Monday, June 17, 2013

Male Bonding in the Monashees - a Heli-Ski Journal


            We met at the terminal gate, old friends, new friends, friends of friends.  Anticipation  was the immediate bond.  Months of preparation, physical, financial, and emotional had brought us to this point.  A week with the boys, heli skiing in the Canadian Monashees - the pinnacle of our skiing careers.  No women, no work, no kids, no nothing - just skiing.  One more indulgence of the sport, the lifestyle, to which we had all dedicated a disproportionate amount of time, energy and money.  Pilots, developers, brokers, salesmen, engineers, husbands, fathers, boyfriends, bikers, sailors, athletes, intellectuals, extroverts, - all different but all with one common denominator - skier. Identified, above anything else, as a skier.

            We boarded the plane together and had a hot, anxious flight to Calgary. We checked into the Airport Hotel, registered with the Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) agent, checked the weather report and took a cab into town for a little action. We spent the night at a Canadian shaker bar called the French Maiden howling at triple inverted moons and other assorted gynecological delights. We swilled Molsens and stuffed dollars until the wee hours.  "It doesn't get any better than this" we howled to a cold Canadian moon while we waited for a cab, shamelessly imitating trite macho - yuppie commercials.


            After an endless bus ride through the front range of the Canadian rockies, past clearcuts and soggy logging towns, in a depressing drizzle, we arrived at Mica Creek.  From the looks of the place I thought we were getting gas, but when the bus driver started piling our bags at the curb I knew that this must be the place.  Mica Creek is a little company village built by B.C. Hydro Ltd., between two major dams on the upper Columbia River.  After the dams were operational, the demand for housing in the valley diminished, so in 1971 CMH bought out the "Lodge", a "Hotel", a few houses and a share of the recreational amenities.  Mica Creek, located on Revelstoke Lake in the heart of the Monashee mountains (Mountains of Peace), was our operations base for the next 6 days. The Monashees offer the most difficult and challenging skiing of any of the nine CMH lodges and is open only to the most experienced Heli Skiers.  Seventy percent of the skiing is done in the steep and deep trees.  The remainder of the terrain is on high elevation, open glaciers and mountain meadows that provide long Alpine runs and magnificent scenery during good weather.

            Upon further inspection Mica Creek was much nicer than it first appeared.  The lodge and facilities were quite modern and luxurious.  There was a dining room, lounge, bar, ski shop, pool, gym, massage room, game room, and full sized Curling courts.  The hotel rooms were for singles and couples so our group was assigned to our own, chartreuse house in the B.C. Hydro workers village.  Although Mica Creek offers the most spartan conditions of all the CMH lodges, we were happy with our little fraternity, animal house and were there, after all, for the skiing.

            After settling into our hovel we explored the facilities and found a rousing game of floor hockey in progress among some of the off duty B.C. Hydro workers.  We challenged them for a few games and started out as good sports and complete gentlemen.  We had a full week of skiing ahead of us and did not want to risk exhaustion or injury not to mention the loss of dollar investment.  After a while, the local hard working, blue collar Canucks began taking it to the trustfunder yuppie heli dogs from the USA.  Stick checks and slashes increased in intensity.  Body checks resounded on the open floor and against the walls.  I mashed one of the locals in the corner, stole the puck and headed up the right wing only to be checked from the blind side, out of the side door and into the parking lot.  "Ay hoser - keep your head up", they told me when I returned.  This was heaven, crossing cultural barriers and assimilating with the local customs and dialect.

            A hearty, if not gourmet dinner was served, and an orientation pep talk was given.  We mingled with the rest of the group for a short while and found them to be begrudgingly friendly.  Most of the others were definitely successful Type A entrepreneurs with more dollars than sense, who had been skiing with CMH for years.  There was a certain amount of strutting and posturing in subdued tones with more than a little arrogance and condescension.  It was clear that we were the underclassmen for the week with something to prove.  What it was we weren't sure so we retired to our house for an evening of burping and farting.  Chubby, Cruiser, Dipstien, Robster, Fatty, Deano, Alanator and Totally Pauly, - the names were changed to protect the mature.


