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Skiing doesn’t get more bespoke than this: a group of eight whisked by helicopter from their chalet to the highest peak. Plunging waist-deep through untracked powder, crossing glacial bowls and weaving through virgin forest, it is hard not to

EXTREME WINTER become addicted. Charles Starmer-Smith gets his heli-skiing fix

TAXI! Takeme tothe  LCKI8KI8M<C


he deepest powder

LCKI8KI8M<C 

MODEL: RENKO@MOT MODELS; HELICOPTER KINDLY SUPPLIED BY AIR GRISCHA (00 41 81 322 57 57, WWW.AIRGRISCHA.CH). BLUE CASHMERE SCARF, £330, LORO PIANA (020 7499 9300, WWW.LOROPIANA.COM). ALL OTHER FASHION CREDITS AS BEFORE

Me and my rotor A helicopter prepares to land in deep snow above Davos, Switzerland

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE PLIMMER


PULLQUOTE TEXT PULLQUOTE SECONDS LATER CAME WORDING THE THUD AS WE PULLQUOTE TOUCHED DOWN IN THE PULLQUOTE DROP ZONE TEXT PULLQUOTE WORDING PULLQUOTE

ou will always remember the first time. Inevitably, I had begun humming the Ride of the Valkyries as the helicopter pitched and juddered in the buffeting winds that swept across the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. My rendition of Wagner might have struck a chord with the Germans in my group – but in a Bell helicopter, you cannot hear a sound uttered by your fellow passengers. The rattle and hum of the rotors is all that rings in your ears. Anxious for a glimpse of the Kootenay Rockies – the jagged spine of British Columbia below – I wiped at the steamed-up glass with my glove. The droplets of condensation trickling down the window were matched by the beads of sweat now gathering on my brow. I could barely see a thing, and the sudden whine of the engines was the only sign that we were near. Banking sharply left past one sharp, craggy face, the helicopter dropped down swiftly towards another. Seconds later came the thud as we touched down in the drop zone, followed by a casual thumbs-up from the pilot. It was our signal to leave. The door opened out on to blizzard-like scenes, the icy wind robbing me of my first breath as I and the seven other skiers in our group bundled out of the bird like wannabe commandos, adrenaline coursing through our veins. Remembering what we had been taught back at base, I bent double beneath the rotors and scrambled sideways as the blades whipped up plumes of snow that lashed every exposed pore. Huddling together on a narrow ledge like a group of oversized penguins, we waited – but not for long. No sooner was the equipment unloaded than the bird was up and out of sight and, when we noticed our surroundings for the first time,

Y

EXTREME WINTER  LCKI8KI8M<C

quickly out of mind. As we perched high on the cliffside, the mountain opened up before us like a blank canvas. In every direction were shimmering peaks, untracked powder bowls and steep couloirs tumbling down to snowladen forests below – and I held the paint brush. Or, rather, two of them: my extra-wide skis, primed to leave their snaking brush strokes on the feather-light snow. After 20-odd years of skiing in Europe, I could count the number of true powder days on one hand, or maybe two. The scraping and rasping of skis on ice (so familiar in the Alps) and the weary, often futile trudge in search of pockets of the white, light stuff are alien concepts in this corner of BC. Being so far from the ocean, the lightest snow on earth falls in some of the heaviest quantities. And here, to steal a line from our guide, Nate, you ski only on snow that you can’t hear. Only as I snapped my boots into my bindings, the noise echoing round the valley

like a firecracker, did I begin to appreciate the splendid isolation. And the silence. Great climbers often talk of the heightened sense of mortality they feel before scaling the world’s highest peaks. On this day, surrounded by 100,000 acres of uninhabited mountains and a helicopter ride from the nearest habitation, I understood a little of what they mean. Even with all the technological advances (think temperature gauges, satellite radios, GPS, transceivers and weather readings from some of the most powerful computers known to humankind), heli-skiing is not without its risks. Snow cavities caused by pockets of warm air can melt large chasms beneath the surface, leaving a trap door for the unknowing skier. Felled trees, too, can produce lethal troughs on snaking runs through woodland. However, it is avalanches that remain the biggest danger in the mountains – and even the most experienced guide is not immortal. That is why even veteran skiers pay attention during safety briefings. Special air service Heli-skiers are dropped off in British Columbia (top) and close to the Matterhorn, on the Swiss-Italian border (left)

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Making tracks From top: skiers return to the helicopter in British Columbia; the author, also in BC; and the way down

