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Ski Resort Life

All in the Heli Family

On sustaining 50 years of business off heli drops and pillow pops.

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Crouched on the edge of the pickup zone, we were in position, covering our faces to shield the ice and snow pelting we anticipated from the incoming helicopter. A mix of heli-skiing veterans and newbies, we are ecstatic—and maybe a touch nervous.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been in a helicopter–dressed from head-to-toe in Gore-Tex, ready for blower snow and turns that dreams are made of. When you see that belly coming in hot for landing it’s powerfully exciting.

I’d been in a helicopter before, but my heart still felt like it was beating in the pit of my stomach, and  anticipation and fear lace my perma-grin. After all, we’re about to ski with CMH Heli-Skiing, the original North American heli-skiing operation that’s spent the last 50 years perfecting the sport. These would be the best turns of our season.

Less than 24 hours before I wasn’t even sure if I’d make it to Nakusp, home of the CMH K2 Rotor Lodge. According to Siri, I was supposed to drive across a dotted line over the Columbia River, south of Revelstoke. Four hours into my solo drive from Banff, on the Alberta side of the Canadian Rockies, I became utterly confused as I approached the dotted line. What did a dotted line on the map even mean? Bridge under construction? Frozen road a la Ice Truckers? Where a road once went? A serious storm was on its way—great for skiing, horrible for driving and finding your way in new territory—and any deviation from my itinerary meant I’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river or somewhere worse, unable to make it to the lodge in British Columbia.

Thirty minutes later (after finding out a dotted line on a map is actually a fun ferry crossing) I pulled into the four square blocks that make up Nakusp and checked in at the lodge. I wasn’t entirely prepared for what awaited me. I expected all-night parties and hijinks reminiscent of a Mercon-era ski flick, an experience somewhere between a college frat party and summer camp, where the PBR flows like water, shot skis are for breakfast, and après involved dancing on the bar in ski boots.  Maybe K2’s “serious fun” marketing campaign had gotten the best of me. Surely the spandex-clad DJ Mullet—made famous for his seductive-slash-hilarious take on the Lange girl ads—was waiting in the bar with a flabongo?

A while later I sat at the lodge’s bar, sipping a beer by myself, eyeing a shot ski hanging on the wall. The place was empty, save for a couple of older gentlemen who were clearly not there for the party, and a lone teenager with his dad. A hint of jealousy crept up. I’d always wished to share a once-in-a-lifetime ski experience with my family. Before I dove too far into that rabbit hole, a few more guests made their way into the bar. They don’t appear ready to get behind a shot ski either, and I realize I’m going to have to let go of reliving a late 90’s ski flick and start focusing on the fact that it’s fully nuking outside.

Turns out Nakusp is closer to a sleepy fishing village than a 24-hour club on the Las Vegas Strip. The lodge is the local’s favorite breakfast joint—and there’s hearty bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of tequila slurped off an old ski. Located in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia, the town has been a heli-skiing hub for more than 25 years. It’s quieter and lesser known that its neighbor to the south, Nelson, and it’s safe to say that its 1,500 residents aren’t there for heli-skiing or après. 

The next morning, after completing a safety briefing, our group of ten waits to get picked up by Gordy, a CMH veteran of 15 years, who flew us a couple miles away over snow-kissed tree tops and dropped us at the top of our first run. Visibility is questionable for flying, as quarter-sized flakes fall from the sky faster than you could say “powder day,” but the consensus from the guides is that we should give it a shot, that hopefully visibility would improve throughout the day. And, besides, the skiing would  be phenomenal.

We’re part ushered, part herded by Phillipe, our guide, down a small knoll to the top of the first pitch we’ll ski. The French Canadian—dubbed The Lumbersexual by his fellow guides thanks to his plentiful beard and strapping good looks—had a plan that involves plenty of face shots on relatively low-angle terrain. Snow had accumulated since we got to town the day before (leaving something to be desired for snow stability) and every line in sight looks as enticing as if it were pulled straight out of a snow globe.

The excitement in our group felt like the usual resort-induced FOMO that comes from powder days that last only 20 minutes. But then I realized that does not exist here. With so much terrain accessible by helicopter, we’d be choking on powder all day, every day, for the foreseeable future.