            The next morning we woke early, sleep walked through our first stretching class and had a big breakfast.  We were all very anxious and I almost gagged on my morning whiskey shot.  We had more orientation about avalanches, the buddy system, the guest pack, man eating tree wells and the obligatory Skadis (avalanche transceivers) drill.  We picked up our shorter (< 200 cm) heli skies provided by CMH and headed out to the helipad.  Our group of eight was supplemented with two other guests.  One fellow named Alistar was a quiet, nondescript French Canadian, skiing on fat skis while the other, Cliff, was an ultra hyper Cal-dog who had already jogged and lifted weights that morning.  When we gave him the nick name of Cliffinator and he told me to "suck his butt" so I knew he would fit in just fine.  We never did come up with a nick name for Alistar. 

            Our guide was a petite young woman named Diny (no nick name required) who carried a pack larger than Rhode Island and skied circles around us all week.  She took our skies, positioned us in a cluster and told us to get down.  Then we heard the roar of the Bell 212 Jet helicopter as it crested a nearby ridge.  A tempest of loose snow enveloped us as we hunched down turning our faces away from the maelstrom.  We climbed in and took off in this incredible machine that could reach speeds of 100 kilometers per hour and climb 1000 meters in less than 5 minutes - fully loaded.  As Mica Creek quickly shrunk to toy village proportions, the surrounding topography began to reveal itself.  The Columbia River entrenched in the main canyon was harnessed in innocuous lakes behind mammoth dams, one more than 200 meters tall.  The terrain was steep and heavily forested for the first 1500 meters and capped by an additional 1500 meters of vast snowfield and glaciers.  Words like awesome, privileged and indulgent went through my mind as we cruised gracefully over craggy terrain.

            As soon as we touched down on a small treeless clearing in a heavy conifer forest we clambered out into waist deep snow.  The depressing rain of yesterday had manifested itself as semi - dense powder at this elevation (2000 meters).  We doubled-up and followed our guide to the top of a long, dense, steep tree shot called "Come Again"  that fell off steeper than a cows' face and appeared endless.  Diny clicked her poles together and skied off with terse instructions.  "Left and right" is all she said as she disappeared, but we knew exactly what she meant.  Nervous jostling, adrenalin, anticipation, performance anxiety, peer pressure, self doubt and fear filled everyones minds and hearts.  Then, imperceptibly at first, but all at once, leading and following, but all together, we took off.  Turning adrenalin into energy, fear into strength and doubt into confidence we collectively descended on the forest. The roller coaster terrain caused us to launch and explode in a powdery landings, gaining momentum and confidence with each turn.  Naturally picking perfect lines through the trees, skiing the opportunity and not the obstacles.  Just when we thought we were "closed out" a whole series of openings presented themselves with only a single set of efficient tracks to lead the way.  Anxiety gave way to performance, relaxation and relief which begot familiarity and eventual domination.  Dipstien launched off a 20 foot cliff, between two large conifers and landed successfully in deep snow bank while Cruiser dropped off of three consecutive ledges that looked like a huge, snowy staircase.  With an eye on our partners we shared the familiar old feeling of just shredding with the boys.  When we found Diny and the helicopter waiting we did it again and again and again... .


            After a spirited and necessary stretch class we met for breakfast at the lodge.  Everyone was crowded around the bulletin board in the lobby reviewing the "statistics" from the day before.  On an official looking computer printout I found my name and the fact that we had skied 7510 meters the day before (almost 25,000 vertical feet) or almost one quarter of our guaranteed vertical of 30,000 meters (100,000 feet).  As I tried to put the number in perspective (20 chair lifts, 8 trams, 3 days of touring) I noticed some of the other names.  None of the other groups had skied more the day before but the life time totals were inconceivable.  Several skiers had eclipsed the magic 300,000 meters (1 million vertical feet) for which they were rewarded with a "free" designer CMH heli suit. Even more incomprehensible were the figures for the true heli diehards with over 2 million meters and in one case 4 million meters.  One hundred and fifty trips at an average of $2000 is almost $300,000 for skiing.  They should award those guys a designer helicopter for skiing that much.  Two thing were clear; someone was keeping score, and we were way out of our league.

            Heli skiing has come a long way since Igor Sikorsky invented the helicopter in 1939.  It wasn't until 1963 that Hans Gmoser started as a private heli guide for Art Patterson in a tiny Bell B1.  Then in 1965 Hans started the first commercial campaign at an abandoned lumber camp at the foot of the Bugaboo Glacier with 18 skiers.  From the original package that cost $260 per week, the operation has blossomed into a 30 million dollar a year operation in 9 lodges - Bugaboos, Revelstoke, Gothics, Galena, Adamants, Bobbie Burns, Cariboos, Valemount and Mica Creek.  CMH has hosted over 60,000 visitor weeks, skiing over 2 billion meters.  There are many other heli ski operations but none as experienced and sophisticated as CMH.  Their remote lodges are designed specifically for the heli skier and while they cater to the high end powder consumer, they offer intro weeks and summer heli hiking.  The 14,000 square kilometers of terrain they serve are spectacular and varied, ranging from wide open glaciers to steep trees.  Their staff of 300 create a challenging experience that is second to none.

