Ski Utah should subsidize my ski trips to British Columbia. Without fail, it snows hard in the Wasatch Range days before I leave on what has become an annual BC heli-ski pilgrimage. As the Utah flakes fall I question my decision to leave for the Great White North, and fret about the not inconsequential costs. This year Utah’s drought was broken with 80 inches in a week so, as we drove to the SLC airport in the snow, the mood was slightly morose. Those regrets disappeared like so much powder spindrift the minute we stepped out of the heli into deep light snow—we knew it was gonna be good. A big Alta day is always epic, but you can't beat days of run after run in untracked snow with good ski buddies. It's simply addicting to be freefalling for 1500-2500 feet of sustained vertical.
At the end of January, a group of us from Park City and Vermont returned to ski with the "New Guard" at Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) Revelstoke Lodge. We love Revelstoke in part because Steve Chambers (Lodge Manager) and Todd Guyn (Assistant Lodge Manager) understand the new realities of heli-skiing. Most people don't want to spoon turns or farm snow when they are paying thousands of dollars to ski, and most people cannot afford the nine days (including travel) that a typical heli-ski week requires. The new reality is a need for flexibility, which CMH now accommodates. This is exemplified by our Northern foray, which we booked only five days before the trip started. This is a far cry from just a few years ago, when you could ski anywhere you wanted at CMH so long as you made your plans 13–16 months in advance and committed to a seven-day trip. The change? My theories are a strong Canadian dollar (.95 cents vs. .62), competition from many new small heli operations (who market strongly as the anti-CMH solution), and of course that little thing known as the Recession. Either way, the change at CMH is good.
There are numerous CMH Lodges to choose from with awesome views and comfy duvets. In the end, at least to our group, it is all about the skiing. All CMH areas have stupendous terrain, but Revelstoke provides perhaps the best variety of terrain options in the CMH tenure. The tree runs may not be as long as those at the Monashees Lodge, but you are still getting sustained glades that magically continue to open up as you descend blower snow. There is also great high alpine skiing, but this is generally low angle, and while scenic, not your most exciting ski option. Here again, Steve and Todd heeded our desire to ski trees, and when we did ski in the alpine it was to get better snow.
The remote lodge experience, with a little luxury, is great: The camaraderie is a little stronger and the drinking a little heavier. And, make no mistake, CMH Revelstoke is not a “lodge” but a fairly basic hotel in downtown Revelstoke. But by choosing Revelstoke you not only get great skiing, but a real town with an old style movie theater, junior hockey, great ski shops, an aquatic center and easy access to the "world.” Combine that with the fact that the new Revelstoke Mountain Resort is minutes from the hotel, and you will actually ski every day of your ski vacation regardless of the weather. (Down days in remote lodges can turn a great ski week into something that feels like a cross between The Shining and Groundhog Day.)
CMH Revelstoke is run by Chambers, an East Coast Canada transplant who splits his time between Revelstoke and Malibu, Calif. Easygoing and friendly, he is straight man to assistant manager Guyn, a self-professed Alberta redneck who refuses to even discuss Facebook or Twitter. We used to joke that getting the skiing you wanted at most BC heli outfits involved an elaborate game of reverse psychology. If you wanted to ski trees, beg for huge alpine, and vice versa. Not with Steve and Todd—they accommodated happily our desire to ski primarily in the trees, no games required. You could ask if a certain line was in play without fear of a tongue-lashing, and it usually was. And the tree skiing was great —good stability meant steep lines, and a fresh layer of snow meant some nice blower snow.
Chambers and Guyn took turns as lead guide. Steve was straightforward with his directions: "ski in my track on the approach; there is a steep drop-off that will ruin your day on the right side," and off he skied. Todd would punctuate his point by telling the story of the guy who went out of the track, fell off the ridge with a resulting pelvis fracture and 60 microstitches in his manhood. To describe his "dry wit" does not do Guyn justice: He needs to be experienced first-hand.
As important as the guides is your group itself. The heli-ski "group" is only as good as the weakest skier. Ten good skiers can be stymied by one mediocre skier, and it can become an exercise in frustration as fast skiers spend the whole day chomping at the bit or enduring too frequent re-grouping stops. Safety is also compromised as the weak skier pushes to keep up, and fatigue can lead to injury—a dangerous scenario when you are truly in the backcountry. One solution to this problem is the BYOG (bring your own group) approach. With BYOG you know exactly what you are getting. Our group was varied but perfectly suited. We ran the gamut from Jim Holland (Olympic ski jumper and founder of backcountry.com) to Donald Jensen, a Southern California guy who was so mellow you thought he might fall asleep mid-run. Our lone current Vermonter (we had three ex-pats including myself), Johnny Irish, exemplified that the best skiers still come from the East. The pace was fast and we skied a lot of runs. And, when you gel off the hill as well, then it becomes a perfect ski week.
Over the years, BC locals have bestowed the moniker “Evil Empire” to CMH, for any number of reasons: a huge area of available ski terrain, totalitarian euro guides, and possibly jealousy as they watch helicopters overfly them on the skintrack. While the massive terrain is a matter of fact, there is certainly nothing evil about the people who currently make it happen at CMH. And it does not feel like an Empire, evil or otherwise. The Revy guides love to ski and let you ski, and are easy to drink a beer with after a great day of skiing. Get up there and find out for yourself.
Check out this video of the action: