There is nothing like the rush of heli-skiing.
The howl of a Bell 212 would excite the comatose. And the feeling of a Huey inexplicably lifting skyward and dancing over freshly dusted mountaintops as if dangling from a string is worth the price of admission alone.
Shortly after our first liftoff with Golden, British Columbia’s Purcell Heli-Skiing, a fellow skier/adventure journalist aptly described the immediate excitement of a chopper: “I’m done! Take me home!”
Heli-skiing, though, carries stigma. Originated in the 1960s by legendary powder-hounds like Hans Gmoser, Leo Grillmai, Rudi Gertsch and Mike Wiegele — ski-bums who just wanted to carve virgin snow — today, heli-skiing seems synonymous with the yacht-and-Porsche crowd. On this same trip, a ski-writer from Jackson Hole had pointedly mentioned, “Helicopters access the best terrain, but most of the best skiers can’t afford it.”
Then there is the elephant in the room — a Bell 212 burns 410 litres of fuel per hour while an alpine touring skier burns 410 calories over the same time.
However, after a day spent heli-skiing in southeastern BC alongside Rudi Gertsch, owner of Purcell Heli-Skiing and one of Gmoser’s original guides, I discover that some heli-conceptions aren’t quite what they appear.
Twenty minutes ago, I stood on a heli-pad near downtown Golden. Now, the chopper carrying me and 10 others — including Gertsch — is landing somewhere in the Selkirk Mountains, deep within Purcell Heli-Skiing’s 2,000-sq-km tenure.
We file out of the bird like commandos on foreign soil. Whirling blades whip up a blizzard while we watch the machine lurch skyward and roll east with impressive efficacy. Then from chaos, comes silence; in all directions, untracked powder. There is no sign of human intrusion beyond impressions in the snow and a wooden stake with a flapping strip of surveyor’s tape — and us. Here, I realize what heli-skiing holds over the resorts and even some backcountry lodges: the impact can be as ephemeral as the chopper itself.
“In the places we ski, you go out in the summer when there’s no snow and after 40 years [of operation] you can’t tell we’ve ever been there,” Gertsch later explains. “We hike a lot of these places in the summer, and the odd spot we might pick-up a broken basket or a pair of glasses, but that’s it. The lunch spots are always clean.”
Gertsch asserts that heli-skiing operations are much less impactful than resort areas, with a ski hill’s associated roadways and infrastructure.
“If a [heli] operator ever shuts down, it doesn’t matter, because we didn’t leave a mark,” he continues. “There are places along the West Coast where there are old ski-lift towers and footings left over.”
I’ve seen these places. My birthplace, Vancouver Island, is burdened with the legacy of decommissioned lift towers on Mount Cokely (Arrowsmith) and Forbidden Plateau; unsightly concrete slabs or rusting relics fallen victim to changing climates and changing fortunes.
“Yes, we use a lot of fuel. But everybody else who goes on holidays uses a lot of fuel too,” Gertsch protests, citing that even comparatively gas-thrifty snow-cats leave a greater impact on mountain environments than choppers, since travel upslope is slower and they spend more time in operation.
“Today, we are skiing in a cut block — these areas were planned with the forest service. We don’t just go in there and cut down trees,” Gertsch continues. “We work with the forest service when they lay out the cut blocks. After the harvest, these cut blocks are planted again.
“Some of the glading we do in the summer is the same as what the forestry operators do. It’s good for the forest to cut all the sick trees out of the way… we have to submit a five-year logging plan. There are strict rules and regulations.”
Gertsch was there at the birth of heli-skiing, and he hopes his son, Jeff, will continue this legacy — both in business and environmental responsibility.
It’s a side to the Huey that isn’t often discussed. Could it be that even an off-grid hut leaves a bigger blight on the mountainside than a heli-skiing operation? Is a helicopter’s ability to cherry-pick suitable areas and skip-over sensitive habitat a win on the side of conservation?
“Everyone to my left,” Gertsch says as he leads us down a billowy slope near the remote southeast edge of Glacier National Park. The septuagenarian skis with enviable ease; a testament to the low-impact of dwelling only in champagne powder.
I drop in and carve a few tight turns towards the trees. Admittedly, eco-sensitivity is the last thing on my mind. Every run leads through unspoiled snow — a resort skier might not get this many fresh tracks in an entire season. If I had my climbing skins on, it would take days to ski a similar amount of vertical.
Today, because of low-lying clouds and alpine snowpack instability, our runs eschew the Selkirks’ upper reaches and start at the treeline, meandering downslope through gladed spruce. Fall-lines vary between mellow and 45-degree steeps that appear out of nowhere. Our group is on a constant high — from the free-heeling French-Canadian jetsetters to the penny-pinching Kiwi snowboarders who bussed in from Lake Louise. Even Gertsch, who spends dozens of days per year up here, beams with delight — showing off his Swiss heritage with the occasional yodeling session. There’s nothing status-y or Blue Chip about it. It’s a joy as simple as the falling snow.
Towards the finish of our final run — five are guaranteed, at least 3,750 total vertical metres — Gertsch steers us towards a stump-jump. The landing is downy powder; I hit the kicker with such speed that it rips off my left ski and sends me skywalking haplessly through the air, and to the ground, face first. I’m laughing hardest of all.
Heli-skiing likely won’t be your fantasy freeskiing highlight reel. Skiers and riders move within perimeters set by head- and tail-guides — you can’t just forge your own path with a “see ya at the bottom” attitude. Heli-skiers are here for chuckles. Adrenaline highs. Face shots. And to appreciate an alpine environment that few will set foot this far within. The ecological cost per person is like burning a tank of gas in your car — though in an age of climate change, it still gives one pause for thought. But I’ve never heard anyone complain about heli-skiing from the seat of a Bell 212.
This article originally appeared in our Winter 2014 issue.