I HAVE RARELY FELT AS ALIVE AS DURING THAT FIRST DESCENT

EXTREME WINTER  LCKI8KI8M<C

the swish of an arcing powder turn was more audible as we swooped down the empty pistes. Descending to a lower altitude, we entered the trees for the first time. While wide open bowls of powder are what dominate the covers of winter sports magazines, any heli-skier worth his salt will tell you that tree skiing is the biggest buzz of all. I wouldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t disagree. As we bounced in and out of the gaps between the trunks, my heart hammered so loud I thought others might hear it. Exhilarated, I brushed against snowladen branches and plunged waist-deep into pillows of soft powder. Only when we finally stopped to rest, with the lactic acid surging through our thighs, did we breathlessly compare notes. Words from the surfersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; dictionary â&#x20AC;&#x201C; â&#x20AC;&#x153;awesomeâ&#x20AC;?, â&#x20AC;&#x153;stokedâ&#x20AC;?, â&#x20AC;&#x153;unrealâ&#x20AC;? â&#x20AC;&#x201C; seemed to punctuate every sentence until the roar in the distance told us our snow taxi had arrived. It was no surprise to learn that, in these very mountains, heli-skiing was invented. Hans Gmoser, an Austrian mountain guide who moved to Canada in the 1950s, was the first to use helicopters to transport skiers to previously inaccessible terrain. He later formed Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), which has lodges dotted around a dozen heli-skiing areas in British Columbia, from the Monashee Mountains to the Bugaboos. By contrast, Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, its main rival, operates out of just one backyard â&#x20AC;&#x201C; but it is some backyard, with access to more than 500,000 acres of powder heaven. These â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the pioneers â&#x20AC;&#x201C; are still at the forefront of the industry in Canada, which has spread across each of the provinceâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s five ranges: the Monashee, Selkirk, Cariboo, Purcell and Coast Mountains. All are connected by a road known only as â&#x20AC;&#x153;the Powder Highwayâ&#x20AC;?. One of the myths about heli-skiing is that it is only for experts. In fact, any half-decent skier can learn to carve with minimal effort through the light virgin powder of the Rockies â&#x20AC;&#x201C; thanks to the advent of â&#x20AC;&#x153;fat skisâ&#x20AC;?, wide blades that help you stay on top of the snow. Nor is access to deep snow restricted to those with bottomless pockets. While a week at one of CMHâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s top lodges can

ONLINE Watch Charles Starmer-Smith heli-ski in British Columbia at www.telegraph.co.uk/realtrips

cost ÂŁ10,000, other companies (such as Selkirk Tangiers and RK Heliski, operating out of lesserknown bases) offer day trips for around ÂŁ420 for five drops and 10,000ft of vertical descent. While this has made the sport popular in BC, it is on the wane in Europe as environmental groups campaign for heli-skiing to be outlawed in the Alps. Already banned in France due to noise pollution and disturbance to the environment, it is highly regulated elsewhere (Switzerland and Italy being the exceptions). The American Rockies boast a few heli-skiing operations, but the new powder playgrounds are in New Zealand, Chile, Russia, Alaska and the Himalayas, in particular Himachal Pradesh. But, as anyone in our group would attest, BC is the original and best. If you heli-ski only once in your lifetime, this is the place to do it. Gerhard, a 70-year-old German in our group, was doing precisely that: his one day of heliskiing was a birthday present from his wife and the realisation of a lifetime dream. Clad in an all-in-one suit so luminous that everyone kept their shades on, he looked barely able to stand after the third run down. After the fourth, he collapsed on to the snow in a heap beside us, gasping and giggling like a teenager. As we finished the final run, dusk was setting in and our thighs were burning. Somehow, Gerhard was still going, his ruddy cheeks glowing with elation and exhaustion. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s what you call the crack cocaine of skiing,â&#x20AC;? said our guide, as we sped through a powder-filled forest. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Now, it is decision time â&#x20AC;&#x201C; we still have time for one more run. Anyone up for it?â&#x20AC;? Nate turned and trudged back towards the helicopter without even waiting for the answer. It is always the same. Eight hands raised skywards. Eight new addicts. On page 34, five more of the best heli-skiing trips w

CORBIS; EYEVINE; GETTY IMAGES; ROSS JENNINGS

However, concerns about survival quickly subsided as we took our first taste of champagne powder. I have rarely felt as alive as during that first descent into a vast virgin bowl that was wider, even, than our grins. The sensation was like surfing, only better. As my speed increased, I angled my tips left, turning into the gradient of the slope as snow surged past me like the wake of a powerboat, before switching back right, riding high on the crest of the wave. For turn after turn, it felt effortless as I glided through drifts of talcum-powder lightness, the tails of my skis throwing up ethereal blossoms of snow. Each of the eight skiers in our group â&#x20AC;&#x201C; an international mix of Swiss, German, British and American â&#x20AC;&#x201C; picked their own line down, greedily eating up the virgin snow, each determined to leave his own signature on the mountain. There is something about having the slopes to yourself that heightens the senses and makes you more aware of the surroundings. The mountains appeared larger and more beautiful without a constant stream of skiers; the snap of a twig or


Heli heaven A descent from high altitude in Chile

5PEAKHELI-SKIINGEXPERIENCES From snow-capped volcanoes in the Andes to glaciers in Alaska, we choose the best places to set down your fat boys THE MONASHEES, BC

With 22 log chalets to choose from,

CHUGACH, ALASKA

negotiate 20,000ft of vertical descent.

