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Heliskiing with Kingfisher Heli

I just spent three days heli-skiing at Kingfisher Heli in the Monashee mountains of British Columbia (January 19-22, 2018). I feel fortunate that this was my fourth heli trip in the past 6 years and I want to share the experience with you in hopes that it might help you to learn more about skiing in British Columbia, about heli-skiing, and about the operation at Kingfisher.

If you have questions, I included additional links and email addresses at the bottom of this post.

Day 1, Thursday, January 18, 2018

We spent a lot of time planning in the months before the actual trip.

What time of year should we target? I enjoy late December and January when the sun angle is low (preserves the powder), but you can get great skiing any time from December through April.

Where should we go? A friend of mine had enjoyed his trip with Kingfisher last season, so I decided to join him this year to investigate this newer operation. Even though Kingfisher Heli is a newer operation, their guides have decades of experience heli-ski guiding in British Columbia, and this gave me confidence that we were in good hands. Full disclosure – most of my trip was provided for free in exchange for this review of Kingfisher. Of course, the thoughts below are my own and I’m giving you the straight scoop. My goal is always to write openly and honestly so that you have full trust in my opinion.

Who is in our group? This is arguably the most important question. For Kingfisher, we knew that they fly smaller helicopters that can hold 4 guests in each group, and our total group size wound up being 11, which is two groups of four and one group of three. This size was also a perfect fit for their on-site lodging, which I’ll talk about in a second.

Kingfisher is located in the Monashee mountains of British Columbia, just southwest of Revelstoke. Map credit: Joel Gratz

Most of us flew from Denver to Vancouver, had a 2-3 hour layover, and then took a 1-hour flight from Vancouver to Kelowna, British Columbia. The airport in Kelowna is large enough to accept jets arriving from many cities, and small enough so that you can deplane, grab luggage, and get out in just a few minutes.

We rented cars to make the 1hr 15min drive from the Kelowna airport to the Kingfisher Heli Village. Hiring a shuttle is also an option, but because we had a large group that could share the costs of the rental car, it was less expensive for us to rent two SUVs and hit the road.

The drive from Kelowna to the Kingfisher Heli Village is at a lower elevation with no mountain passes, so the chances of the road being closed due to snow or avalanche danger is very low. During our drive, the roads were dry. Map credit: Joel Gratz

The Kingfisher Heli Village is a summertime campground that is converted into Kingfisher’s headquarters in the winter. Photo credit: Joel Gratz

The area consists of a bar/restaurant where all meals are served, three buildings for guest lodging, a guide and gear cabin, and the helipad sits right in the middle of it all. The walk from one end to the other is about 3-5 minutes. Map credit: Joel Gratz

Our arrival felt a little underwhelming as there was one group that was checking out and we weren’t sure exactly where to go (check in at the office? head to the bar? go find our lodging?), but this was quickly sorted out. Photo credit: Joel Gratz

Heli-skiing is of course about the skiing, but the food is usually amazing as well, and this trip was no different. The small dining area was the perfect size for our group of 11 plus a few guides and staff, and every meal was fantastic. Photo credit: Joel Gratz

That evening, we settled into our lodging after a day of travel. The main chalet has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a large living room. Photo credit: Joel Gratz

The two modern cabins (not pictured) each have a kitchen, a small living area, two bedrooms, and each bedroom has two beds and bathroom.

We were excited for our first day on snow, but to be honest, I was a bit worried because the snow at the Heli Village was old and crusty. Yes, I understood that the Heli Village was at an elevation of about 2,300 feet, that most of our skiing would take place between 4,000-7,000 feet, and that the ski terrain was 10 miles further to the east where the snowpack is much, much deeper. But still, it was an odd feeling to go to bed, look outside at some crusty old snow, and trust that the guides and staff were all honest when they said the skiing 10 miles to the east was amazing.

Day 2, Friday, January 19, 2018

We woke up, ate breakfast, and then spent about 90 minutes completing avalanche safety and helicopter safety training. Even though I had been through these trainings many times before, I still picked up a few pointers and it was a good refresher. When your instructor has decades of experience in the field, there is always something to learn!

Then it was time to fly, and we found the helicopter only 300 feet from the chalet. In the photo below, one modern cabin is on the left (the other is just out of the picture to the right) and the chalet is in the middle with the red roof. Photo credit: Joel Gratz

As I mentioned, the helicopters at Kingfisher are smaller, holding one pilot, one guide, and four guests. These smaller helicopters are actually quiet enough inside that you can have a short conversation with the person next to you. Also, I was looking forward to the smaller group as this can lead to more efficient skiing – with four people in a group, compared to the bigger helicopters that hold 11 people, there is a lower chance that someone in the group falls, or loses a ski, or takes your line:-).

