33 of us stumbled out of the Delta Calgary Airport Hotel at 5:15 in the morning and onto a bus heading three hours west in search of skiing that didn’t seem to be there. Weather reports had been dodgy for the past week, temperatures were looking more like beach weather than powder weather and snow had been a rarity in western Canada this season, but we were all holding out hope for some elusive late-season powder. The experienced were unphased after the hour of safety videos going over the numerous ways that we may be maimed or killed (whether by nature or machine) but the rest of us had a cautious stare as a Bell 212 twin-engine helicopter — our only mode of transport for the next four days — kicked up gravel as it set down 10 yards from the bus. No crowds, no tracked-out snow, no lifts; we were about to experience how good skiing could be.Hans Gmoser was born in Austria in 1932 but made his historical mark after he moved to Canada in the early ‘50s. Once he arrived in Calgary, Gmoser opened up Rocky Mountain Guides, effectively founding the ski mountaineering industry in Canada and leading ski touring expeditions to finance films that showcased his love for the Canadian Rockies. In the films he talks about relatable problems for resort skiers even 60 years later: lift lines, tough snow and a focus on aprés ski as much as the sport itself. Gmoser’s guiding operation was a measured success but he realized that to attract a wider audience he’d need to do away with base camps and six-day hikes and come up with an alternative. Around the same time, in 1959, helicopters are begging to be used for skiing around the rest of the world but the operations prove too costly, too unsustainable, and too slow – with European operations only able to ferry up one skier at a time and all going bust in a matter of years. In April 1965, professional ski racer Brooks Dodge asked Gmoser to take him heli-skiing in the Bugaboos and Canadian Mountain Holidays (these days referred to more often as CMH Heli-Skiing) was born. The cost to be part of CMH’s inaugural week? $260.
Heli-skiing for the first time is, in an (overused) word, awesome. Not so much in the “totally gnar, bro” sense but in the infinitely impactful, hard-to-comprehend, standing-there-with-your-mouth-agape use of the word.
Since the first trip to the Bugaboos, CMH has transitioned from a guide service to a full-fledged resort experience that combines lodging and top-tier dining with some of the best skiing on earth. Since 1965 they’ve opened 11 separate operations in western Canada, all of which have been praised for the experiences they offer and each differing slightly in terrain, amenities and cost. The one we were all calling home was Bobbie Burns (the most common explanation of the name is Gmoser’s love of the Scottish Poet Robert Burns). Bobbie Burns straddles the Purcell and Sellkirk mountain ranges and offers over 7,000 feet of skiable elevation (Vail offers a bit over 3,000). Since Bobbie Burns is one of the closest CMH resorts to an international airport with just a three-and-a-half hour bus ride (some CMH lodges can be up to seven) and offers such gargantuan vertical, it’s a perfect way to maximize skiing time and minimize bullshit.
Getting The Shot
What’s an epic trip without similar-caliber photos to remember it by? To capture the trip I took along the mind-boggling Hasselblad CFV-50c digital back, a classic 500c/m camera body and three of Hasselblad’s essential Carl Zeiss prime lenses — a 50mm f/4, 80mm f/2.8 and 150mm f/4. I’m no stranger to (foolishly) bringing medium format onto the mountain but 50 megapixels, a sensor about twice as big as a full-frame DSLR, manual focus, manual exposure, almost no weather sealing and a pricetag to compete with a VW Jetta made for a particularly exciting shooting experience. It’s hard to say it wasn’t worth it though. (And in case you were curious, the images displayed above are about 1.25 percent of full size)
Aside from unbelievable surroundings, Bobbie Burns boasts room for just under three dozen guests and all the amenities of a classic ski lodge (billiards, hot tub, bar, etc.) that reminds everyone I talk to of the pared-down, dude-heavy atmosphere of Alta, Utah (intentional or not, CMH manages to cut the testosterone with a largely female staff). Unlike a classic lodge though, Bobbie Burns offers a 3,000-bottle wine cellar, a full-service ski shop and some of the best food you’ll have at any ski resort. And that’s the difference: CMH is as much in the business of luxury hospitality as it is in the business of skiing.
