Heli skiing in British Colombia
Backcountry Skiing

Heli skiing in British Colombia


Mark Fischer, jans.com co-founder and managing director, recently got the chance to go heli skiing with Bella Coola Heli Sports up in British Colombia for a week. We're all envious. Here are some excerpts of his daily reports about the experience.

Fresh tracks and gorgeous views in the backcountry of British Colombia

The scenery up here is pretty dramatic and the weather has been rolling in and out so the clouds have added to the drama. In low visibility situations we try to stay in the trees, but when the sun comes out there are some high alpine wide open powder runs.

Backcountry terrain in British Colombia
Shallower runs like this are a safer bet when the snowpack is less stable.

This morning we had to stay on shallower runs like this one, because there was a rain crust under about knee deep fresh snow and they were a little concerned it might break free. After we skied the shallower stuff and did some snow work, we determined the surface bond was good, and we got to the steeper stuff.

helicopter view of British Colombia backcountry terrain
View from the heli

Some of the best scenery is from the heli. The peaks and faces are often rocky cliffs and the pilots consider it part of the entertainment to fly through the saddles at 120 mph. It's better than any ride at Disneyland!

log cabin in the mountains
Bella Coola Heli Sports' Pantheon Lodge

Bella Coola's Pantheon Lodge is basically a nice log cabin that the owner built from 1996 to 1998. The biggest logs were brought in, but the rest were all cut and milled from right here on the ranch. They have a bunch of cattle that go down in the valley for the winter and graze up here in the summer. The setting is pretty sweet, but we are pretty much in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere. As in the closest "town" is an hour and a half away.

helicopter above Millionaires Ridge landing zone
Heli drop on Millionaires Ridge

We skied Millionaires Ridge this afternoon. You can see the heli about to drop off at the landing zone at the top of the ridge.

Here's a pretty good feel for what it's like flying around in these mountains.
fresh ski tracks in backcountry powder, British Colombia
Hawaii Gap

We landed on the other side of a rock wall and had to billygoat in though the gap over a bunch of rocks. The other skiers don't seem to care about the bases or edges of their skis, but then again they don't need to because it's all powder skiing up here.

You can't tell from this perspective, but at the top it was about 38 degrees then mellowed to 25 degrees pretty quickly. This was the start of a continuous run of about 3,000 vertical feet. It was pretty nice powder skiing and the longest untracked run I've ever done - more than a mile and a half of unbroken snow two feet deep.

I have to admit that my legs were burning pretty badly. I managed to do it without stopping, but about three-quarters of the way down you could have lit a match by touching it to my thighs! I was on Rossignol Super 7s, which are 116 under foot, and I can't imagine making it that far on something under 100 mm in the waist.

We did this run three times today, plus nine others. It is fair to say my legs are baked. Most heli ops consider it a major milestone accomplishment if you get in 100,000 vertical feet in a week (six days of skiing.) We have done 47,000 in two days.

dramatic terrain in British Colombia
Crazy mountain formations

Unfortunately the sun went away shortly after this, and some of the guys sat out the last few runs in completely flat light. Our guide was tossing snowballs downhill at one point to try to get a feel for the slope angle and to see if we were going to ski into a crevasse. Better safe than sorry!

The pilots and guides at Bella Coola Heli Sports are pretty intrepid. As long as the pilots have half a mile of visibility at the pick-up and drop-off landing zones; and as long as it is cold enough that the snow isn't sticking to the rotor blades in stormy weather, they'll fly.

low visibility ski conditions in British Colombia
Low vis Day at Bella Coola

As you can see, we had multiple layers of low-hanging clouds today, but we got in eleven runs, totaling 16,000 vertical feet. Most of the time we'd get dropped off just above tree line and ski down through the trees to make it easier to see the terrain.

On four of the runs we got adventurous and got dropped off up in the alpine (at the base of the rock cliff faces which provided the pilots with a point of reference so they could land up there.) Once the heli flew away, if you looked at the cliff faces, you had easy reference of distance and terrain texture. When you looked downhill, you had no visual clues until the tree line.

