The Steep and Deep of CMH: Day 4

A heliskiing blog: Four days of deep powder and lavish living in the heart of the Monashees
CMH 032703

In this 2003 web exlusive, SKI Magazine senior editor Joe Cutts checks out Canadian Mountain Holidays' (CMH) newest lodge—and the steep and deep of the Canadian Monashees.

We're pretty sure Woody Guthrie wrote "Big Rock Candy Mountain," but not 100 percent. It's Tuesday night at the lodge, and after a great day of skiing, most of us are at the bar. Donny's playing the mandolin, and P.A. is playing his Fender acoustic.

Donny's the lodge's maintenance guy, a stocky guy with a shaved head. And P.A., one of the guides, is ... well, hard to describe. P.A. is the lodge's resident raconteur, rock climber, and cowboy poet; a youthful 40-something who wears aggressive Buddy Holly frames and looks kind of like a swarthy Elvis Costello.

P.A. and Donny jam through a number of songs, and whoever knows the words joins in. That's how I find myself standing between them trying to remember the words to "Big Rock Candy Mountain," a song about hobo heaven. This is either absurd or apropos. On one hand, it's deeply ironic to be singing Woody Guthrie songs while nursing a $7 beer in a $10 million lodge. On the other hand, it's a song about a magical place—a mountain where everything is as it should be and life is as good as it can get.

On Day 4, the clouds lift (contrary to the weather forecast), and the snow stops, so we again head above treeline. Our guide, Craig, is a clean-cut, good-looking kid who, like all the guides, knows what he's doing and outskis all the guests.

We're still amazed at how lucky we've been with the weather in what has otherwise been a weird, difficult year. Every heliskier's nightmare is paying $5,000 and getting burned by the weather. But there are reasons why British Columbia is the heliskiing capital of the world: reliable weather, deep powder, and endless terrain. In a 140-day season, CMH's lodges average only five "down" days, when it's impossible to fly. Other days, options can be limited, or less than ideal. CMH founder Hans Gmoser put the odds at about 8-in-10: Book the same week 10 years in a row, he said, and you'll get what you want (deep, soft powder) eight years, and "something else" the other two. That can mean rain, wind- or sun-crust, corn snow, or low-angle descents when the steeps aren't safe. But CMH guarantees 100,000 vertical feet in a week, and if for some reason you don't get it, refunds $79 per 1,000 feet not skied.

We clearly won't be worrying about poor conditions or refunds on this trip. Our sunny day passes without peril, though there are two minor incidents involving runaway skis. Late in the afternoon, as we're making our way down to a landing zone just above a cliff, R.B. tumbles and loses a ski. Ski brakes don't always work in these conditions, and R.B.'s ski just never stops, scudding along for 200 yards and then disappearing over the cliff. But lost skis aren't unusual around here, so there are spares in the chopper. R.B. feels especially lucky, though: The ski was one of the lodge's Volkls. Before today, he has been using his own.

The next incident happens on the following run. We're skiing with Brie and Laurie, two of the staff members from the lodge. (One of the nice perks for CMH staff is getting to ski when there's room in one of the groups.) It's our last run, and, feeling a bit over-exuberant, I drop off a small cornice with a flat landing. In the movies, they stick the landing and ski out. But this isn't the movies. I land hard, pitch forward, double-eject and dive headfirst in the deep powder like a 240-pound lawn dart. It would be funny, except both of my skis are headed for another cliff. One angles off toward Brie, and she snags it, but the other one looks like a goner. Then I see Laurie swooping in below on her snowboard, and I yell to her in desperation. She understands the situation immediately, and like a heat-seeking missile, arcs in below me and runs over the errant ski just before it's lost forever.

The run is saved. Then Craig gets creative, leading us to steep trees with good snow, and we end the day with a dose of exhilaration. Thanks to Laurie and Brie, I'm not stuck at the top, waiting for an evacuation.