For the past 8 months that I have been working at Off Piste and Heli Skiing centre Pure Powder, I have heard endless accounts of what a quintessential heli skiing trip with CMH would entail. Nevertheless, it was not until I returned from my first heli-skiing experience in Revelstoke this April, with a faraway look in my eyes comparable to one who has travelled to Mecca and found God that I knew that I had really understood.
For those of you who are tentative about taking the plunge and booking your first trip trip, here are 5 things that I learnt from my first ever heli-skiing experience:
1. Safety first
It was clear from almost the moment I stepped foot in the Regent Inn that safety precautions were at the forefront of the whole CMH operation. We were whisked into a safety demo, including a 20 minute film on the various safeguards. The subtle juxtaposition of making the group feel safe and at ease, but at the same time never playing down the risk factor involved with heli skiing, was extremely effective and ensured that everyone was fully prepared. Indeed, by the time we took flight on our first helicopter drop-off, the whole group were confident they knew what to do if an avalanche was to occur. Whilst on the mountain, I was well aware of the guides selecting the area and terrain to match the conditions, which seemingly gave the same piece of mind to me as a first timer, as to those in the group who had been dozens of times. Not only this, but with the addition of an extra safety guide in all CMH heli skiing areas, it gives great comfort in knowing there is another guide on hand should you need it! 2. Fear factor
I have always found, regardless of whether you are skiing on piste or off piste, the degree of confidence you are feeling greatly affects your skiing technique. I am sure that all skiers have experienced that moment at the top of a black mogul field where your legs turn to jelly and you ski down with the grace of a donkey on ice-skates. Needless to say, for a first time heli-skier such as myself the concept was exciting, albeit still rather frightening. For starters, the chances are that you’ve never been close to a helicopter before, let alone one which is now landing inches from your nose. Moments later, you emerge from a snow storm caused by the rotor wash, and are met by powder that is beyond anything you could have imagined. On our first day, we were skiing through the trees and this is when my legs started to wobble. This was down to one concept which was demonstrated to us perfectly by our guide Jeff, as he stepped waist deep into a tree well. At this point I let the fear take over and took the first run down at a sloth-like pace. This fear undoubtedly stems from the true British cliché of underestimating our skills. However, I finally realized that this approach was merely expensing energy so, with a kind but firm nudge from both our guides, I relaxed into it, letting my legs run without trying to force the movement. By the second day, all anxiety and fear had faded away and what was left was a feeling of total elation, enhanced by the therapeutic feeling of being completely away from it all. Consequently, what I learned was that an intermediate skier like me, who is reasonably fit and has had some experience in powder, can enjoy the experience to the absolute full and at the same time enjoy an abundant feeling of self-satisfaction.
Once I had got over ‘the fear of the unknown’, I was also able to fully take in the whole experience. What first hit me was the vastness of the untouched snowy landscape around me; this immense, silent mountain world. Every time the helicopter dropped us off, I was astounded by how fresh and crisp everything was, as if it had been made just for our enjoyment. With the snow dumping down, we were taken into the trees where the scenery was better than a postcard. What bemused me the most, was that even if we repeated a run twice, there would be absolutely no sign of any tracks before us. Indeed, there was such a vast amount of terrain that there was definitely no need for squabbles amongst the group; creating fresh tracks was a given. I also became aware of how varied the terrain was. I was anticipating skiing vertical drops between very closely placed trees. In reality, we tackled some steeper tree skiing as well as a bit of hero skiing through wider spaced gladed trees and alpine runs, which meant that the whole group were satisfied.
4. Powder, powder… and more powder
On our first drop-off, I had to pinch myself. I looked at the snow around me, so uniformly smooth that my eyes could not even find one irregularity to pinpoint. I thought that this feeling of utter amazement may fade as the day progressed but after every run, we would all look around at each other as if we had never seen anything like it. Of course in my case I hadn’t; I thought my bits of off-piste powder skiing in Europe would have prepared me for this, but the snow was just incomparable. As I descended down the mountain, I had the sudden realization that I wasn’t really skiing at all- but merely floating down a sea of powder. The powder was so light that it gave me a complete sense of weightlessness, as if I was bouncing on air. To top it off, the K2 Pontoons that the guides suggested I try were so miraculous that they even allowed a neophyte like myself, to shred powder like I’d been heli skiing for years. What stunned me was the reaction to the powder from those amongst the group who had heli skied many times before- it was almost as euphoric as mine! Then I had a sudden revelation- the elation that I was feeling wasn’t something that was experienced only by first timers, it was a feeling that never went away!
5. Group Dynamics
I had always thought that I would find heli skiing within a group of strangers extremely intimidating. Probably my biggest fear as a newbie was that I would not be able to keep up with my group, or worse, they would have to slow down in order for me to keep up! My anxiety only grew more still when I found out that I was the only first timer in the group. After the first run however, I realized that this fear had been completely in vain. I can only describe the atmosphere in the group as transcendent. You begin the first run as strangers and by the second pick up you’re immediately connected because you are undergoing this amazing experience together. Indeed, as the day progressed there was more and more high fiving going on at every pick-up. Furthermore, the disposition of the group was so friendly and unpretentious that it put me at complete ease; I was never once made to feel like I was holding anyone up. The bond created whilst skiing together continued into the lodge, where we enjoyed a wonderful supper together and I found myself to be rather sad when having to say goodbye, albeit a little bit envious of those who would be skiing the next day.
I found this blog difficult to write as it is very challenging to describe the feeling generated from heli skiing. In other words, the sensation of skiing powder such as this is one that definitely has to be experienced and not obtained through a description on paper. The self-satisfaction, the excitement, the high of doing something so out of the ordinary- it’s a safe assumption that I am likely to have the same fate as many before me- to become hopelessly addicted to this sport.