In that big open space, with the unbroken snow and clouds all around creating super flat light, you had no idea what the terrain was doing. Fortunately, our guide, Dave Gauley, knew the terrain just rolled down to the tree line at an average of about 25 to 30 degrees. Since we weren't on a glacier there weren't any crevasses, and since we weren't at a resort there weren't any moguls, so Dave just took off skiing, and the rest of us followed in his wake and used him as our reference as to if the terrain was getting steeper or mellower. When he disappeared, we knew there was a rollover coming, and when we could see more of him, we knew we were just cruising turn after turn until we got to the trees.

Once in the trees, everyone picks their own line but has to keep the person in front of them in sight through the trees. If you lose sight of them, you know they were to your left or right last time you saw them, so you just head that way and follow their tracks well enough to see if we are heading right or left to get to the pick-up. If there is a major change of direction to get to another drainage, the guide will let out a "woo-hoo" and everyone answers to let him know they are following. If he doesn't get four "woo-hoo"s, everyone stops and re-groups.

It's a surprisingly effective system, and even cruising through the trees with no one in sight, you don't feel lost or alone. Of course the radios in your pocket help because you know you can call and get directed to the right spot. And, there's always a helicopter hanging around that can follow your tracks, so if one set goes off in the wrong direction, it's pretty easy to follow the tracks to the missing person, and then the lost soldier can just follow the heli to the group or to the pick-up spot. Yes, we're in the middle of nowhere, but we're probably less likely to get lost than if we were skiing in the trees at a resort.

Hopefully tomorrow will have a little better visibility. If not, no worries. We're getting good at skiing by Braille with our Seeing Eye guide!

Drop zone in 70 kph winds

Some amazing scenery today as you can see. The weather, as it has been all week, was challenging with 70 kilometer per hour winds on the ridge tops. Fortunately once you drop into the bowl the wind is stopped by some big granite walls. The skiing was so good, we did nine runs in this bowl.

heli skiing with Bella Coola Heli Sports
The helicopter leaving after dropping off

The snow was super stable all week, but you still have to pay attention in the mountains. As the temperature warmed up today just above freezing, and as the wind impacted the snow a bit, the snow conditions changed.

small skier-triggered avalanche in the backcountry
Mini avalanche

I had seen the snow crack a couple times today, so I was on the lookout for anything that might move. In this photo, my tracks are on the far lookers' left. I was skiing last and the guy just before me (immediately to my left) turned on that rollover and kicked off a small slide. You can see the crown and slide path to the looker's left of my tracks.

I saw him start the slide so I veered into him, pushing him out of the slide. We both just kept skiing because 1) the terrain flattened out which stopped the slide, and 2) it was a tiny avalanche with a crown that was only about 6 inches deep and nowhere to run. It kept things entertaining, and was a good reminder to be paying attention.

glacier along a mountain valley in British Colombia
Lunch spot view of a giant glacier

There are bunches of glaciers up here. They are cool to look at, but you have to be careful skiing around them because as they move, they crack and form crevasses which are somewhere between dangerous and deadly if you fall into one. That's why you ski with a guide!

heli ski group eating lunch, mountainside by the helicopter
Lunch break

While the group enjoyed lunch sitting on the skid of the heli, our guide, Dave Gauley, pointed out where he fell into a crevasse one time when his binding pre-released because he didn't kick the snow off his boots well enough.

Fortunately, there was an ice bridge the size of a dinner table about eight feet down into the crevasse. He managed to land on that ice bridge which was the one spot that could keep him from falling some unknown distance to his likely death.

After checking everything and realizing he was unhurt, he climbed back up with the gear he had with him, retrieved his ski, and kept skiing the rest of the day! Today when we were skiing on the glacier, he skied with 150 feet of rope in case someone went into a crevasse. All in a day's work.

backcountry skiers pose for a photo between epic powder runs
Happy skiers

You don't have to be an expert skier to go on a heli trip, but I gather that Bella Coola is known for some of the steeper stuff just because they get the maritime snow pack which is denser and sticks to steeper slopes.

The scenery is pretty dramatic, the skiing has been adventuresome, and the operations at Bella Coola have been first rate in safety and providing a powder experience you just can't get skiing at a resort.

Don't get me wrong, a powder day in Utah delivers even better snow, but at a resort you get maybe two good runs of 1,000 vertical feet before it's pretty cut up. Here, it's run after run of 1,500 to 3,000 vertical feet. We've done 106,000 vertical feet so far this week, and maybe we'll get in a few more tomorrow.

powder skiing with Bella Coola Heli Sports
Fresh tracks for all

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