Heli-skiing in the Selkirks
Special to the Daily
SELKIRKS, BRITISH COLUMBIA — A 10-minute ride in a helicopter above the steep, expansive ridge lines of the Selkirk Mountains is a bit like having the bottom drop out of the elevator in the world’s tallest building. The stark view reveals tiny trees, powder-filled couloirs, baby blue glaciers and endless skiable lines.
A brief but visceral bolt of anxiety strikes as the first of many razor-thin landings appear abruptly through the chopper window and the ship sets down to release its passengers, all 12 of them including a guide, on to the smallest of snow patches. The tail hangs over the 40-degree slope we intend to ski, the nose over countless hundreds of meters of sheer granite to the valley floor far below.
Heads duck as the pilot gently pulls up on the nose of the heli, blades thwacking thin air, tilts to port and plunges the chopper sharply from the mountain in a graceful bank while slowly descending out of view. We all react the same: panning from appreciation of the perverse beauty of the helicopter diving from the sky to focus on the imminent domain of endless untracked powder below, we simply shake our heads and say “Wow!”
Nestled into the hillside overlooking the intimate yet thriving logging town of Revelstoke, British Colombia is the Hillcrest Hotel, headquarters for 35-year-old Selkirk-Tangiers Heli-Skiing. Members of our group have been traveling to Revelstoke to ski with Eriks Suchovs and his crack team of Association of Canadian Mountain Gudies — accredited guides for 20 years.
A typical day begins with yoga in the hotel room. Warm up, limber up, get the blood flowing — its essential for the body to feel close to normal on a five-day stretch destined to include as many as 10 helicopter rides and 10,000 meters of skiing a day. A quick buffet breakfast at the lodge, then its back to the room to put on gear.
The group piles into the shuttle van headed to the Albert Canyon helipad, one of four that Selkirk-Tangiers uses throughout the valley to access its exclusive 500,000 acre tender. Eccentricity is a hallmark of our group and our Swiss-Italian companions, prompted by their jovial ringleader Carlo, ensure the legacy during the drive by belting Italian operas in three-part harmony and cracking jokes in broken English.
“Jay, why do southern Italian (he specifies) men grow mustaches? To look more like their mothers!”
Raucous laughter ensues.
Take a deep breath. Sometimes the landscape doesn’t unfold beneath you. Often you can’t see 20 feet ahead because of the steep slope angle. Skiing after the guide is a luxury in that at least you’re assured someone else can handle it.
Dropping in on the first or even the last run is a surreal experience. Even if you’ve skied your entire life, the sensations are intense. The snow crystals sliding underfoot are sharply audible, the wind rushes by in unison with an accelerated heartbeat. This is powder skiing in its purest form. There’s no adjusting for other skiers, no avoiding lift towers, just unfettered turns in an area that receives upwards of 60 feet of snow annually.
The turns aren’t strictly “farmed” at Selkirk-Tangiers, though there is an expectation for the group to ski close together, never ski below the guide, and obey common sense rules. Avalanche beacons and packs with probes and shovels are provided to the group after a day one orientation session that covers skier and helicopter safety, avalanche search technique and multiple burials.
Afterward, it’s apres at the Hillcrest Hotel, which boasts a full-service bar and a spread of post-ski snacks. A few of us usually ordered several pitchers of local microbrew and laughed about who won the day’s Starfish Award in Italo-French-Spanglish punctuated by frequent hand gestures because nobody really speaks that language. Life is good in the wild mountains.
Check out more from Avon photographer Jay Rush at http://www.morningglassimages.com.