As our bus drove to the helicopter’s launch pad, we were shown a macabre and jarring safety video of actors digging limp bodies out of avalanches. It turns out there are correct and incorrect ways to hunt for people buried in the snow. And if you end up buried under the snow yourself, you have only seconds to clear an airspace to breathe before the snow settles around you like concrete, rendering bodily movement impossible—resulting in a slow, cold asphyxiation. I’m watching the video with sweaty, clenched fists, wide eyes and an open mouth. It’s necessary safety information, but doesn’t help with my anxiety as a first time heli-skier. We haven’t even left the ground yet, but there’s a throbbing knot in my stomach the size of a grapefruit.
“So how much time do you have to rescue someone who’s been buried in an avalanche?” I asked a guide sitting next to me on the bus.
He shifted in his seat. “Well, just a few minutes or so. Then at that point it’s more about body recovery.”
Great, I thought. What have I signed up for?
I’ve been an avid skier my entire life, I even raced competitively for about 10 years, but that morning was the start of something entirely different: my first weeklong heli-skiing trip to CMH Adamants, a backcountry lodge north of Revelstoke, British Columbia, nestled in the confluence of the Selkirks and the Rockies. I’m a confident and skilled skier, but I have no idea what I’m stepping into. A bus picked about 30 of us up that morning and drove us to a small helipad in the woods from which we would ascend into the alpine zone for a week of untracked powder and challenging terrain.
It all sounded so nice before the safety video!
The obvious safety issues—helicopter accidents, unpredictable weather, literally having the snow beneath your feet give way and dropping you into a crevasse— are just one of the many high barriers to entry for heli-skiing, a luxury high-adventure sport that has long been veiled in mystery. For example, there is a long history of 007 movies where James Bond jumps out of a helicopter (effortlessly) in hot pursuit of a villain—most recently with Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough. Frankly, as a first-timer, I found the most startling thing was how little information is out there about what to actually expect on your first heli-skiing trip. A quick Google search reveals lots of coverage in niche ski publications, but very little out there for the heli-skiing novitiate.
So, you take a helicopter to the top of a mountain? For how many runs? What’s the terrain like? How skilled do you have to be? And most importantly: why?
First things first—heli-skiing is generally sold as an all-inclusive “package,” often in three-, five-, or seven-day increments. Single-day trips are less common, mostly because by the time your entire group gets sorted and goes through all the relevant safety information, gear checks and so forth, you’ve already lost half the day. The price of admission for a heli trip typically includes accommodation at the operator’s lodge, as well as food and beverage for the week (excluding alcohol). CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Activities, considered to be the global pioneer of commercialized heli-skiing, operates 12 lodges across the various mountain ranges of Western Canada, each offering slightly different terrain, group sizes, and lengths of stay.
By the time our group settled into the lodge on the first day of our trip, I felt like an outsider. After all, it was an intimidating crowd—heli-skiing attracts repeat customers who collect vertical feet the same way other people collect Château d’Yquem or vintage Porsches. For every million feet of vertical, CMH gifts recurring customers with a commemorative jacket. A weeklong heli-ski trip promises 100,000 vertical feet of skiing, and at anywhere from $12,000-$18,000 a week, the math adds up pretty quickly. Yet price doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for this crowd—one retired lawyer from Boston told me he’s been coming on CMH trip for close to 20 years, and a woman from Park City told me she’s just shy of hitting her first million. “Maybe this trip,” she said with a shrug. Repeat heli-skiers walk a fine line between showing off how much they’ve done and maintaining a veneer of modesty.
At dinner the first night, I sat next to an older man who had accumulated something like six or seven million vertical feet. “Oh, but who’s counting,” he said.
The man was old enough to be my grandfather, and not to have anything against the fitness of octogenarians, but in that moment I resolved that if he could do it—and do it so very many times—then so could I. I joked with him about whether he had skied enough vertical feet to go from Earth to the Moon and we shared a laugh. By this point of the evening, that sinking feeling had pretty much dissipated.
The next morning, however, it returned full-force. Each morning the lodge is a flurry of activity as guests suit up in their snow gear, strap on avalanche beacons, and figure out which guide they’ll be skiing with that day. The lodge’s energy is tangible. It’s showtime.
The biggest surprise that nobody tells you about heli-skiing is how physically close you get to the helicopters when they pick you up from one location then deposit you in another. Think of the last time you saw a helicopter in a movie—the blades are rotating full-speed, and usually a president or a celebrity is walked briskly over to the attendant helicopter’s door, that door is opened for them, and they are neatly deposited inside. Not the case with heli-skiing. Because pickup and drop-off sites can include varied terrain, sometimes on a mountaintop the size of a small Volkswagen, the helicopter has to land mere inches in front of you. That’s right—inches.