From the way things look at the top of our first run, there is an endless amount of powder. The amount of terrain CMH holds license of occupation for in Canada is mind-boggling (3.1 million acres, almost the same size as the entire state of Connecticut), and in Nakusp it’s a tree-skier’s dream. At the K2 Rotor Lodge alone they have exclusive helicopter access to a chunk of land nearly the same size as New York City–covered with peaks, bowls, tree runs, pillow lines, and cut blocks just waiting for you to ski them. Since only one heli-skiing company can operate on a tenured piece of land at a time there’s no need to worry about missing your chance for pow turns if you miss the early resort bus.

Phillipe cued us to follow his tracks to the top of the next pitch, and we started dropping into our first line, two at a time. The snow is amazing—light, fluffy, consistent—and we’re surrounded by snow-covered pine trees that have been almost perfectly gladed. It only took two knee-deep turns to learn that skiing hereis going to be a magical experience. I’m talking unicorn magical. Even—dare I say—two-headed unicorn magical.

I picked up speed as I descended, letting the K2 Remedys I borrowed from the lodge pop me out of each turn and into the next between the giant trees. It’s deep, and getting deeper by the turn. The snow on the next pitch looked too good to be true, filling every nook, cranny, and downed tree with feet upon feet of snow. My legs started to burn (I should have done more squats), but I ignored it and focused on the waist- to chest-deep turn, trying to spot my next move between being blasted in the face with snow.

Snow conditions, albeit unstable, were extremely consistent. Bigger, faster turns kicked up huge walls of snow and I felt how I imagine Bono must feel playing to a full house on its feet. An ear-to-ear shit-eating grin on my face, I was happy. So happy. Everything in my world was perfect and exactly as it should be, and I couldn’t imagine it could ever get any better.

But, of course, it did.

I’ve seen famous skiers ski pillow lines on the big screen from Norway to Japan—huge, car-sized monstrosities stacked on top of each other like a skiable Leaning Tower of Pisa of sorts. Never did I expect to experience the sensation of skiing these myself. As it turns out, there were lots of these boulder fields here, buried under feet and feet of snow, begging for you to bump, jump, and huck yourself off them. The hoards of fresh snow blanketing said boulders were more welcoming than any foam pit or lake I’d ever jumped into and felt like zero consequence.

We stopped at the top of a boulder field and I got the from-the-top perspective I hadn’t seen in the movies. The giant snow-covered boulders look bigger from the top than I expected, but there were enough options that not every line requires sending off car-sized boulders the whole way down (phew). I headed for a slightly less-intimidating option and go for the fall line, little pillows of powder filling my own personal playground, feeling more confident with every small boulder I successfully navigate.  Snow that deep and that soft just makes you feel like the best skier on the mountain. I pushed myself a bit and launched off bigger boulders effortlessly, floating through the air, enjoying the momentum and savoring the landing, an explosion of snow so intense you better have spotted your next few turns before landing.

It’s the stuff my dreams are made of, but until then, had been just a dream: Living, breathing, and slaying, huge, soft, amazing snowflakes. Letting them explode with every landing, and sending them flying with every turn. I was so far deep into my happy place, I began to wonder if I was actually fast asleep in a dream.

The drawn out “Heeeeeeeeeee-llo” of my ski buddy, Steve, trying to find me in the trees below the boulder field brought me back into consciousness. I was still in my dream, but definitely awake. I threw him back a “Ya-yaaaa” so he had a general idea of my whereabouts, and fell back into the most amazing dream.

We skied in pairs, everyone with a buddy to keep track of each other in the maze of potential hazards that is backcountry skiing. With unstable snow on the steeper slopes, tree wells everywhere, and a definite possibility of getting cliffed-out, it served a clear purpose for safety, but also gave each of us a specific person to share the experience with. Steve stopped to wait for me, a big, open-mouth, toothy grin on his face. One look said it all, he was definitely experiencing the same pillow line bliss I was. There is nothing like bonding with someone you’ve known for less than a day over the most amazing blower snow of your life. Best friends. For life.