            After breakfast we prepared for the first lift.  The "Suits" group went first and we followed with a new respect.  The snow had solidified to a 22 % density that was very skiable when untracked but made for some horrendous crud.  The temperature rose to 5 degrees C as the day progressed and the conditions got dangerous.  A couple members in our group got caught in a slow moving, 60 foot wide wet sluff that carried them below the pickup point.  They slogged back wide eyed and dripping in perspiration.  They were unharmed but we missed our lift and had to wait for the helicopter to complete another round with the other groups.  By the end of the day things had set up fairly well but on the last run I followed our guide Diny's line through the trees, straight and efficient but with a sense of adventure and direction.  My legs burned with fatigue but I was determined to follow her to the end.  I missed a turn and then another and before I knew it I was upside down in one of the infamous tree wells.  I frantically pulled my head out and gulped desperately for a breath of fresh air.  From the road just 30 meters below I heard Diny laugh and click her poles, "You almost caught me there flat - lander".


            We awoke in a heavy fog with very poor visibility.  After breakfast they informed us that they couldn't fly in this weather and we were on hold, for an hour, a day or the rest of the week.  It was dangerous up high on the glaciers and too wet below and I think all the guides were spooked from an accident last year at Bobby Burns that killed several guests.  "Better luck next time" one of the "Suits" said to us as we left the lodge.  He did not realize that there probably wasn't a next time for most of us. This was a once in a lifetime adventure.

            We moped back to the animal house for some cards and a breakfast beer.  We were all dejected but we handled the bad news differently.  Denial, anger, grief and acceptance came in waves of varying intensity and length.  The stronger, optimistic members cheered the more despondent.  In two days we had skied over 15,000 meters and had several days to reach our goal.  We knew that this trip was a crap shoot when we committed - weather and machine dependant.  This had happened before on sno-cat and Ruby heli ski trips.  I had personally been getting away from dependency, the resort experience and the Weather Channel.  More often than not I would prefer to strap on a pair of climbing skins to climb and ski when and where I wanted.  In our Wasatch back yard there was limitless perfect skiing to be had, independently, alone and free.  Instead we were wasting our time in the "great white north" listening to the misty rain drip off the roof.

            Just as quickly as the gloom had settled in, the fog lifted slightly and we heard the sound of the helicopter beating its way through the fog.  After lunch we dressed quickly and met at the lodge.  The pilot figured he could hug the trees and slip up one of the draws.  The fog was only 300 meters thick and the sun was shining above.  For safety and logistics all the groups would ski together.  Our spirits soared when we popped through the fog into a brilliantly sunny day.  It was very warm but we had a great time skiing some low angle glades called the "Enchanted Forest".  The snow was thick and wind packed in places but we were glad to be out and about.  A bad day skiing beats a good day doing almost anything else.  The group of "Suits" were having a tough time and they were bitching and moaning and wallowing in the wet snow.  They went back to the lodge first complaining that they, "don't ski crud".

            On our trip down I was allowed to sit in the front and talk with the pilot.  We circled the top of a steep canyon skimming the tree tops, looking for an opening.  The pilot dipped the rotors and we dropped through an imperceptible opening in the clouds into a craggy canyon, between a rock and a blind place.  After a few tense moments we popped out above the lake and were within sight of Mica Creek.  We skimmed the lake surface and sped towards the daily apres ski hors d'oeuvres.  The relief of the mornings depression had made the day especially poignant.  We met the first group outside the lodge looking liked drowned sweathogs in their soggy "Suits".


            This day started like the day before with stretching, breakfast and waiting.  Our spirits were different this day because we knew there was hope.  Although the guides talked about getting vertical credit for our next CMH trip we knew that we would ski this day.  We lounged back at the house watching TV and making calls home to families and businesses.  There was a huge storm in the Wasatch but it was a record 70 degrees in Calgary.  I called my girl at home for her birthday but she could hardly sympathize with me for blowing all our vacation fund on an ill fated boys trip.  We played some hoops and hockey, swam and took saunas and kept our spirits high.

            After lunch we skirted the fog again and went high on the Glacier.  The skiing was fair with a few inches of new snow on low angled, wide open slopes.  The views and the flying however were incredible.  In every direction treeless, craggy mountains stretched to the horizon.  The helicopter flew through several jagged saddles before depositing us on a knife edge ridge.  The details of the upper Columbia trench were explained and the highest visible mountain was pointed out for us (Mt. Robson 3954 M).  We skied together in mass descents, jumping off windrow ridges, laughing and clowning.  This wasn't the greatest skiing on earth but it was new, different and an excellent adventure. 

            That night we walked up the road to a locals night at the B.C. Hydro bar.  The place was packed with people from God knows where, smoking and drinking like there was no tomorrow.  We assimilated quickly and were soon dominating the Foos Ball table.  Diny came in with a few of the ""Suits" and entertained them in a quite corner with her incessant stream of one liners and a belt buckle that read "I don't do cowboys".  We made some great friends and challenged the locals to a game of hockey the next night.  We enlisted some of the guides to play with us for their aerobic capacity and international experience, but were informed by the "Suits" that, they "don't play hockey".  On the way home from the pub we wondered aloud if we would ever be "Suits".  We all hoped not but suspected that it was inevitable.


            Again we waited, but eventually we flew.  This time we flew over to the Selkirk Mountains and the skiing was almost as good as the flying.  The terrain up high was smooth and fast but it got sticky when we ventured into the trees.  We took pictures and videos and had a relaxing day with our guide Dominic.  Dominic ran the Mica Creek operations and appeared unflappable. His ubiquitous pipe was always smoldering in his lips, whether he was serving dinner or digging a snow pit. 

            That night we beat the locals in basketball (Noufies can't jump) but we were destroyed in the floor hockey event.  Exasperated by my behind the back Gretzkyesque passing, my swiss guide winger exclaimed "Have a look now and again mate".  Function before form and the international style wins again.  After hockey we found a little sports bar that doubled as a viewing area for the curling courts.  There was a tournament in progress so we drank heavily while we studied the action.  After the tournament it was our turn and we had great difficulties mastering the finesse of throwing and sweeping, let alone just standing on the perfect ice.  The locals looked on in polite disgust at the ugly Americans but had seen enough when my partner, Chubby, lost his footing and crashed to the ice with his hands in his pockets.  Luckily one of the "Suits" was an orthopedic and correctly diagnosed the torn ligament.  Chubby's week was over and we all took it hard.  Even the "Suits" sympathized and each bought Chubby a beer to which we reciprocated with a fine Merlot or hearty single malt.


            We were able to fly after only a slight delay as the weather grew cooler and a small front moved through the area.  We concentrated on the upper glaciers that we had grown to love.  We admitted that we could always ski steep trees at home but the wide expansive glaciers were unobtainable anywhere in the USA.  Each run was several miles long and dropped several hundred meters.  The skiing was easy enough that we could look around and enjoy the scenery.  We grew comfortable with the heli ski rhythm, the orange drinks and granola after every run, the sack lunches out in the middle of a sunny flat spot, the relaxed pace of the group with no concerns for maximum vertical.  We missed our leader and mentor, Chubby, and felt the break in the group continuity but took videos that we shared with him when we got back to Mica Creek.  They had a bit of a last night party at the lodge but we left early to go back to the house to wrestle and play cards.


            We flew in the morning and skied above the trees in a stormy white-out that gave us odd feelings of vertigo.  The "Suits" went in after they were sure that they had logged their 30,000 meters for the week.  We skied a few extra runs for the love of the sport, the terrain, and the company.  After we had returned, changed clothes and packed our bags there was a award ceremony where we all received our 30,000 meter pins and several others received "Suits".  Seventy percent of CMH's business is return customers not only for the great skiing but for the brilliant marketing that turns powder skiers into vertical hounds and eventually "Suits".  On the bus ride back to Calgary I reflected that some people appreciate the game, the hunt, or the climb but others focus on the final score, the kill or the summit.  To us it was the experience, the disappointment, the triumphs and the adversity that was important, not the notch in our belts.  We enjoyed the week for the skiing, the scenery, the hockey, the companionship and the adventure.  The "Suits" were figuring how they would boast to their friends at work or at the local ski hill.  Skiing could be enjoyed at many levels, for many reasons, each as valid as the next. We smiled at each other, smug in the comfort of our shared experience, which we knew we could never relate or reproduce.

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