I'm spending a week heli skiing at the CMH Galena lodge in British Columbia. I want to share the experience with you since this is my first time and you're probably like I was: Wanting to take a heli ski trip at some point, but not sure what it's like or if you should do it. Here's my story. I'm happy to answer your questions in the comments, and feel free to contact my friend Brad Nichols who works with CMH and has much more experience than I do (he's skied 22 weeks up here). He can also let you know if there's any availablity on the trips for this season.
Day 0, December 22, 2012
I was so excited to be going to Galena, I texted Chris Davenport because I knew he had been there as well. Here's his reply to me...needless to say it made me more excited than I already was. That's a pretty big compliment to Galena when a guy like Chris Davenport writes it!
Day 1, December 23, 2012
"Take the best run of your life, do 10+ of them in a day, and do it for 6 days in a row - that's heli skiing." This is how my friend Brad Gilbert descibes a heli trip, and after a day experiencing it for myself, he's exactly right. One thing I'll add is that the snow in British Columbia is like nothing I've skied before. It's just light enough for a few face shots, and just thick enough to feel spongy and allow me to "play" on every little roller and clif. I generally do not like jumping off of things, but up here it's just too much fun not to! This is the best playground for adults, ever.
I'll post more action shots soon, but here's an idea of how much snow is on the ground...
16" of light snow on top
36" of skiable snow (light on top, spongy below)
7 feet of base (89 inches or 225 centimeters)
This is at the base...imagine how much snow is at the top.
When life-long skiers smile like this, you know it's good
The scenery is as beautiful as the skiing
There's so much snow, every terrain feature becomes a playground
Day 2, December 24, 2012
I was going to write a long narrative about how good today was. I was going to try to make the writing as beautiful as the skiing. But instead, I copied below an email I wrote to a good friend right after I got off the mountain. I think it exactly captures how I feel and how good it was.
"Best day of skiing in my life. Period. Clear skies. No Wind. 15-20 degrees. A good 15-20 inches of fluffy stuff on top and a deep base . Long runs of 3,000 vertical feet. Arcing turns in open areas. Steep trees. Great stability so skiing steep powder in wide chutes. Did my first pillow line. Jumping off of every little thing with spongy soft landings. Losing my voice from "whooping" so much. Not writing this to rub it in, just to acknowledge that I now understand what some people have known for a long time. This place is unreal. All 11 of us in our group can ski fast...no waiting. Unbelievable. I see the light. Must come back here. This is as good as it gets. Time for the hot tub and a beer. I've skied about 900 days from age 4 to age 31, and this was the best day of all."
We exited the helicopter into waist-deep snow
On top of the world! Rolling alpine pitches followed by steeper trees.
Gorgeous views of skiable terrain
Are you kidding me? Nope. It was this good.
A perfect night after a perfect day.
Day 3, December 25, 2012
Today was play time. Usually I do NOT jump off of stuff. I'm not that good in the air and the more imporant part - landings - don't go that well most of the time. However the snow is so soft and the terrain is so playful that everyone is jumping off of everything, including myself. It's hard to describe the thrill of actually carrying speed into a jump (whether it's a cliff band, pillow drop, or just a little bump), flying through the air, and landing softly every time. The snow is so forgiving that sticking the landing is usually no problem, and even falling is fun. Of course getting air isn't required, but the guides are great and let us do what we want. Some people keep their skis on the ground, others look for every jump, and some do a little bit of both. Here's a still frame capture from my GoPro as I nosed off a cliff on Christmas morning on a trail appropriately named Freefall:
I usually hate jumping, but these landings are so soft, so why not? Tons of fun!
In the comments, James Griffin wrote the perfect description of what it's like to ski in British Columbia after spending a lot of time in Colorado and the Rockies. He points out that for eastern US skiers, the chance to ski Colorado or other areas in the western US is a game changer. And going from Colorado and the Rockies to British Columbia is a similar type of game changer, both in terms of terrain and snow quality. I've skied for 27 years over about 900 days and the last three days are the most fun I've had since I started skiing at age four.
Day 4, December 26, 2012
It was another great day, though my legs didn't warm up until the third run. In Colorado, I usually don't ski from 9am-4pm with a short lunch break but rather ski a few hours in the morning with friends or do a nice backcountry tour. So my legs, while in pretty good shape, aren't necessarily used to all this skiing, and at 2,500-3,000ft vertical per run, it's real skiing all the way from top to bottom. Some light snow fell during the morning while the skies were mostly sunny, which is always fun to see. Lots more steep yet open tree runs today. I think we did eight runs and I'm now just shy of 100,000 vertical feet skied in four days. Good snow + good weather + a strong group = lots of skiing!
Smooth, buttery snow through long tree runs. Does it get much better?
