Snow crystals bounce off my face and curl into the sky like tendrils as the chopper's blades begin their steady whop whop whop against the air. The twelve of us clutch our bags and skis while the helicopter slowly lifts. I spy last week's guests smiling through the plexiglass, waving farewell. The chopper pivots and heads home, leaving us here alone.
It's December 23, and we have a week in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, a rugged landscape in the heart of the South Columbia Mountains of British Columbia's interior. We've come to spend Christmas with friends, skiing in this beautiful, vast back country.
There is only one hitch: The snow this week is extremely prone to avalanching.
The snowpack is thin, unprecedently so, and unusually weak; the local media have described it as the most avalanche-prone in recent history. Uncertain about the wisdom of our holiday, having already handed over the money months prior, we arrive in the park tense and wary.
Each of us, I'm sure, is remembering that this was the place where former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's son Michel was killed on Nov. 13, 1998. On the short flight up from the town our pilot pointed out the oblong lakes that fill many of the valley bottoms. One of the lakes was Kokanee Lake, where Michel was pushed into deep water by a slide.
"We had a very shallow snowpack up there. It just dumped that night with very strong winds, and it also warmed up, so you can imagine that with these conditions, it was very ripe" for an avalanche, recalled Nelson, B.C. local Robb Anderson, a ski patroller and avid back-country skier who was in the park the same time as Michel.
Determind to get home that day, Michel and his buddies had skied down towards Kokanee Lake, one of the few routes out of the park. The lake, a small oval set in a deep valley, is about 100 metres across and its steep flanks are avalanche paths. Normally frozen over, Michel and friends were forced to deal with an ice-free lake that year due to an unusually warm autumn. The group of four circled the lake, following a narrow band of snow at the foot of the cliffs. Likely, one of the skiers exerted the right amount of pressure on the snow in the right place, triggering a slide. In an instant, a wall of snow ripped them from their feet. Three were left at the edge of the lake but Michel was carried far out from shore. The group watched helplessly as Michel cried for help before drowning.
Michel spent his last night in the Slocan Chief Cabin, which is to be our home for the week. It stands silently under a thin blanket of snow below Kokanee Glacier and its commanding peaks. The 105-year-old, two-storey cabin is snuggled among stunted fir and spruce 2,000-metres above sea level. Our group had won the stay through a park-run lottery system that was put in place in the eighties due to rising demand.
Though the glacier is only scantily visible above us, we can see cracks and fissures in the buttresses -- they have names like Giant's Kneecap and Battleship -- jutting above the snowfield. Mountains give way to valleys, ridges and plateaus of varying sizes, each draped with meager copses of trees poking up through the light snow cover.
Inside the cabin, benches, tables, and cookware are assembled around a woodstove and a propane-serviced kitchenette. The widnows are small, and historical photos dot the walls. There are clothing pegs for wet gear. Cabin journals, with entries written by visitors over the years, describe the experiences of all who have come. Inevitably, we drift towards the 1998 journal, finding a page missing from Nov. 13. Perhaps to soften the omission, a small comment on the following page, apparently left by Michel's brother Sacha, bids Michel's journey well. Like other winter visitors, the promise of great snow lured us to the back country, where for the next few days we would labouriously ski up slopes in order to ski back down. A week of back-country skiing will cost you at least $700, accommodations are rustic bordering on primitive and you will likely only get three or four runs a day. But you earn your turns, and when the snow is right, the skiing is as close to heaven as you're going to get. "Powder skiing is a flowing fall with no hard bottom, putting your mind and body in a place that it has never otherwise been," says John Buffery, a 42-year-old mountain guide from Nelson who is one of the most respected skiers in the community.
My cabin-mate Lee White, a 30-year-old writer, says what he likes best is the lack of distraction. "You gain a greater appreciation for yourself and who you really are. Things are simplified and only the tangible become important."
"It's a challenge," says Cathy Greenhalgh, 27, a biologist from Williams Lake, B.C. "A challenge that encompasses exercise, knowledge and preparation, not unlike those you face in normal life."
But, recalling the Trudeau accident and others, the risks can't be ignored. Each year in Canada there are an average of 11 avalanche fatalities, with three so far this year. But the number of accidents are declining relative to the number of participants. "Back-country use is growing astronomically," says Evan Manners, the operations manager of the Canadian Avalanche Association, a public advisory body. "The average Canadian skier is getting better at making risk decisions because we are seeing only a slow increase in accidents."
Keyes Lessard, a 31-year-old forest technician living in Nelson, says that we probably wouldn't be where we are today if it hadn't been for those accidents, however. "It takes death for people to wake up," he says. The kitchen table where we prepared our meals in the Slocan Chief Cabin was built by former park ranger Lise Nicole, a friend to the people who now sat at her table. She was killed in the park in a very large and destructive avalanche that claimed six lives on Jan. 2, 1998.
