I wish I could say my first day heli skiing was an unmitigated success.
But that would be a lie.
It was a nearly spontaneous adventure. While I knew that I was going be skiing Revelstoke Mountain Resort in British Columbia, it wasn’t until the day before I left for Canada that I knew I’d be heli skiing.
And to use an overused word in this context, I was stoked.
I was also woefully unprepared.
The Best of People
Now, before I get too far along in this tale, it’s important to note that nothing, but NOTHING was the fault of Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing. From general manager Eriks Suchovs to every member of his staff, from guides to retail clerks, the people at Selkirk Tangiers are good people, even great people, with genuine smiles and boundless enthusiasm.
From the moment I walked into their base camp at the comfortable Coast Hillcrest Hotel, they were friendly, enthusiastic and patient. The staff walked me through the paperwork and got me geared up.
During our safety training, the two guides Pierre and Larry were patient, articulate and serious. They got the basics of transceiver (beacon) use into my head and taught me rudimentary, but critical, avalanche skills.
On the mountain, Larry saved my day, helping me get up out of the snow and down the mountain, when my energy was spent. A new father, with endless patience, he’ll be a remarkable ski dad.
I’ve had friends who ski with Selkirk Tangiers, and return year after year. And I have nothing but good things to say about this operation. Someday, I hope to return, too, when I’m better prepared.
The Worst of Preparation
Reflecting back upon my day of heli-assisted backcountry touring with Selkirk Tangiers, it was a day that was alternatively the best and worst ski day of my life.
It was sublime. And humbling. It was day upon which my spirits soared, and my pride took a massive fall.
In many ways it was a day of overload. I began the day on equipment I’d never used before, after a basic introduction to avalanche safety. I was with a group of three very experienced men, all experts in the backcountry. And while each was a perfect, gracious (and patient) gentleman, I was clearly the weak link in our group.
My first mistake was purely an oversight born of my inexperience. After the rush of jumping out of the helicopter and lying in the snow while it took off again, I forgot to switch my boots from “walk” to “ski” mode.
The result of this simple mistake, in soft, flexible AT boots, was disastrous.
In the open powder, my turns were controlled, if a bit loose. But when we entered the trees, my tips dug in and like the little teapot, I repeatedly tipped over.
At the end of this first run, I exited the glade rattled, uncertain and embarrassed. I was completely confused. My first turns in open powder had been solid, if not pretty, so what was the trouble? Why were my tips digging in and tripping me up?
Thankfully Larry figured it out. When he asked me if I’d flipped the switch on my boots, he apologized for not reminding me. But truly, this was no one’s fault but my own. I was just thankful he’d pinned the problem.
Finding the Groove
Flipping that switch made all the difference for the next two runs.
After some food and water, we began to climb through a tall, serenely quiet forest, where we heard nothing but bird chatter and the swish of our skinned skis on the snow. The repetitive motion, the beautiful scenery and the step, glide of climbing was calming.
With every step and every breath, I felt restored as the winter mantra set in. I knew I could do this. I knew that the combination of food, endorphins and the peaceful groove would carry me through.
And it did.
To a point.
The next two runs approached perfection. I skied through a wide glade with sweet turns and a smile on my face. I still postholed hopelessly when putting on the skins, but at least I’d hung with the boys on our second shot through the glades.
Then, as we prepared to hike again, Pierre got a call from the helicopter pilot. We had an offer for a “bump up,” meaning a flight to the top, rather than a hike. Suddenly, our pace quickened and mentally the stakes rose.
Long story short, the next run was spectacular. The heli took us higher than we would have had time to hike on a short northern December day. Dropping into an open face of powder, I began to feel like I knew what I was doing. The turns were easy, rhythmic and oh, so fun.
And then I bonked. I’d had nothing to eat or drink since our lunch break hours ago. I’d forgotten to take care of myself.
Ultimately, this was my undoing. I ran out of gas. Not the liter per minute variety burned by the helicopter, but the carbs and protein variety.
I should’ve known better.
I do now.
Learn From My Mistakes
Play to Your Strengths. If you don’t have much backcountry experience, stick to good, old-fashioned heli skiing on the fattest skis you can find. If backcountry touring is more appealing, make sure you have plenty of miles under those skins before boarding the helicopter.
Get Educated. Take an avalanche course before you come. While the guides can offer you basic training, it can be overwhelming and just adds another layer of concern and concentration to the day. You want to own these skills before you come, so you can focus on skiing.
Know Your Gear. Don’t use totally new everything on an intense heli skiing day. If you’re touring, bring your own boots, skis, poles and skins. If you’re just skiing, bring your own boots, but use the company’s skis. Why? If you lose one, you won’t feel the need to spend all day searching. The helicopter often has an extra pair on board.
Know Your Group. While you can buy an open seat on a helicopter, it’s more fun to go with friends, especially friends who have your back. Had I been with a partner, he or she might have reminded me to eat and drink. Plus, if you’re in a group with similar skills, who desire a similar pace, you can share your goals for the day with the guides and they’ll make sure you meet them.
Be In Shape. I was not prepared for how physically demanding simply getting back into the helicopter would be. Crawling through deep snow, while dragging my skis and poles, taxed me. It was especially draining after the falls I took. Getting back up is difficult.
Eat Like A Squirrel. Recounting my day to two friends, one male and one female, they both had the same response. “When you’re out there, you have to eat continuously…like a squirrel.” Now I know. I will have food in easily accessible pockets. I will not leave all my food in the bottom of my pack. Squirrel, I will be.
Do It Now. Warren Miller famously said, “if you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.” He was referring to heli skiing, and he’s right.
Don’t wait. Go. Do it.
You know I will.
Many thanks to Revelstoke Mountain Resort, Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing and Destination BC for making my visit possible. For more information on skiing in British Columbia, visit SkiItToBelieveIt.com.
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