Day 5, December 27, 2012
I keep thinking that I've seen all that Galena has to offer, and then we have a day like today. A few inches of fluffy snow fell on top of an already deep and soft base, so the fast and open tree runs were especially fun, and we also explored one of the most fun areas of terrain I've ever seen. Our last two runs were in a playful area with steep lines, pillows, and cliffs. The coolest part was that everyone in our group of 11 could find something for them. Our most experienced jumpers including J Weingast and Air Japan (a man and a woman from Japan that jump off of EVERYTHING) tried the bigger stuff, myself and a few others pushed our limits and hit some 10-15 footers, and others that don't really jump either found some smaller hits or were able to ski fun, steep powder lines with no need for air. The key is that everyone found something that challenged them in their own way, and all on the same run. It's magical when we all get to the bottom and are all equally thrilled with our accomplishments, even though those accomplishments are much different for each person. Here are a few pics...
J Weingast finding the fluff. (photo: Megan Gilman)
Joel Gratz enjoying yet another untracked run. (photo: Megan Gilman)
Megan Gilman can't find her legs in the pow. (photo: J Weingast)
J Weingast sending it (and he skied perfectly out of the landing)
photo: Megan Gilman
Day 6, December 28, 2012
I have a good friend Brad that lives in Boulder and has been heli boarding in British Columbia many times. I've been emailing back and forth with him, sharing my excitement at finding a new type of skiing that I never imagined could exist, and he wrote me this in reply to one of my emails. I think it absolutely captures how I'm feeling:
"Yes it [heli skiing in British Columbia] will forever change your definition of "epic" but a good powder turn is a good powder turn no matter where it happens. The thing is that a heli trip is the closest thing you can get to a "sure thing" in skiing - no worries about crowds or fresh tracks. And a mediocre day of heli is still better than almost any day at a resort. Plus as you've discovered the terrain up there is so freakin fun - nature's greatest terrain park."
I'm not the most eloquent writer, so it's hard for me to adequately describe the joy of heli skiing for the past week at CMH Galena. The best thing I can say is that myself and my two friends J and Megan have each skied since we were about four years old and we're now between 30-33 years old. With all that ski experience, you can imagine that we've seen a lot of great days, great runs, and remember some amazing snow. However, all three of us can't stop smiling, laughing, and enjoying this terrain, this snow, and the joy of skiing fresh tracks every run, every day. As I went to bed last night, I had that happy calm feeling that you get when you know you've had the experience of your dreams. And this isn't a "bucket list" type of thing. If you love powder and the experience of skiing (or riding; I don't discriminate:-), this is something you'll want to do again and again and again. The most inspiring thing about being up here is meeting people from all walks of life. Yes, heli skiing is expensive (though when you consider the staff needed and the $5,000/hour it takes to run a helicopter the cost seems very fair). Some folks have a background that you expect: Entrepreneurs that hit the jackpot or people that work in sales for large multinational corporation and are doing very well financially. But there was also a retired school teacher who made skiing in BC a priority in his life, and has been very responsible with his money to ensure he lived the life he dreamed of. Or the couple from Japan that comes for a few weeks per year and makes powder a priority (we called them "Japan Airlines" because they jumped off of everything). Skiing powder is a very selfish endeavor, but if skiing powder with your family or best friends brings you the most joy in the world, then follow your happiness and make it happen. It's hard to match the joy and fulfillment of being here for a week.
A few more pictures...
First turn of the first run on Friday. Snow is soft, so go for it!
The most perfect trees...you can see our tracks in the lower part of the picture.
Not a bad lunch spot, eh? Megan Gilman & Jason Weingast enjoy the view.
The terrain ranges from perfect turns in the wide open high alipine, to...
...fun rollers and lips, to...
...jumps with perfectly soft, squishy landings (not mandatory, but too much fun to resist).
And the best part is that it only takes 5-10 minutes between runs!
Day 7, December 29, 2012 (the last day)
It was the perfect end to a perfect week. A quick-moving storm from the north moved in during the early morning hours and snow fell from about 4am through noon. Beacuse today was a travel day, we "only" skied from 9am to noon, then we had 2 hours to pack and eat lunch before taking a helicopter to a bus to a ferry to a bus and finally back to the hotel in Calgary about 11pm. Combining the few inches of fluffy snow that fell during the last two days plus another 6" of fluffy snow that fell this morning made for an absolute treat with blower pow hitting the waist, chest, and an occasional shot to the face. It was the type of powder that didn't slow you down and made you feel lighter than air. For our last run, the guides set us up on hero terrain -- low angle open trees with the sun popping out. It was beyond gorgeous as we chased each other through the pristine powder. It's one of those runs I'll never forget, not because it was the deepest or the most challenging, but because it meant the most to share the world's best terrain and lightest snow with my best friends. It's been a long time since I was legitimately sad to leave a place behind, but I had that feeling today as we boarded the heli to leave Galena lodge. I'm hoping to come back, very soon.
Snow moved in during the early morning hours.
Nice-sized flakes falling silently through big trees greeted us on our first run.
Morning report: 9 inches of blower.
Our group of 9 numbered 11 for most of the week, representing five countries.
(USA, Japan, Brazil, France, Switzerland)
Megan Gilman bounds through the powder (photo: Jason Weingast).
Joel Gratz attempts to copy Megan's grace with marginal success.
(photo: Jason Weingast)
Mike Oliver of Denver finds the freshies (photo: Jason Weingast).
Joel Gratz enjoys perfect powder (photo: Jason Weingast).
Megan Gilman & Jason Weingast waive goodbye to the heli for the last time.