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Heli-Ski Trip of a Lifetime in British Columbia’s Mountains with Mike Wiegele Heli Skiing

Heli-Skiing

My Heli-Skiing Adventure with Mike Wiegele, in British Columbia’s Cariboo and Monashee Mountains: the ultimate ski experience.

In This Article You Will Discover:

  • Where To Find The Best Skiing & Snowboarding in the World
  • How to Access This Terrain
  • What To Expect When You Go Heli-Skiing
  • Tips & Advice To Help You Make the Most of Your Trip

The sun has not yet breached the long winter solstice night, leaving early morning temperatures hovering below -20 degrees Celsius. In the town of Blue River, some 200 km north of Kamloops, British Columbia, stars are emblazoned in the sky, and there is total silence — until the Bell 212 helicopters fire up. The cacophonic chop-chopping of their blades grows louder with their increasing speed, tearing though the night in unison with the first glimmers of light.

As if responding to a mechanized rooster, skiers and riders exit their chalets to gather together near the main landing pad. It is a mish-mash of the snow-crazed; homes as far away as Venice , and as close as Vancouver . I am from the latter, speaking not a coherent word of Italian, German or Austrian; although the language barrier is irrelevant. In the snow, we all speak the same tongue. And we are all here for the same reason: helicopter skiing with the icon of the industry, Mike Wiegele. The choppers are powered up, full of fuel and ready to lift.

Stomachs twisted in anticipation, we board to watch Blue River vanish and a million acres of untouched powder appear.

Fresh Tracks

Fresh tracks in deep powder – every run!

Backcountry Skiing, Version 2.0

Thirty-six years ago, a young Austrian immigrant named Mike Wiegele had a predicament. While he loved skiing British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains, having moved to the region via Eastern Canada from Austria in the mid-‘60s, accessing the champagne powder was a chore — often the bounty of a two-day traverse that left him and his buddies almost too exhausted to make decent downhill turns. He needed a better, faster mode of backcountry travel to log the vertical he longed for. Enter the helicopter, and former two-day treks took mere minutes. It instantly filled a niche, albeit it small at the time, and a new facet of the ski industry was born. However, for Wiegele, snow-filled BC was 1.5 times larger and far less populated than his native Austria — where would he base his operation?

“I’d been hearing these stories about Blue River for a long time,” says Wiegele. He had also heard about a Norwegian family who had ski-toured the area for years. Looking further, he connected with “Grandma” Molly Nelson. An amateur meteorologist, Nelson had kept records of precipitation, wind, snowfall and sunshine in the Monashees and Cariboos for years. It was at this time that Wiegele saw the potential of Blue River as the perfect heli-ski location. Not only was it blessed with abundant snow, but the weather was conducive to flying, meaning less probable down days than anywhere else.

The Cariboos and Monashees can see up for 30 feet of accumulated snowfall in a season, and certainly 15 to 20 feet is expected. Geographically speaking, it is an area in the province where high precipitation and low temperatures meet in perfect unison.

This powder paradise would be the new home and base of operation for Wiegele and his skeleton crew of followers. It would give birth to a new era in backcountry skiing, and backcountry skiing took a new form.

Heli Adventure

Jumping in a Bell 212 Helicopter and blasting to 9,000 feet in elevation is an experience not soon forgotten.

“I am committed to the ‘soul’ of skiing,” says Wiegele, who still guides guests at the age of 67. “To enjoy the true freedom of skiing, to return to nature’s purest form of backcountry wilderness. There is nothing like the whisper of the wind and the hiss of the skis sliding through the snow. To experience these moments is sacred.” Few skiers have the expendable time or the expertise to trek for days into the wilderness to experience this state; so necessity mothered, as she so often will, this backcountry invention.

“I am committed to the ‘soul’ of skiing,” says Wiegele, who still guides guests at the age of 67. “To enjoy the true freedom of skiing, to return to nature’s purest form of backcountry wilderness. There is nothing like the whisper of the wind and the hiss of the skis sliding through the snow. To experience these moments is sacred.”

Deep Powder

Deep powder snow is the norm, not the exception.

If asked where his tenure was in those early days, although based in the Cariboo/Monashee area, Wiegele may respond with a laugh — “All of BC.” Totally new and essentially unregulated, the government really didn’t know how to handle a request for a helicopter skiing tenure when Wiegele finally asked in the 1970s. This lack of bureaucratic foresight has left skiers who visit Blue River with more room to make their turns than anywhere else in the world. At Wiegele’s, as many as 12 helicopters access more than 1,000 peaks and runs in an area encompassing about 8,300 square km. To break it down: that’s more than 250 times larger than Whistler and Blackcomb combined, with a maximum of 135 guests skiing within it at any given time.