"Obviously it is very difficult," admits Anderson, who has known many who have died on the mountains. "But that hasn't changed my love for the mountians. It makes it that much more of a special place. You are doing it for your friends too, because you know that that is what their passion was, and it's as if they are behind your eyes enjoying it with you."
Still, our week, originally a pursuit of powder snow, is overshadowed by the neon sign in everyone's brain: "Danger, the snowpack is terrible." Claire Israelson, managing director of the CAA, warns that "an extra level of caution should be exercised because of the unusual conditions." With this in mind, we force ourselves to adjust our goals.
According to Buffery, the key is knowing your turf. He compares gaging the risk to "volume control," turning it up or down depending upon what is right for you at the time." The first few days are spent touring around the hills, digging snowpits, examining the layers, and testing the snowpack. The skies are a drab grey, and little snow has fallen. Then, on the third day, we locate some skiable slopes. Even better, that night 15 centimetres of light snow falls. In the morning we carve lines among the trees and for the first time on the trip laughter bounces off the hills.
Our avalanche training, gleaned from various courses sanctioned by the CAA, was critical to the trip. In combination with the forecasts provided by a professional network across the West, we developed an increasingly clear understanding of the snowpack as the week drew on. This awareness is something Michel's mother, Margaret Kemper, is working to increase with events like a fund-raising concert with Bryan Adams in Cranbrook, B.C. early last December. Kemper is now a director with CAA, which raises money to prevent accidents like that which killed her son.
Safety is about choices, and these aren't always easy to make when there is beautiful snow enticing you.
"It's really hard to balance the little kid inside that says, 'I just want to shred' with the consequences of a slide," says Nelson teacher Eleanor Dworschak, 31. "Yesterday, I really wanted to rip it up, but we got a poor test result and we heard lots of whoompphing."
On a trip almost doomed to failure before it even began, we manage to enjoy ourselves with the sparse rations the winter had provided. On Dec. 28, we descend from Outlook Mountain. The terrain is a low-angle rib covered in dusty wind-blown powder. I lead off from the group in a rhythmical sequence, picking up speed with each carve, the sun behind me igniting the mountains ahead. The wind cools my eyes. My knees guide my skis left and right, coaxing them through more than 100 turns.
I feel real. The rest of the world goes about their routine down there while I blow through winter's soft blanket. Behind me, my friends yelp and hoorah. Somewhere beyond the ridgeline to the right, deep in the valley, lay Kokanee Lake. Michel is there, enjoying our laughter and, of course, our skiing.
We came to Kokanee not to risk life, but to enjoy life. "Canadians seek out adventures because they are an important part of our life," says Israelson. "We have these wonderful mountain places to explore and share adventures with our friends." Kokanee remains a testament to those seeking life.
British Columbia has some of the best helicopter skiing available in the world. Since Mike Wiegele introduced heli-skiing to the Canadian West 30 years ago, the industry has grown. Here are five top companies. Most operate from December to April. Costs vary according to inclusions, remoteness, vertical feet offered for skiing and type of accommodation. Prices below are average for high season and do not include taxes.
Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. A pioneer in the business, Wiegele's operation is still considered the best, especially by his many repeat guests. Operating from Blue River, Bell 212 helicopters ferry skiers into a 7,770-square-kilometre area of the Cariboo and Monashee mountain ranges for an array of terrains that includes glacier and tree runs. Information: phone (800) 661-9170; e-mail email@example.com; Web site http://www.wiegele.com. Cost: $5,663 a person for a week-long package.
Whistler Heli-Skiing. Just minutes, by helicopter, beyond the ski lifts of Whistler/Blackcomb, is an amazingly varied terrain from open glacier to gladed tree runs. Information: (888) 435-4754; Web site http://www.whistlerheliskiing.com. Cost: $515 a person for a one-day intermediate package.
Purcell Heli-Skiing Ltd. Based in Golden, B.C., and operating on the slopes of the Purcell range west of the Rockies, this outfit has been offering helicopter skiing for 27 years and specializes in less demanding skiing at a more relaxed pace. Information: phone (250) 344-5410; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site http://www.purcellhelicopterskiing.com. Cost: $5,627 a person for a seven-day package.
Last Frontier Heliskiing. Since 1996, the company has based its winter operations out of a lodge 360 kilometres north of Smithers in remote northern B.C., east of the Alaska Panhandle. For information and bookings: Phone (250) 558-7980 or (888) 655-5566; e-mail email@example.com; Web site http://www.lastfrontierheli.com. Cost: $7,000 a person for a seven-day package.
Crescent Spur Heli-Skiing. This company operates a luxury lodge tucked into a deforested valley between the Cariboos and the Rockies, near Prince George, B.C. No more than 16 guests have exclusive use of 3,885 square kilometres of terrain. Book a year ahead. Information: phone (800) 715-5532; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site http://www.crescentspurheliski.com. Cost: $5,299 a person for seven-day package.