This gets us neatly to the elephant in the room: Heli-skiing is seriously expensive. A trip to Bobbie Burns will run you right around $1,000 a day, with prices peaking in January and February. Want to rent out CMH Valemont for a week with nine of your closest friends? That’ll be $200,000. But let’s think about this for a second: head to Vail for a day and you’ll pay $160 for a lift ticket, about $600 for a similar-quality hotel room as Bobbie Burns, $65 to rent skis, an easy $60 for food, and by that point you’re nudging up against $900 a day to ski the same slopes as 15,000 other people. There’s absolutely no argument that heli-skiing is expensive but this isn’t just the stuff of Sheikhs and Shaqs. And as for what you get for the money, I was about to find out
As the previous week’s group got out of the heli to head back to civilization there was a thinly disguised bit of gloating, “They say we’ve just had the best skiing all season, hope you’re not too late”. Though it’d been a dodgy season conditions-wise and temperatures were getting well above freezing, we were all confident that we’d get a taste of what the guys heading home were on about.
The first day’s runs came after a flight to the lodge, a quick lunch and more instruction on avalanche gear and helicopter safety, which helped counteract the video-induced fear from the morning. And just eight hours after leaving Calgary three groups of 11 were lifting off from the lodge’s helipad in search of fresh snow.
The first landing spot of the day was at about 7,200 feet atop a run called Après (all 303 runs have names, though they’re not marked like at a resort). And without too much instruction Andi Kraus, an immensely talented mountaineer and one of our guides for the week, was off with us following in tow like a flock of Gore-Tex wrapped ducklings.
Heli-skiing for the first time is, in an (overused) word, awesome. Not so much in the “totally gnar, bro” sense but in the infinitely impactful, hard-to-comprehend, standing-there-with-your-mouth-agape use of the word. You’re perched at the top of a 2,500-vertical-foot high-alpine or glacier or tree run that hasn’t been touched by another human in at least a week and it’s got something like 10 inches of unsullied snow waiting for you to drop in. Think of the best powder run you’ve ever had, then triple the length and do it 15 times a day for nearly a week. That’s why you pay $1,000 a day.
Of course, foot-deep fresh powder isn’t everywhere in the middle of April. But when there wasn’t it was replaced with beautiful spring corn or a couple inches of fresh stuff on top of a supportive crust (it’s like the best-groomed run you’ll ever have). And being spring skiing, the temperatures started out just below freezing when we got going at nine in the morning and would end up somewhere around 45 when we’d have to call it and fly back home around four. This is as good as late-season skiing gets.
As we were all sitting atop an appropriately named run called Snow Ocean eating lunch and telling terrible jokes during day three, I looked around and got that sense that you so rarely get at ski resorts unless you happen to live at one. We were a group of 11 people all brought together by the love for a sport and the search for the absolute best of it. That kind of deep-seated common interest means that even in the short span of three days, Hans, who made his living dressing hair in the Middle East and has been coming to CMH for 35 years; Chris, who is one of the world’s winningest free-skiers; Andi, our guide who’s climbed Everest a couple times without supplemental oxygen but would rather not talk about it; and a writer from New York were all able to form a friendship that made life on and off the mountain an absolute blast.
Heli-skiing isn’t going to become a global phenomenon. For one thing, very few people will be able to experience it — CMH Serves 7,000 guests a year, big resorts serve more like 1.5 million — but those who do will find an absolutely incredible experience that will alter their perception of what it means to ski. As we choppered down from the lodge on day four to meet our ride to the airport, the group had changed. Four perfect bluebird days. People who were skittish on the way up looked longingly out of the window like a kid leaving summer camp; new friends were exchanging cards; and just about everyone agreed that we probably definitely caught some of that skiing that the group before us was bragging about.