The enormousness of this tenure came to sudden light when my lead guide, Ger- man-born Stefan Kreuzer, witnessed me on the first day out admiring the expansive mountains from atop a glacier, some 8,500 feet above sea level.

“You’ve only seen about two per cent of the total area,” he said with a smile. After five years guiding at Wiegele, and 25 years in Canada, it’s clear his admiration of the natural environs has not diminished. While living his summers in Nelson, he, like other guides, skis six days a week for 20 weeks a year — minimum. On his days off?

“Sometimes I go ski touring,” he laughed. Wiegele finds people like Kreuzer by sorting through hundreds of applications each year from potential guides living in every alpine nation in the world. Once the few who qualify are hired, each year starts off with a 10-day paid training period — for everyone, novice or veteran — followed by a 10-day “unofficial” training period. “Mike allows us to stay an extra 10 days [pre-season], and get our room and board paid for while we train more,” Kreuzer said. “We don’t get paid, but most still choose to stay.” There’s no rest for the wicked skier; every morning the guides meet and discuss the weather, snow pack and general conditions in such depth it would make a meteorologist balk, and every afternoon they recap the day, noting what they saw, and what they predict for the days to come. Helicopter “down days” see guides not relaxing in the lodge with their guests, but running avalanche drills and crevasse rescue training. It is this training that allows guests such a breathtaking backcountry experience.

Snow Drunk

Self-portrait of the author, snow drunk at 9,000 feet above sea level.

Two per cent of the available terrain. It is a statement that is almost unbelievable, given the panoramic view the bluebird day has granted. Mountains sit enormous around me, like gods enormous. Jagged granite peaks whipped clean of snow by the wind tower over glaciers blanketed so perfectly in white they seem not ice and snow, but oil and canvas. In all directions there are only peaks, valleys, trees and endless powder. It had been two weeks since the last storm, and still there was nothing but untracked terrain.

Mountains sit enormous around me, like gods enormous. Jagged granite peaks whipped clean of snow by the wind tower over glaciers blanketed so perfectly in white they seem not ice and snow, but oil and canvas. In all directions there are only peaks, valleys, trees and endless powder. It had been two weeks since the last storm, and still there was nothing but untracked terrain.

Runs are marked not with a sign, but with the eye — you envision yourself dropped off atop an ice field, skiing down the steep face, traversing toward a rock outcrop, then further down into the tree line, through tightly spaced cedar and fir, and finishing at the valley bottom. Three- thousand vertical feet disappear in a run, 20,000 easily go by in a day. The record for vertical feet logged in a day? Better do some squats — it’s a thigh-twisting 363,000 vertical feet.

Catching Air

Jumps, bumps and hits can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Heli-Skiing Paradise

Flying into the mountain terrain from the Heli Village, there is an electricity in the cockpit of the chopper that has nothing to do with the static charge carried in the fuselage nor the avalanche beacon strapped around my chest. I exchange anxious and excited glances with my compatriots: a five-member Swiss national bobsleigh team, here on their second trip to Blue River, Mauro Czavro (l’Italiano Uno, as he became known) and his two sons, avid skiers and riders from Venice. We set down, and our tail guide, ex-pro snowboarder and Whistler transplant Brett Carpantier, slides the door open, signalling us out. We pile out of the chopper like commandos in a foreign land — our weapons of choice are not guns, but fat powder skis and boards; our mission is not to kill, but to truly live.

In one last push the helicopter lifts off as the nine of us huddle together mere inches from its side. An inversion is at play in the mountains today; we had left the frigid village, which at 7:00 a.m. had been -26 Celsius, and arrived in a comparably tropical minus-two in the alpine. No clouds are seen, just the sun starbursting over the desolate peaks to the east and pushing the still-vibrant moon into its western descent.

A hurricane of ice crystals sting the face as the machine-gunning of the chopper fades — then we are alone; so far from the chaos of our daily lives even the heaviest stress-load seems to lift off and vanish with the chopper. Outstretched before our group is a rolling, smooth and untracked expanse.

We step into our bindings, and follow Kreuzer into bliss.

Watch and Learn

Heli-skiing can be regimented, but the fresh turns are worth it.

