run the weather cleared a little and we were able to ski slightly more open slopes. Near the bottom of the run we broke out of the trees into a large clearing. Every turn resulted in a face shot and I caught frequent small airs off of fluffy snow pillows. The run was over far too quickly. The turns I made during this run are some of the best I’ve had in twenty plus years of skiing.
We made three runs through the trees and skied around 7500 vertical feet. On a normal day at the resort I would expect to ski around 20,000 vertical feet. But that would involve plenty of cut up snow, moguls, and possibly ice. Today all I skied was powder. At the end of the day I felt kind of like the first time I borrowed my parents car and took a girl out to the movies. It was a new and exciting experience and when it was over I was left wanting more.
— Guest Author, Bryan Rhodes