Valley to the south. With light “dry”

The most challenging of the ski areas

the resort has no shortage of

One for the purists, Chugach does not

Valdez Heli-Camps (001 907 783 3243,

snow, it may not offer the kind of tree-

in the Canadian Mountain Holidays

accommodation either. The private

offer the homely accommodation of

www.valdezhelicamps.com) is offering

skiing seen in the best of the BC

(CMH) portfolio, the Monashees are not

Bavarian House Estate, with eight

British Columbia – but the skiing is

three-day packages from US$4,149

locations – but for sheer variety of

for the first-time heli-skier. Offering

double rooms and the feel of an

unrivalled. A far northern location and

(£2,150). The price includes full board

landscape (towering faces, steep

what is arguably the best “steep and

Alpine chalet about it, offers

guaranteed snow mean heli-skiing can

in Valdez, equipment, helicopter fees

couloirs, ridges, bowls, volcanoes), it

deep” tree skiing in the world, two-

spectacular views across Eleanor

take place at lower altitudes than in BC.

and transfers, but not flights.

has few equals. All this is set among

thirds of the runs are set in mature,

Lake. Facilities for guests include

The steep terrain of the Chugach

well-spaced forest. Two private guides

a sports centre, games rooms,

Mountains has made this a favourite

THE ANDES, CHILE

family-owned El Ingenio Lodge, in the

will take you to a seemingly unlimited

a private chef, plus a spa and sauna.

location for extreme winter sports

Every summer, heli-skiing fanatics head

Maipo Valley, boasts hot tubs, gourmet

range of locations with long, steep-

Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing (001 800

videos, but there is plenty of more

south to Chile for the southern

food and an outdoor pool.

pitched terrain; skiers staying for

661 9170, www.wiegele.com) is offering

moderate skiing, too. Valdez Heli-

hemisphere’s winter. Powder South,

Powder South Heliski Guides (0800 404

a week are guaranteed to descend

a five-day package from C$6,414

Camps, founded by Vermont-born Matt

flying out of its base deep in the

9183, www.heliskiguides.com) is

at least 100,000ft of vertical drop.

(£3,390) per person. The price includes

White, is the only all-inclusive heli-

Central Andes, has access to about

offering a week from ¤7,000 (£5,560)

About 66ft of snow falls each season,

80,000ft of vertical descent, two

skiing destination in Alaska. Groups are

1,900 square miles of heli-skiing

per person, including full board and

so – as one skier quipped – don’t

guides per group and full-board

limited to four, transported by fast

terrain, including the Rio Colorado

equipment, but not international flights.

forget your mask and snorkel. The fully

accommodation, but not flights.

A-Star helicopters, and typically

Valley to the north and the Tinguiririca

mountains 22,000ft high. The cosy,

catered lodge sleeps up to 48 people

THE ALPS, EUROPE

and has all the usual mod cons, as well

Heli-skiing in Europe bears little

as a rooftop Jacuzzi, games room,

resemblance to the Canadian

sauna and massage therapists

wilderness experience, since

on hand to ease those tired legs.

helicopters fly out of major ski resorts

CMH (001 800 661 0252, www.

or bases close to them. If the weather

canadianmountainholidays.com)

and snow let you down, there is

is offering seven days of heli-skiing

always conventional skiing (and the

from C$5,500 (£3,050) per person.

facilities of a resort) to fall back on. In

The price includes full board,

Switzerland, stay at the discreet Tivoli

equipment hire, guides, all helicopter

Lodge in Davos and fly to the Davos

costs and transfers, but excludes

Klosters Mountains; in France (where

international flights.

heli-skiing is banned), you can still stay at Chalet Yellowstone in Ste

THE CARIBOOS, BC

Foy and take a flight to the Italian

Run by one of the pioneers of “fat boy”

peaks. From there, ski back down into

skis, Mike Wiegele’s heli-skiing base

France across the Italian border.

nestled in Blue River can access both

Descent (020 7384 3854, www.descent.

the Monashee and Cariboo Mountains.

co.uk) offers both the above as

The Cariboos are still considered the

options in its Maximum Descent

best all-round destination, whether it is

packages. A week in Ste Foy costs from

for first-timers on gentler slopes or for

£1,575 per person. Heli-skiing is extra:

more experienced skiers tackling

¤450 (£350) per person, for two drops

steep-pitched runs through trees and across wide open glacial bowls.

 LCKI8KI8M<C

on the mountain with a guide, based Snow drops Clockwise, from above left: three skiers in BC; the author executing a turn on powder; and ready for the off, Alaska

on a full helicopter. CS-S

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