I'm airborne. Powder swirls around my body. I dart through the spaces between giant spruce trees. Somehow, my brain calculates the pitch of the slope and my balance holds. Seconds after hurtling off a small cliff deep in the Canadian backcountry, I land, carve a few turns and come to a dramatic stop.
"J'ai la patate!" I exclaim, heart racing, adrenaline surging. "I have the potato!"
This is my new motto, bestowed upon me by my two new Frenchmen friends at Galena Lodge, Fabrice and Sebastian, who told me I had the potato (a French idiom that means being in top form) after our first run.
I've come to British Columbia in early January for a week of helicopter skiing - a seven-day reprieve from reality doing run after adrenaline-packed run down 3,000-foot slopes with an aircraft as my ski lift.
There's a saying, famous among a certain type of skier and snowboarder: No friends on a powder day. These types of skiers (for better or worse, I consider myself one of them) don't wait for their friends when the conditions are deep and light, because skiing powder is as close as you can get to flying. Resort lift lines stack up after a big dump. Powder hounds guard their stashes of untracked, deep snow as if they were state secrets.
Imagine, then, a world where there is not a mad rush to the top of a run and a frenetic charge down the slope.
This is helicopter skiing at its essence.
Here, there are friends on a powder day because every day is a powder day. There is an unlimited supply of "cold smoke," the type of snow known to change life trajectories. Add in the helicopter to whisk you to the top and suddenly the only limitation to skiing the best snow known to mankind all day long is your physical endurance.
CMH Heli-Skiing offers the oldest helicopter-skiing operation in the world. Founded in 1965 by the late Hans Gmoser with headquarters in Banff, Alberta, it has exclusive permits to fly helicopters and guide skiers in 11 backcountry areas which, combined, encompass more than 3 million acres of British Columbia, an area roughly one-third the size of Switzerland. Heli-skiing is essentially Alpine skiing in remote, mountainous areas, minus the chair lift. Helicopters ferry groups of skiers and their highly trained, avalanche-savvy, extremely athletic guides to the tops of runs. After dropping everyone off, the pilot meets the skiers at the bottom of the descent, loads them up and does it all again.
Each territory includes a lodge owned by CMH, and each lodge has its own personality. Galena, where I stayed, is considered "rustic," which translates as intimate and down-to-earth. There's a dining room and bar, a game room with billiards, darts and ping-pong, a ski shop (guests can use company skis at no additional cost), and a spa area with massage rooms, a sauna, a steam room and a hot tub. Compared to some of the tents I've slept in during winter-camping excursions, Galena was luxurious. But return visitors were quick to point out that some of the lodges are quite posh. In fact, Ski Magazine once named Valemount one of the five most luxe ski lodges in the world. Of course, I was just there for the skiing, so my modest twin bed and bathroom more than sufficed.
When skiers register, CMH asks them to assess their skill level. This is key, since lodges are assigned accordingly. Once they arrive, each skier and all their gear is weighed. Groups of 11 people are formed on the basis of weight (so as not to exceed the choppers' carrying capacity), skill, and, of course, individual preference. Those who came with friends naturally want to ski with friends. However, the guides reserve the right to rearrange groups based on ability. As Aurelian, a Swiss banker, said: "Everyone can get down the terrain, but it's a question of how fast and hard they want to go."
Like most, I said I wanted to go fast and hard. I was put in an eclectic, international group of French, Portuguese, Australians and Canadians. Although all were technically impeccable skiers, they were not champing at the bit as I was. My wild-eyed approach suggested I might fit better with a different crew. The guides recognized this and let me ski with the faster groups for the rest of the week. It was the best of all worlds as I got to ski with almost every guest at Galena. I also made friends, was able to practice my French (heaven for a former French major like me) and skied hard, logging 143,216 vertical feet over seven days.
A good chunk of those vertical feet were logged high above Galena's storied forests. A bitter cold front settled in the valley during my stay. Morning temperatures at the lodge were about minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit and the skies were clear and sunny. The cold weather contributed to relatively reliable snow stability - meaning the risk of avalanches was pretty low - so the guides took us to the tops of the giant peaks and let us schuss down steep, open bowls and through narrow chutes before leading us into the forest. Return guests remarked that they had never before accessed so much above-treeline terrain. There are few sights that can compare to sunrise from a pristine peak in the heart of a massive western range.
The truth is, I expected the sublime skiing and the scenic mountain vistas - why else would anyone shell out thousands of dollars to heli-ski? What surprised me were the connections I made. Come with your friends and of course you'll have a bonding experience. But it's nearly impossible to coordinate a group of 11 friends who all have the time, money and skill (not to mention the desire) to spend a week heli-skiing in Canada. Which means you have to be prepared to go it alone, as I did. I thought I might be lonely or, worse, an interloper. Instead, the bonds that formed on the slopes carried over: Before I knew it, I was playing in a ping-pong tournament, cracking jokes and splitting bottles of wine at dinner.
I left with new friends from all over the world. I'm planning on visiting Ian and Paul, who became my dining companions, when my family and I head to Britain next summer. Perhaps I'll ski again with the Frenchmen who told me I had the potato. Same goes for the Swiss couple, the Aussies and the American contingent.
We'll reminisce about that one perfect run that started among burned snags, remnants of a long-ago forest fire, and then pitched into a rock garden. Or we'll recall the trail that galloped through old-growth spruce before charging to the helicopter landing, where we arrived breathless and ecstatic. Or, better yet, we'll meet again in the Canadian backcountry, where we'll climb out of a helicopter and click into our bindings before carving new memories that will sustain us until the next time.
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If you go
What to do
217 Bear St., Banff, Alberta
Heli-skiing trip lengths vary from four to seven days and are available at 11 different lodges owned and operated by CMH. Prices start at $3,200 for a four-day, early December trip and climb to upward of $11,000 for a seven-day trip in midwinter. Trips are all-inclusive. Reservations are now open for the remainder of 2017 and for the 2017-2018 season.
British Columbia and Alberta have countless ski areas. Explore other British Columbia destinations at winterwithin.ca and Alberta options at goskialberta.com.-The Washington Post.