As it turns out, my ski buddy du’jour is somewhat of a legend in the CMH family, and has been heli-skiing with CMH for the last 25 years. To solidify his legendary status, he’s also deep into a project that should, as far as I’m concerned, earn him a spot in the ski hall of fame. The 59-year-old Steve, a chemical engineer from Alaska, has skied in every month, of every year, for the last 343 months. That’s over 28 years of skiing straight. What started as a way to spend time with a close friend was perpetuated by a four week stint in the hospital that left him with a “life is short, follow your passion” mantra. Living year-round in Anchorage allows for nearly year-round access to snow, but much of the skiing over these 343 months has been at the hand of CMH, and as we neared the bottom of our first run, I can see why.

CMH is known for making heli-skiing affordable—more inclusive of Joe Schmo ski bum than exclusive of wealthy trust fund offspring, a product of values put in place by CMH founder Hans Gmoser, an Austrian immigrant with an undying love for the mountains, in his early days of guiding in the region. Known for going out of his way to help people enjoy the mountain, Hans’ good deeds have since transformed into a business model based on inclusion, and making heli-skiing accessible to everyone.

The cost of a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing is some of the most competitive in the market­, and is paired with a vertical guarantee, which means if you don’t ski it, you’re not paying for it.  This can come in handy if there is a weather delay and your group spends the day grounded, missing out on some of the guaranteed vertical for your trip. In that case you get a refund for how much skiing you missed out on, which can come in handy when it’s time to put a deposit down on your next trip. Oh, and did I mention the free skis? Guests at CMH K2 also get to pick out a new pair of K2 skis that will be shipped to them later.

All of these perks attract a range of people and my fellow skiers for the week are a colorful mix from all over the world, of varying ages and background. It’s nice to be surrounded by people who worked hard to be here and are really, genuinely, excited for the experience at hand. It means—if nothing else—we have two things in common right off the get-go.

As we break for a lunch of homemade hot soup, sandwiches on fresh bread, and just-made cookies that the lodge’s award-winning chef has packed for us (and, I might add, the best snow picnic I’ve ever had), I see Zach—this week’s youngest skier, here with his dad—who I met last night before dinner. “How were your runs?” I ask him between bites of a warm peanut butter cookie. He doesn’t even need to answer. I can tell by the size of the smile on his face he’s having the time of his life.

At 16, he’s on his first self-funded heli-skiing trip. He worked for a full year at a children’s adventure park outside of Vail, Colorado to pay his own way and join his dad on his annual pilgrimage to ski with CMH K2. Smart kid. I briefly consider joining him at the children’s adventure park to fund my own return trip next year.

I’m starting to feel the kind of camaraderie with these folks that comes with sharing intense, life-altering experiences. These were people I had now shared one of the most amazing powder days of my life with, and due to that, we’d always share a special connection. Almost, really, like family.

It was beginning to make sense. How the godfather of all heli-skiing operations had found its niche, and ruled the industry for 50 years. These special bonds, unbreakable by the laws of powder days, are creating relationships in a dreamland. It keeps guests coming back, year after year, for 25 years and more, and it’s kept guides coming back for just as long. With 11 lodges and a license of operation encompassing more acres than any other tenure in North America, its no wonder they are also the single largest employer of guides in the world (over 100 professionals, some of whom have been with CMH for 25 years).

As other operations struggle to find their identity in a growing market, CMH goes grass-roots, classic family values. And it’s working. Peak-season trips regularly sell out a full year in advance, and groups will book next year’s trip before the end of this year’s trip. Many guests form such tight bonds with each other that they will schedule return trips year after year with the same group of skiers they met their very first time at a CMH lodge. Even the staff is like family, from operations managers to lodge bartenders, these folks have curated close-knit relationships with each other and guests, and its not uncommon for a guest to be on a first name basis with their server’s kids. Last year guests, guides, and staff proved how close these bonds really are when they came together in Nakusp, from all over North America, to celebrate the life of another long-time heli-skiing guest. 

After lunch we clicked back into our skis and slid down to where Gordy will pick us up for another run. I’ve already skied more blower pow and made more dreamy turns in one morning with CMH than I had in the last three seasons combined, maybe even more. The fact that it isn’t over—and that there are three more whole days of this—is hard to wrap my head around. Why did I wait so long to ski here, and how will I ever ski anywhere else after this? As we lifted off the ground I think about how I’ll fund my second trip with CMH. My plans were shaky, at best, but I conceded to book for next season before I leave Nakusp, regardless.