I’ve been on a quest to find solitude in the backcountry—and failing. Backcountry skiing has become so popular that whenever I visit my favorite Front Range backcountry zones, every Tom, Dick, and Harry has already beat me there. It’s no surprise, really. The trade association Snowsports Industries America has noted explosive growth in sales of backcountry gear over the past five years. But I don’t need a fancy report to tell me that the parking lot at Berthoud Pass, Colorado, is going to be overflowing on a Saturday.
Canadian Mountain Holidays, Canada’s long-standing heli-skiing powerhouse, has taken notice too. Now, in addition to its usual turbine-centric fare, CMH offers heli-assisted touring trips from its plush Galena lodge. What’s a heli assist? Well, it goes something like this: Helicopter into a new zone every morning, earn your turns all day, then get picked up in the afternoon in time for happy hour at the lodge. Repeat as often as possible.
Trips include a gluttonous combo of heli-assisted touring days, regular heli-skiing (twist my arm), plus guides, food, and lodging. The package costs significantly less than a full-blown heli trip (though considerably more than a traditional backcountry hut trip) and seems like a surefire way to get far, far away from Tom, Dick, and Harry. I’m confident the Great White North has enough mountains to go around.
On day one, the heli leaves my group of eight along with two guides on a small peak wrapped in a blanket of silence that can be found only in the most remote backcountry. I savor the moment: the stillness, the isolation, and the feeling that these mountains are all mine. This is most of what I came here to find—a quiet, peaceful journey, far from the eager crowds fighting for parking places on a pass.
By the third day, I’ve found everything else I was looking for, and the snow conditions are phenomenal. We’ve toured for plenty of long, effortless powder runs and now find ourselves on a ridge below a rocky peak that reaches intrusively to the sky. Just below us are a couple rollovers, the last too steep for me to see what lies below. Snow crystals sparkle under broken clouds and sun, and our lead guide, Adam, instructs us over the radio to drop in one at a time.
I’m the last one down. When I ski below the second rollover I find our tail guide, Emelie, and a lovely 15-foot-wide couloir flanked by monolithic rock faces. It’s beautiful terrain, but by this time it holds the tracks of seven other skiers. Emelie sees me eyeing the tracks, picking a line that would award the most untouched snow. “Follow me,” she says, and we traverse to the right, where we stand above another line still flanked by rock walls on both sides, but 10 degrees steeper. “Stay left of that rock.” She points to a sharkfin about halfway down and turns to me with a slight grin. “And have fun!” We both know it’s redundant advice.
The pitch is steep enough that I gain significant speed right away—and just go with it. It’s just me and the next turn in this couloir of perfect snow. When I come blasting into the group waiting for me a little ways past the couloir’s apron, I can’t even come close to containing my excitement. Ecstatic would be an understatement—I’m over the moon. My legs are running in place, arms are shaking in the air; I’m jumping, screaming. I lean my head back and let out the most satisfying “Yeeeeeaaaaaaaaa!” of my life.
That was worth every penny. I exchange high fives with the seven erstwhile strangers I’d spent the last few days skiing with and realize sharing this experience with them made it sweeter than it would have been on my own. Huh. Maybe when I get home I’ll rethink those Berthoud crowds. Well…maybe not.
When Crystal Sagan isn’t serving herself fresh turns, she runs 3 Chicks Bartending. We often get leftovers.