10 days ago I clicked my heels together three times and went down a rabbit hole into a world of high mountain peaks, powder snow and helicopters. Then, in the blink of an eye it was all gone. Just like that, as if it never happened. If it was not for the dark circles under my eyes, sore quads and hefty bar bill I wouldn’t believe it did.
Take a group of 30 adults, put them in a remote lodge deep within the snow covered Selkirk mountains within British Columbia, wake them daily at 7.15am for 7.30am stretch class, feed them breakfast at 8.00am, put them in a helicopter at 9.00am with a heli ski guide and a gazillion hectares of spectacular Canadian ski terrain, feed them lunch on the mountain in the middle of the day, ski some more, bring them back to the lodge, feed them apres fare, turn on the hot tub and sauna, open up the bar, serve dinner then shot skis, sleep then repeat. This is heli skiing.
It was not my first time, rather it was my fourth heli ski trip with CMH. My previous three I had arrived single and ready to mingle. This time I brought a girl friend along for the ride because if you heli ski solo and have no one to share the memories with then did it really happen?
But most of all you also have someone to share the post heli ski blues with the week after. And you will experience the post heli ski blues, it’s a given.
Group dynamic is everything for a successful heli ski trip. If you can’t play nicely with the other children then here’s a tip, stay home.
So it was lucky for me when I boarded the early morning bus from Calgary to the Gothics heli ski lodge that my dry Aussie humour was picked up by an equally bolshy human from Tampa who became the Den Daddy, a seven foot Jesus from Colorado, a stylish architect from the home of Fonzarelli, Milwaukee and a former rodeo national champion cowboy turned doctor from Oklahoma. The week long posse had begun and it only grew with each shared high five, drink at the bar, lunch on the mountain and face plant in the snow.
Lodge life is like a bubble. The outside world only exists in emails and texts, though I would highly recommend an out of office message so you make the most of your time. When all daily decisions are made for you and the only thing you have to think about is what wine to order with dinner then day to day life stresses strip away.
If you’re fortunate and remain open then people you didn’t know days before become your best lodge friends, the kind you look forward to joining for breakfast each morning. Why? Because you see complete strangers at their best and their worst which means you laugh hard and empathy is a must.
Heli skiing makes people vulnerable and invincible at the same time. The fear you won’t be good enough to make it down through powder and that you’ll yard sale and hold up the group or the desire to impress with the best you can be, only to fall down a hole.
On some days your legs will be in the zone and you’ll think you’re ripping like Candide Thovex (you won’t be) and other days you’ll find your skis wedging like a pizza, at least in your head.
But one thing is guaranteed. Your teeth will hurt from smiling so much in the cold snow.
If you think you can’t heli ski, think again. As much as heli skiers want you to think we jump from a helicopter with our skis on while hovering 12 feet above a powder covered cornice. We don’t.
Rather it is all terribly civilised with a heli ski guide to load and unload your skis onto the chopper each take off and landing. Heli ski terrain is then chosen according to each group (there was 3 groups on my week) ability and CMH even offer Powder Intro heli weeks for first timers.
Once you’ve shared the best and worst of you on the mountain you’ll connect even more with your heli tubby friends in the hot tub and apres bar. I met some of the best humans alive last week, the kind of married men that speak of their wives with joy in their voice, the kind of men who are not afraid to reveal their flaws, the kind that respect and look out for you, the kind that give single women hope and married women pride. The kind that also laugh at my jokes and know how to drink a bar dry.
Lucky for us our heli ski week co-incided with the annual Burning Guide party in the woods to mark the end of the staff season. Think of it as a teeny tiny Burning Man minus the magic mushrooms, celebrities and desert dust.
A giant wooden heli guide on a bucking wooden bronco is burned at midnight to signify the end of the season. The theme was cowboy and western and heli lodge guests raided the dress up box to create a mash up of Halloween style outfits before trying their luck on the bucking bronco.
Did I mention I won the bucking championship? Or rather I held on tight to the former national rodeo champion while he bucked and I provided balast on the back to keep us from falling off. Either way we won, and I’m claiming it.
But what of the snow you ask? There’s never a guarantee of blower powder though lucky for me I have scored that each time I have gone with many days losing myself in over the head snow. This week was late in the season and I was worried about what we would find.
Day one was challenging to say the least. On days like that it’s best to relish the freedom of being in the big mountains a trillion miles from civilisation.
Day two didn’t get much better but a ping pong championship, snow shoe and hot tub challenge ensured spirits remained high when the helicopter came in after one run.
Come day three and a snow storm came in to provide us with the perfect light cold smoke powder that interior British Columbia is known for. We went from spring to winter overnight and scored 14 heli ski runs of perfection in one day.
Day four was more of the same amongst open bowls and tree runs and day five we got a half day bluebird up high on an alpine glacier with butter spring snow before loading the same bus to return back to Calgary.
Then just like that it was over. Doneski. The best week of my norther winter season spat me back out the rabbit hole and into a world of blues and the ultimate first world depression.
There was no cowboy at breakfast, in fact there was no breakfast. There was no Jesus singing with a guitar at the bar, no Den Daddy shouting above the crowd, no helicopter waiting for me outside.
No heli pad banter, no group dinners, no morning stretch class (that I never went to).
Just me and my both bursting and aching heart. Heli skiing does that to you. Makes you feel alive and connected in a truly human way then takes it away.
No wonder it’s an addiction. Once you’ve had heli you always go back.
Watch this space for a selection of video edits to be published this week from the week that was.
Rachael Oakes-Ash was a guest of Canadian Mountain Holidays and Tourism British Columbia. Check out the CMH site for local sales agents in your region. Australians can contact the exclusive distributors for CMH in Australia, Travelplan Ski Holidays.