After a 5-8 minute flight, we got to the first run. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great snow, with a noticeable crust underneath and a pretty long run out to the heli pickup. I’ve been on enough ski trips to know that not all runs are the best runs and to be patient. But still, it was a bummer after months of anticipation.

Fortunately, the second run was fantastic, about 1,500 feet of knee-deep powder with no crust underneath. We’re in business!

Below is an example of one run that we skied just before lunch. Great snow, enjoyable terrain. Spot the skier on the left. Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Derek Drechsel

While these type of open runs are fun, the highlight of the day was skiing in the burned forest. This is an area that has seen a forest fire, the trees are burned and still in place, and there are no pine needles and the branches are much smaller. This translates into the most perfectly spaced tree skiing that you can imagine. Photo credit: Robert Sim @theeffensearch, Skier: Joel Gratz

Photo credit: Robert Sim @theeffensearch, Skier: Joel Gratz

Skiing through the burn was an absolute blast! Video credit (Rylo Camera) & skier: Joel Gratz

Because of the safety training in the morning, the first day was a little shorter, starting at about 1030-1100am, and we skied about 10,000 vertical feet. Kingfisher doesn’t charge extra for a certain amount of vertical feet skied, so measuring vertical is not a big deal to the staff and guides at Kingfisher, but I still wanted to mention it as it’s a reasonable metric to keep an eye on.

Map credit: Joel Gratz

A better metric than vertical feet, though, is the friends you’re with and the smiles that are generated by skiing perfect powder on fun terrain. Photo credit: Robert Sim @theeffensearch, Skiers: Matt Scholl, Joel Gratz, Alec Hall, Derek Drechsel

Of course, I had been keeping a close eye on the weather, and most models showed the chance for light snow tonight. In the evening, the radar hinted that it might be snowing up in the mountains, but there was no snow in the Heli Village. Hmm. Would we have fresh pow tomorrow?

Day 3, Saturday, January 20, 2018

Even though it didn’t snow at all in the Heli Village, 10 miles to the east and 4,000 feet higher, there was a fresh ~10 inches of blower pow, and since most runs that we skied had not been skied for many days or weeks, the 10 inches of fresh was sitting on a base of bottomless, untouched snow.

The first run is usually a warmup, a little closer to the Heli Village and a bit lower in elevation. Thus, we weren’t expecting face shots on the first run. But, we were ok with the surprise! Video credit: Megan Gilman, Skier: Jason Weingast

And the powder just got deeper and deeper as we explored more terrain. We jumped off of everything we could find…

Video credit: Sam Warning, Skier: Jason Weingast

Photo credit: Sam Warning, Skier: Joel Gratz

Photo credit: Sam Warning, Skier: Jason Weingast

Mostly, though, there was too much snow to get enough speed to jump off of small features, so we did something else really fun, which is to ski deep, blower pow down long runs!

That's a real powder face shot below. No need to accentuate a turn to puff up the snow ... this is pure fall-line skiing!
Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Derek Drechsel

It doesn’t get any better than this. Seriously, what more do you want? Pow in the face. Runs with a good pitch that go on longer than your legs can sustain. It was awesome. Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Derek Drechsel

Photo credit: Nick Wilder, Skier: Joel Gratz

The guides work hard, and they also ski a lot of pow. Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Matt Scholl

Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Nick Wilder

Photo credit: Sam Warning, Skier: Megan Gilman

Photo credit: Sam Warning, Skier: Jason Weingast

Skiing light, blower powder is a bit on the rare side in British Columbia. Sure, it happens plenty of times, but you are lucky to get it during the few days that you are out in the heli.

What is consistent about British Columbia is the tree skiing. This is classic BC … widely-spaced pine trees, long and nicely-pitched runs. It is so much fun! In the video below, I am attempting to follow our guide through the trees. My legs were burning at the end, but I was having too much fun to put the brakes on.

Video credit: Joel Gratz (Rylo Camera), Skier: Joel Gratz, Matt Scholl in front

I shot the video on a 360 degree camera (Rylo), and you can view that 360 degree video at this link (be sure to drag the video around as you can see people skiing behind me): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfZucvPKVL4

Another piece of classic British Columbia terrain are cut blocks. These are areas that have been logged, trees are growing back but are still very small and buried under the snow, and the stumps of the old trees provide a little playground as they are also covered in snow. After skiing 2,000 vertical feet between beautiful full-growth trees, you think it can’t get any better, and then you cap a run off with a cut block like the one below.

Video credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Derek Drechsel (1st) and Matt Scholl (2nd)

As incoming fog forced us to move back toward the Heli Village, we skied runs that were a bit more open in spots.

Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Derek Drechsel

And on our last run, the helicopter full of people insisted that they should not take off until they got to watch Derek take the final jump of the day.

Photo credit: Joel Graz, Skier: Derek Drechsel

The scale of this place is amazing. The trees are massive and the snowpack was about 8-10 feet deep.

Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skiers: Jason Weingast & Megan Gilman

We skied about 20,000 vertical feet this day, and it was some of the best skiing of my life.

Map credit: Joel Gratz

Smiles all around. This is Brad Gilbert, who is my friend that had skied with Kingfisher the year before and suggested we go this year. Good idea, Brad!

Happy faces after a perfect pow day.

Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skiers: Joel Gratz, Derek Drechsel, Megan Wilder, Nick Wilder, Matt Scholl

Day 4, Sunday, January 21, 2018

Nothing lasts forever.

Yesterday was a PERFECT powder day. Cold but not too cold. Light wind. Good visibility. DEEP, fluffy snow.

Today is very windy, and worse, when the helicopter took off with the first group, they reported ice accumulating on the windshield and had to turn back. That was the absolute right call for safety, but was a bummer because if the helicopter can't fly, we can't ski.

The guides and pilots were willing to reassess weather conditions in the midday and afternoon, but nothing had changed, so we did not fly all day.

This presented a conundrum. Today was supposed to be our last day to ski, and we were scheduled to leave for the airport and head home the next day.

As luck would have it, Kingfisher did not have a group coming the next day, and offered us the chance to fly the next day if we could rearrange our travel. It took a lot of effort (and some expense) for 10 of the 11 of us to rearrange travel, but we did it and stayed.

Not being able to fly is a part of the heli-skiing game, but it doesn’t happen often in British Columbia (happens much more frequently in Alaska).

Each operation has their own policy about how to handle days that you can’t fly. Often, there is a minimum vertical foot guarantee, and if you meet this guarantee during your trip, you won’t be refunded or credited for a time that you can’t fly. In the case of Kingfisher, we were lucky as there was room for our group the next day and all of us did some juggling to make it happen. I can’t promise that this would happen in the future for our group or yours, but at least in this case, we got lucky and could push our final day to the next day.

Day 5, Monday, January 22, 2018

We woke up to light winds and the helicopter reported no icing when it took off with the first group, so it looked like we were in good shape for flying.

When we got up to the terrain, we found that it was absolutely dumping snow. One to two inches per hour.

Photo credit: Joel Gratz

Intense snowfall is good and bad when heli-skiing. It’s good because OF COURSE it’s awesome when the snow is falling at 1-2 inches per hour! It’s bad because visibility is reduced which means that flying can be restricted.

Even though we couldn’t fly to far-away terrain, we still enjoyed good snow on some of the closer terrain.

Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Jason Weingast

Tough to take photos through the intense snowfall! Photo credit: Robert Sim @theeffensearch, Skier: Megan Wilder

We ducked into the trees and, after a few runs that were just ok, found some perfectly spaced trees and plenty of snow that covered 98% of the crust that formed a few days before. Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skier: Jason Weingast

I included the photo below to give you a sense of the scale of the snowpack. The landing zone (marked by the posts and flags) is at a summertime trailhead, which has an outhouse. I hope they reinforced the roof of the outhouse!

Photo credit: Joel Gratz

Luckily, the intensity of the snow decreased a bit during the early afternoon, and we were able to fly around the ridge and over to the burned forest area which we explored on the first day.

Looking up from below. For scale, search for the skiers in the middle-right.

Photo credit: Joel Gratz, Skiers: Nick Wilder, Megan Wilder, Robert Sim

Photo credit: Robert Sim @theeffensearch, Skier: Chip Stone

We were able to ski 20,000 vertical feet this day even though the visibility limited flying at times.

Map credit: Joel Gratz

Once again, the happy faces tell the story.

Photo credit: Robert Sim @theeffensearch, Skiers: Megan Gilman, Jason Weingast, Derek Drechsel, Joel Gratz, Matt Scholl

Snowpack

Amazingly, the snowpack that you see in these pictures was about average for mid-to-late January. Also amazing is that the snow received during the trip kept falling through mid-February and the snowpack became much deeper than average. Woohoo!

The snowpack was about average when we arrived, and it kept building and building and building...

You can find these graphics in real-time, plus webcams and the forecast for Kingfisher here on OpenSnow: https://opensnow.com/location/kingfisher

Summary thoughts about the trip

Location - it’s hard to beat skiing in the Monashee range of British Columbia. Super deep snowpack and incredible terrain.

Boutique operation - Kingfisher is what many people would call a Boutique operation, meaning that they are small, catering to at most 12 guests at a time. Many other operations serve 30-40-50+ guests at a time. There is no right or wrong when thinking about the size of the operation, but we did benefit from the smaller operation.

For this trip with Kingfisher, we enjoyed the flexibility of picking a custom start date and a certain number of ski days (3) rather being forced to conform our schedule to a pre-defined start date and trip length. Also, we got lucky that they had room to give us a make-up day after we couldn’t fly. This is rare at any size operation, but we got lucky.