It’s an experience for which nothing can prepare you, and one you are unlikely to have again after the trip. After slogging the 50 yards from the lodge over the to the helipad—which is a glorified ledge of snow and ice—your group’s skis are tossed on the ground into a pile. At this point, the air is dead silent. Standing in a single-file line on one edge of the landing site, you all ceremoniously take a knee so the helicopter blades don’t decapitate anyone (of course). At this point, the only sound is the light crunch of snow underfoot as you find your footing and look up to the sky, waiting. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the low hum of an approaching engine grows louder and louder until you see it—like something out of a James Bond movie, ascending over the lip of a nearby cliff or swooping in off a banked turn. The helicopter is over you now, and a violent wisp of air and snow whips your face, but it’s difficult to look away from this incredible machine hovering just feet over your head and slowly getting closer and closer. With surgical precision—truly, within inches, you can practically reach out and touch the heli’s chassis—the pilot lowers the helicopter into position before letting it land gently in the snow. You’re still sitting on the ground with bent knee while your guide begins loading everyone’s skis into a rack on the helicopter’s side. After getting a thumbs up from the pilot, the four of you scramble inside, knocking knees and sliding icy ski boots over cold metal. Once everyone is seated, seatbelts fastened and doors locked, the helicopter swoops up, up, and away, gone as quickly as it came.
Drop offs are the same protocol, just in reverse, except when the helicopter leaves you aren’t standing in front of the lodge, you’re standing on the top of a mountain in the wilderness. The land any particular heli-skiing company is permitted to ski on by its respective government is referred to as a “tenure,” and can be anywhere from a couple thousand acres to one-third the size of Switzerland—you are very much alone in the wilderness here. Within seconds of that first landing, before you’ve even begun your descent, it becomes clear why heli-skiing can command such prices and draw such a devoted following. Vast, rugged backcountry expands as far as the eye can see. Sometimes you can see a river or a lake down in a valley in the distance, and sometimes all you can see are alpine crags in every direction. Pristine, untracked powder envelops mountaintops that have not seen another human in days, weeks, or even months—you won’t be standing in any chairlift lines here.
From here, the experience is profoundly shaped by your guide. On overcast days, the clouds tend to push each run down into the glades at lower elevations, as the lack of visibility contributes to snow-blindness which renders landing a helicopter at higher elevations nearly impossible. However, clear “bluebird” days can be spent entirely in the alpine zone, where guides blaze trails through ravines and down glacial chutes. All the while, guides take care to tailor each group’s itinerary to their skill, so while there is certainly challenging terrain at some points, there are rarely moments when any skier is left behind. Over the course of my week, there wasn’t a single incident where anyone felt uncomfortable with the slopes.
The days are as long or as short as you want them to be—depending on your ability level, you might head back to the lodge after four runs in the trees, or you might feel up for a full day of eleven runs in the alpine zone. It’s typical for a company like CMH to guarantee 100,000 vertical feet over the course of a one-week trip, an amount which is easily hit by Day Five or Day Six if you’re skiing full days.
One of the week’s most humbling and affecting experiences came on our last day of the trip, when we were landing at the summit of Mount Sir Sandford, which at just shy of 12,000 feet is the tallest mountain in this particular range. The helicopter circled a massive rock spire about 300 feet tall before dropping us off. It’s rare to see such a massive, elegant formation at this elevation where the elements can be so harsh, and even more rare to see it up so close. As we skied away, something eager and juvenile awoke in me. I kept glancing back over my shoulder to see the spire just one more time.
But just seconds later after descending an exposed glacier, our group encountered something even more magnificent: a soaring rock face even taller than the spire, standing perhaps a half-mile in length. Just looking at it straight-on was staggering. As our group carved fresh tracks through unblemished fields of powder that glistened like glitter in the sunshine, the presence of that sheer rock face was not just seen in my periphery, but felt. I didn’t need to glance back to know it was there.
The biggest takeaway from your first heli-skiing trip is something the CMH brochures do not mention. That week, I discovered the sport with fresh eyes and childlike wonder. Despite my years and years of skiing, I understood—really felt—that skiing is not just about the thrill of carving your way down a resort’s groomed trails. Skiing is a way to access otherwise inaccessible landscapes. Heli-skiing is simply a luxurious way to do it. After a few runs, I had left all anxieties about avalanches and body recovery and falling into crevasses behind—instead, I felt nothing but pure adrenaline. Suddenly, as I descended Mount Sir Sandford away from the spire and the imposing sheer rock face, my relationship to skiing changed, my possibilities with the sport unfolding with a newfound sense of adventure.
And as the summit of Mount Sir Sandford grew further and further away, I kept glancing back over my shoulder, knowing full-well that the singularity of this moment—being on this trip, on this day, with these conditions on this particular mountain—meant that I, truly, may never lay eyes upon this view again. But seeing it once was better than not seeing it at all.
La douleur exquise, as the French would say. Exquisite pain.