Although the last big snowfall had come two weeks previous, sub-zero temperatures kept the snow light, if only a little wind-compacted in some areas. The first turns are made, magic. Like signing our names on God’s canvas we leave snaky figure-eights down hundreds, then thousands of vertical feet of terrain. The Swiss scream. The Italians join in — viva l’Italiano — and before I know it, I am hollering too.

By the end of the first day, even after our avalanche transceiver training, general orientation and helicopter safety meeting, we skied 18,500 vertical feet of pure powder, with our highest drop at 8,700 feet. “Be patient,” Kreuzer says. “On the first day we do a lot of talking.” Once the guides become comfortable with you, and you them, the skiing becomes freer, more unrestricted. The stops become less frequent, the terrain edgier and the powder, deeper.

By the end of the first day, even after our avalanche transceiver training, general orientation and helicopter safety meeting, we skied 18,500 vertical feet of pure powder, with our highest drop at 8,700 feet.

This soon proves true, as on day two, we log 22,500 feet of vertical. The centrepiece of the day? In one run, from a drop at 8,400 feet to the eventual pickup at 5,000, we ski three worlds: the sparse and stunning alpine, where we stood with the a smug- ness befitting Sir Edmund Hilary; to the outskirts of the treeline, where the first signs of life other than your own come in the form of wind-beaten evergreens; into the thick of the subalpine forest — tall trees keep powder fresh, and we launch in choreographed recklessness over stumps and snow-covered branches into pillows of champagne powder. Ecstasy.

Weigele World

As night and skiers return to the village, it becomes a veritable winter wonderland. Starting with rustic accommodations in the early 1970s, Wiegele has since built a town within a town; his 28-building Heli Village. The log cabin architecture is topped with snow and adorned with white lights — like Santa’s village; it is welcoming, picturesque almost to the point of being cutesy.

Forty kilometres to the north is Wiegele’s latest addition, Albreda Lodge, named for the tenure’s highest peak, 10,090-foot Mount Albreda. Available for private bookings, this piece de la resistance has its own helicopter landing pad and amenities to spare, if you’ve got the cash spare. According to General Manager Andy Aufshaiter, it was built not only to serve private groups, but also to protect the northern boundaries of Wiegele’s operating tenure. “Our area is so large, that if the government feels we’re not using it properly, they may offer it away,” he said on the half-hour drive to Albreda from the main village. Future plans include similar accommodations at the southern terminus.

Steep and Deep

The author enjoys some steep powder turns, heading for the treeline.

It’s true that Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing may be posh, hosting film crews from Warren Miller each year, the World Powder 8 Championships, at times preposterously wealthy families (the Waltons, owners of Wal-Mart, were present during my stay), pro skiers (the late Shane McConkey and his father spend time up there in recent years) and, when you consider the five-star dining and lush accommodations, it hints at a rather “soft” adventure. But there is no denying the rush that comes when a Bell 212 descends on top of you in a cyclone of snow to rocket you back up to as high as eight, nine and 10,000 feet and offers up a smorgasbord of powder bigger and richer than anywhere in the world. It would take days to traverse into the terrain accessed in minutes via these helicopters, and the vertical feet one logs in a day cannot be equalled. Although repeat business is at 65 per cent, this is your trip of a lifetime — each and every time you make it. It is the ski equivalent of choosing Don Perignon over bulk wine. It is eye-opening, life changing. Your body may return home after only a few days, but the mind remains, trapped by the mountains’ siren song.

They are calling to me even now.

Maybe, I never left.

Group Photo

Our heli-skiing group poses for the camera as the chopper lands in the background.

TIPS:

  • The guides are minimum level three instructors who ski more powder in one season than you will in three. if they have a ski tip for you, swallow your pride and listen.
  • You’re in unfamiliar terrain, with unmarked hazards — why wreck your planks when you can use rentals?
  • Listen to your guide. if he tells you not to ski somewhere, don’t ski there. you could be endangering yourself and your group.
  • Put your goggles on during pick- ups and drop offs, unless you like ice crystals hitting your eyes at 100 km/h.
  • Layer up, but don’t overdo it. skiing powder will get you sweating, so dress for a chilly January day at your local hill, and carry a small pack with a little extra.
  • December has the lowest rates and the fewest guests, but April has the best weather and most stable snow pack.
  • Three-day trips are the most affordable, but try to do a five-day. That way, you can comfort- ably allow a couple of days to get accustomed to the skiing, and a down-day doesn’t take up a third of your trip.
  • Avalanche safety gear is provided, as is instruction, so backcountry newbies can visit without worry.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

2 comments… add one
  • reg May 4, 2010

    That’s sweet… but too expensive.

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