As the commercial 76-passenger plane flew over the Coast Range and Fraser River into Vancouver International Airport, it became difficult to imagine a place more beautiful. Two days later as the five-passenger Bell 407 helicopter landed merely miles from Pemberton Icecap, we discovered that perhaps there was a more fantastic view.
For those of you who haven’t been dropped on the top of a mountain by a helicopter, make a point to do so. Your adrenaline is guaranteed to be pumping as the helicopter skirts alongside the tree-filled peaks before breaking into open air and landing on what feels like the top of the world. As the helicopter heads back to the bottom of the mountain and last pieces of snow settle, silence envelopes the area. Only the chitter chatter of excited skiers and artful direction from the guide can be heard. But even the voices are quickly swept away with the wind. The impact of the silence is matched only by the beauty of the scenery.
The views are something a chairlift can’t offer. Not to mention the skiable terrain that you just don’t come by anywhere else.
Whistler Heli-Skiing, often cited as the best heli-skiing in the world, provides an unforgettable experience. Spanning across glacial wilderness, the terrain stretches 432,000 acres — 50 times the size of Whistler Blackcomb. It was reported in 2012 that on a busy day at Vail, the United State’s largest ski resort, there are an average of four skiers per acre. I am inclined to think that aside from other Whistler Heli-Skiers on the terrain, there isn’t another skier for 100 miles (or 64,000 acres if you are doing the math).
After boarding the helicopter bound for one of the 475 avaliable runs, the day of heli-skiing begins. Led by Phil Marchand of Powder Guides Backcountry Skiing & Heli-Skiing, our group embarked on the first tracks of the day. The snow field provided five first-time heli-skiers with the perfect conditions, and the blue skies allowed for high-alpine skiing. Phil selected routes to ease the newbies into the day — although there isn’t much easing into unimaginably deep powder. As the day went on (and our confidence and adrenaline peaked), the pitches grew longer. We aren’t quite sure how he did it, but Phil was leading us to all feel like the experts we knew we weren’t.
Endurance and commitment to the experience drove our pack of skiers down the mountain to the first pickup spot to meet the helicopter. For the hobbyist skier, waiting in lift lines is part of the game. In the mountains of British Columbia, the game changes. It’s about having the luxury of traveling by helicopter. It’s about skiing fresh lines. It’s about escaping the daily urban grind.
As the helicopter drew near, Phil gave us a reminder to get low and stay aware. With the rotor spinning at somewhere near 200 rpm, caution is not only encouraged but mandatory. Before a day of heli-skiing even begins, a lesson in beacon protocol is given. For those who don’t spend time in the mountains, it’s an often-unpredictable landscape. Even those who live in the mountains, as Phil does, encounter surprises. Thankfully, this day on Pemberton Icecap didn’t come with any surprises, but Phil and our gang were ready if it did.
Although rewarding, skiing powder can often be a test of humility. Thankfully, burning legs and wipe outs were greeted by soft snow. Phil led us through untracked powder leaving a picture perfect S in the snow behind him. The other skiers weren’t as graceful. A speed chaser in the group left what the experts call Figure 11 marks, and another left some lovely S turns broken up by breaks in the powder caused by falls.
The day brought six runs. We gave our legs a break and stopped for lunch after the first three untracked runs. Never has a turkey sandwich and rock-hard frozen cookie tasted so good. With half the day behind us, we replenished lost calories before being lifted back into the air and dropped again, and again and again.
You don’t have to be a cliff-jumping, out-of-bounds going, the-steeper-the-better kind of skier to go heli-skiing. You just need the desire to experience jaw-dropping, inexplicably beautiful views (check), a few reminders to keep your ski tips up in the powder (check) and a trustworthy guide (check).
No matter the skier’s level or powder experience, we each were made to feel comfortable. Encouragement and direction eased any worries, and our leader’s mindfulness and patience made the day a treat for all.
Powder Guides Backcountry Skiing & Heli-Skiing offers heli-ski trips to areas including Whistler, Last Frontier, Iceland, TLH, Bella Colla and Greenland, as well as private heli-skiing charters. Learn more on their website.
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