Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing is where celebrities frolic, daredevil professionals shoot ski movies, and Russian oligarchs float on weightless, waist-deep powder. It is the skiing equivalent of golfing hallowed ground of the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland. Depending on your tax bracket, Wiegele's is either on your bucket list – or it's your annual winter vacation.
You don't have to be an expert to heli-ski. You don't have to play James Bond and jump out of a helicopter. But you should be fit, skilled and a little bit nervy.
We thought we fit the bill. But just three runs in, our day in powder heaven unfolded in a way we'd never imagined.
Carrie: Out of breath. Legs tired. Exhausted from digging out after repeatedly nose-diving into powder. Go on without me. This is the worst snowboard day of my life. There's too much snow.
Dawn: Oh my God, I can't do it. A guide is piggybacking me out of the trees. I'm so embarrassed.
Carrie: I wish I were Dawn right now.
Skiers and snowboarders go heli-skiing for the guarantee of fields of untracked powder. Wiegele's delivers big in its slice of the Columbia Mountains, at Blue River, B.C., 230 kilometres north of Kamloops. The area usually receives 10 metres of snow each winter. Even in mid-December, when the white stuff is often scarce, we trod through snow up to our hips (okay, we're short) before heading down open fields, which lead to traverses through trees and gullies – obstacles that normally wouldn't slow us down.
But our regular snowboards, perfect for ripping it up at resorts and heli-ski trips elsewhere, can't handle this much snow.
If we don't lean back, way back, burning out our legs, we either sink like stones or snow collects so high on the tips we flip forward, board over teakettle. We spend the morning wiping out, hiking out of flat spots and, at times, feeling utterly lost in the forest – all while others in our group yelp with glee.
While we managed to have fun when the snowy acres were wide open, tasting bark when navigating trees is far less exciting.
Fortunately, Erich Schadinger, one of our patient guides, has a solution. "Girls, this is a case of equipment failure," he says. And so he coaxes us – two sweaty, spent riders – back into the helicopter, and down to the resort's equipment shop to get proper powder boards.
Their wide, shovel-like noses plow paths like a boat's bow. Schadinger promises the boards will melt away our misery. It takes some convincing.
Carrie: No amount of fancy-schmancy technology will help me today. This is all operator error.
Dawn: I trust Erich. He's been here for more than 30 years. He's not going to take us back out if he didn't think our day would get better. We don't suck.
We weren't the only ones struggling. With an overnight snowfall of 36 centimetres – piled on top of a week's worth of midnight dumps – even Gordon Dixon, a 69-year-old elite skier, was stymied by his gear. He traded his fat powder skis for even wider planks when we loaded up our new rides before lunch.
The Calgary lawyer turned ski-resort and amusement-park proprietor has clocked about 59 weeks – and counting – at Wiegele's and other heli operations. But it was in March 1982, that he became a legend. He started skiing that morning at 6, and by the time he packed it in at 6:30 p.m., he had ripped down 243,000 vertical feet of pow. A typical day for most guests here is about 20,000 vertical feet.
"We skied on skinny skis. It was before the time of heli-skis. I still have them in my barn," said Dixon, who was once a protégé of Mike Wiegele and now serves as his lawyer.
His record has been broken a few times since. Current bragging rights go to a group of pros – including Canadian Olympic downhill bronze medalist Edi Podivinsky – who amassed an astounding 353,600 vertical feet each at Wiegele's in 1998.
Wiegele himself figures he's racked up 50 million vertical feet in his lifetime. At 74, he's still skiing (although he recently launched over a cliff and pulled his calf and hamstring). He's sworn off that drop now, but with 480,000 hectares of terrain in his land tenure, there's plenty of room to play.
Wiegele, who was born in Austria and came to Canada in 1959, first ferried skiers to mountaintops in 1970; back then the operation was little more than a cashier's shack and a helipad. "I thought, 'I want to build something, something that is unique, something that is meaningful to us and to the country,' but I had no money," Wiegele explained. "I kept on building and investing with every dollar that we made."
The end result is a village of luxury log cabins that can accommodate 115 guests. At the height of the season, Wiegele's runs 11 helicopters. There's a sports shop, a spa, a gym, a medical clinic, an elegant dining hall equipped with a wine cellar of 600 bottles, and a friendly pub dubbed the Silver Buckle Lounge. (Rack up one million vertical feet at Wiegele's and the gang presents you with, well, a silver buckle. Congratulations.)
One of Wiegele's premier services is its medical team. There's always one doctor on site, who is almost always skiing with guests. Doug Brown, an emergency-room physician from Vancouver who has 15 years of search-and-rescue experience, was working during our stay.
Because heli-skiers tend to be fit and healthy, Dr. Brown explained, he hasn't seen many serious injuries at Wiegele's. He has, however, tended to medical emergencies – aneurysm bursts in the brain, for example – that could have happened any time, anywhere.
Such a service would have saved us from a close call last spring. While heli-boarding with another outfit, Dawn suddenly fell ill. Overheating and nauseous, her condition worsened at the base, but nobody knew what was wrong. Hours later, a doctor at the local hospital found internal bleeding. Then, after being rushed to another hospital three hours away, doctors discovered a ruptured spleen during surgery. If left untreated 90 minutes longer, it would have been fatal.
"We're really here for peace of mind," Dr. Brown said.
Wiegele's includes helicopter safety and avalanche training sessions for all guests. Every morning the guides discuss avalanche conditions, recent snow slides, the forecast, trouble spots and select the day's best runs.
After our midday equipment swap, Wiegele's more than lives up to the hype. With our boots strapped to Burton Con Artist snowboards, we can stay where we belong: on top of the snow.
We rejoin our group and keep up effortlessly. We hover on top of pillows of powder, bounce over windblown piles and create such a huge wake we find ourselves gliding happily through the so-called "white room," temporarily blinded by snow. The floating sensation is snowgasmic. We feel it even hours later, like cruise-ship passengers with sea legs long after disembarking.
Dawn: I told you it wasn't operator error. Those powder boards are magic.
Carrie: Let's buy them.
Dawn: Done. Don't tell my husband.
IF YOU GO
Trips are booked in three, five or seven-day packages. During peak season, accommodation in the village and a seven-day private excursion for 10 people in a Bell 212 helicopter costs $151,753. During the same stretch, the most basic seven-day package rings in at $10,598 a person, and flies with a maximum of 10 guests. wiegele.com
HOW TO GET THERE
Blue River is located halfway between Kamloops and Jasper (and has a population of 500 when nearby residents are counted). There is a landing strip for private planes, although arrivals can be thwarted because of bad weather.
From Kamloops, Blue River is two-and-a-half hours away, in good driving conditions. From Vancouver, Calgary, or Edmonton, it takes six to eight hours on the road. On Saturdays, guests can board a courtesy shuttle from the Kamloops airport and local hotels.
WHO YOU'LL MEET
Even though Blue River is a treasure in the ski world, few who visit Wiegele's are Canadian. About 40 per cent come from the United States, another 40 per cent from Europe, and the rest from other countries, with a sliver from Canada. Roughly 60 per cent of Wiegele's guests are return customers.
Carrie Tait has Level 1 training from the Canadian Avalanche Association. She is a certified snowboard instructor. Dawn Walton has been snowboarding since 1995 and done avalanche training as part of her reporting on avalanche disasters. The writers travelled courtesy of Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing and Sunwest Aviation. Neither company approved nor reviewed this article.