'What kind of skier are you?" asks the ski rental form in front of me. I scan the list, but don't see "chicken." My pen slipping from my fingers with nervous sweat, I try to calm my racing heart as Ashley Tait, Revelstoke Mountain Resort's director of marketing, sighs over her morning latte. "James Bond has screwed up our business," she says. "So many people are scared away because they think you have to jump out of a helicopter, skis on, in midair, to heli-ski." I don't say so, but I know how they feel.
Today, I am being "heli-prepped." I meet my Finnish-born instructor, Tomi, and we ride the gondola 1,713 metres to the top of what became, in 2009, the highest vertical ski hill in North America, snatching the record from Whistler. Everyone is chattering excitedly about last night's dump of legendary champagne powder that is the big draw in southeast B.C.'s Kootenay Rockies. An intermediate Eastern skier, I'm more accustomed to tackling vertical ice sheets. The thought of "steep and deep" has always terrified me and I am convinced that I'm not good enough to tackle the holy grail of schussing - heli-skiing.
Tomi disagrees. "The ideal minimum level for heli-skiing is someone who can ski blue runs with confidence and seeks out black runs for challenge." As the gondola docks amid fluffy snow-ghost trees, I guess I'm going to find out if B.C.'s big snowy bowls can make a powder hound out of a timid powder puppy.
Hopping a helicopter to soar atop mountain peaks so that you can carve tracks down virgin slopes is an all-Canadian sport dreamed up almost half a century ago by Austrian ski guide Hans Gmoser. His Canadian Mountain Holidays company pioneered what is now one of the world's top adventures, and since almost all heli-skiing takes place in B.C., it is an iconic Canadian sport.
Many ski resorts across southern B.C. offer chopper skiing, including Whistler. But the province's southeast is its epicentre, across what is called the Snow Belt in honour of the 12 to 18 annual metres of dry, fluffy powder that blanket the Bugaboos, Monashees, Selkirks and Purcells. There, a string of ski resorts straddles a mountainous circuit called the Powder Highway.
I started out my week-long trip on the eastern part of that route with a 90-minute "Intro to Heli-Skiing" lesson near Invermere at the intimate Panorama Mountain Village. My instructor, Drew, gave me my first taste of powder after some basic adjustments to my style. "Ski as if you're skiing on eggshells that you don't want to break," he said. "Float and go with it." I floated all right - with a head-plant into powder so deep I worked up a serious sweat just getting back on my feet. My ego finally began to recover in front of the wood stove after a lunch of tourtière and cold beer at the mountainside log Elkhorn Lodge.
I still didn't feel I was ready, so when a high avalanche risk kept local operator RK HeliSki's choppers grounded, I wasn't disappointed. I drove north toward the town of Golden, where I found more powder at Kicking Horse, a resort barely a decade old. Renowned for its serious grades (60 per cent of them are dedicated to expert runs), I envied the ease with which fellow skiers glided toward Nirvana. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and simply grateful to have avoided the trees on my way through the glades.
So it was with scant optimism that I landed alongside Tomi at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. "If you're working hard, you're doing it wrong," he told me at the start of my full-day Cat and Heli-Ski prep lesson. First, he outfitted me with ultrawide powder skis that felt more like mini-surfboards. "It's all about the skis," he said. "When you come here, you should leave your downhill skis at home. These are more flexible, forgiving and will give you confidence." Already I am feeling better.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened in 2007 and is growing fast. At the moment, it has one gondola and two high-speed quads servicing glades in 13 different areas as well as five dramatic bowls. When complete, Revvy will give Whistler a run for its money with 20 square kilometres of ski-able terrain, 21 lifts and 115 ski and snowboard trails. Not long ago, this was a no-frills haven for snowmobilers and blue-collar rail workers, so the town of Revelstoke still has plenty of inexpensive motor lodges and affordable inns. The chic Nelsen Lodge at the mountain base opened in 2009.
Like many of the mountaintops in this area, RMR's wide summit bowls were not long ago the exclusive domain of helicopters so I get a feel and peek at the terrain I'll encounter if I survive the day. Tomi preps me up gradually from choppy ungroomed trails to virgin powder runs, then adds terrain with increasingly dense trees, which I'll hopefully avoid with my newly acquired powder skills.
After lunch, I push off the top of a run called Jalapeno, gently nudging my skis in the right direction, but letting them run the show. Suddenly, I'm gliding, carving smoothly as a dusting of snow tickles my face. For the first time ever, I feel "the float." Arriving at the base at 3 p.m. after having skied the epic Last Spike run downhill for a non-stop 15.5 km, Tomi declares me "chopper-ready."
Early the next morning, I am at the nearby base for my day of helicopter skiing with Selkirk-Tangiers, whose beat is an immense 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of mountain terrain. After strapping on avalanche transmitters and going through rescue drills, 10 of us jump into a helicopter; I am the only female - about 90 per cent of heli-skiers are guys. The group's skill level will determine if we get three or four long runs in that day.
The helicopter rises quickly into the sunny sky and we bank over towering granite spires to touch down softly on a broad mountain ridge. We leap out - very un-James Bond-like - and assume the crouching heli-huddle position as the thump-thump of the blades resonates through my chest like an extra set of heartbeats. When the chopper takes off in a snow tornado, it leaves us in deep silence amid waves of snow-capped mountains.
I snap my boots into their bindings, Tomi's words of instruction rippling through my brain. But I don't need them. I take a deep breath to beat down the adrenalin, pick a line and draw my own private snowy S-curve of downhill graffiti on untracked powder across a nameless mountain. I let go and the skis do the work. The helicopter idles at the base. We hop in and do it again. Then again. On the last run, I howl with happiness. After all, am I not a full-fledged powder hound now?
Special to The Globe and Mail