Group size - Having four-person groups is amazing. With fewer people in each group, there is less of a chance that someone falls, or loses a ski, or takes your line. The only downside is that, if you come with a big group, it's a bummer to split up and only see some of the group before the skiing, after the skiing, and at lunch. It can be fun to all ski together in a big group, if you know and like all the people in your group. Like so many things I mentioned, there is no right or wrong here, just something to consider.

Lodging - We liked having the living room in the Chalet to gather and relax. In the future, it’s possible that since our crew now has young children, we could bring kids as it would be a workable situation for one parent at hang out with the kiddo at the Chalet and walk around the grounds while the other parent skies, and then visa versa the next day. Also, you can drive to the Heli-Village, which affords flexibility in case you want to run to a nearby general store, etc. The downside to this is it doesn’t feel quite as special as flying to a remote lodge for a few days. All of that said, the details about lodging are not the top factor when I consider ski destinations, though it is something to consider.

Internet - There was satellite internet which was intermittent. Sure, I’m here for the skiing, but like most people, it’s nice to be connected to the outside world, and for me, it’s critical that I have internet so that I can update the forecast on OpenSnow each day. Thankfully, there was a moderately strong LTE cell signal at the Heli Village, so when the satellite internet went out, I could tether my phone to the computer and still get online.

Guides - They were safe, communicative and flexible. What I mean by “flexible” is that when members of our group were tired, or not comfortable on some terrain, the guides took the time to help that person rather than get annoyed that the group couldn’t stay together. This isn’t always possible at operations with larger groups and/or a different guiding culture.

Terrain and safety -  Some of the treed terrain that was closest to the lodge was a little tight and repetitive when weather forced us to stay in this zone, but that’s an issue that is similar with many heli operations (if whether forces groups to stay close to the lodge, sometimes the terrain can become a bit boring when you ski it again and again and again). I wish we could have seen more of their terrain, but that would only happen if it was not snowing and we had better visibility, and if we had more days to explore. Also, Kingfisher has a lot of terrain that is further north from the Heli Village, and they just placed a remote fuel cache here (to fuel the helicopter) in early February 2018, so we missed the opportunity to see it for ourselves, but the pictures that they showed me looked great. From a safety standpoint, the guiding and decision-making was safe and top notch, and I also appreciated that the guides made an effort to get us into fun and playful terrain as the avalanche and weather conditions allowed.

Guest service - The lodge staff were wonderful and overall everything was great. There was an issue on the first day with an incorrect lunch being brought out into the field (this might sound trivial, but it’s a long day in the snow, you’re hungry, and you want to eat what makes you happy). I was pleased to see that, on the second day, they changed how they took our lunch orders which made it less likely to have a mistake. Also, some of us had dietary restrictions which were not followed and I think this was because our preferences were well communicated to the chef (I think it's a communication issue because the food was fantastic and I bet the chef would have had no issue adjusting the plates of a few folks that had diet issues). Again, this might all sound trivial, and I might sound like I am high maintenance and want to be pampered, which is definitely NOT the case. I mention these issues simply to be transparent and to acknowledge that it's little things like this that will take a bit of time for a newer operation to fine tune and get right.

Vertical feet - The bigger heli-skiing companies will give you a vertical foot guarantee during your trip, and then you’ll pay extra money for extra vertical. Other, usually smaller companies, will offer unlimited vertical, or in other words, you pay one amount of money and that covers all the vertical you ski with no additional charges.

Kingfisher is in the camp of unlimited vertical. I found this relaxing in that I wasn’t mentally calculating vertical feet, and if a certain run wasn’t my favorite, I didn’t feel bad about 'wasting' vertical feet on that run. Overall, though, when you look at both business models (pay for extra vertical feet vs. unlimited vertical feet), it seems that the final price might work out to be similar since the unlimited vertical operations often charge a higher base price. Like many things, neither model is right or wrong, just different. Again, I enjoyed not feeling the pressure of tracking my vertical feet to see if I would pay extra at the end of the trip, but I don’t know that this would have resulted in cost savings.

The Last Word about Kingfisher 2018

Whew … that’s a lot of information. I hope it’s helpful, and I am always happy to chat more about any of my ski experiences in hopes that it will help you plan your next trip.

I know that Kingfisher is mostly booked through the end of February 2018, but they still have some availability in March 2018...hint hint:-)

For more information…

- visit Kingfisher Heli's website: http://www.kingfisherheli.com

- email Sam Warning at Kingfisher Heli for more information about booking a trip: Sam Warning <[email protected]>

- email me with specific questions: Joel Gratz <[email protected]>

- visit the Kingfisher Heli page on OpenSnow: https://opensnow.com/location/kingfisher

And remember, all skiing, including heli-skiing, is best enjoyed with friends. So get your crew together and plan your next trip!

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