I thought it would be a good way to cure my fear of heights.
A friend and I were skiing in Rockies of Alberta, challenging the slopes of Lake Louise and Sunshine. One night, after a couple of shots in front of the roaring fire at our lodge in the town of Canmore, Hal said, “I think we should try heli-skiing.”
I gulped and pictured myself in a wobbly helicopter battered by mountain winds. Panic rising, I did the guy thing. “Sure,” I said.
Two days later, we rose inhumanly early to drive the 160 km to Golden, British Columbia, travelling along mountain switchbacks where I’d would look down and see clouds floating beneath us. “Beautiful view,” I squeaked.
At the heli-skiing operator’s, I eyed our helicopter on the tarmac and swallowed. My unease increased when I heard the rumour that our guide, whom I’ll call Emil, had lost several people, including his brother, in an avalanche during a heli-sking trip he was guiding. How hard would he work to keep us alive?
Before taking off, our group of three other skiers, Hal and I were given avalanche transceivers. These broadcast a signal that would be used to help find an avalanche-buried skier, should the rest of us be spared. We practised working together to find a buried transceiver.
Armed with a shaky master of this skill, we took off for the Purcell Mountains. Our pilot was a Vietnam vet. To me this meant he was someone used to taking crazy chances, flying directly into danger. My knuckles turned white on a handgrip by the helicopter door.
We approached our first peak, blazing white in the beautiful sunshine, and then kept circling it. Emil announced we were waiting for an updraft to give us enough lift to make it onto the peak. Great.
After landing, the pilot threw our skis onto the snow. One by one we disembarked, mindful of Emil’s earlier advice not to jump out lest we get beheaded by the propeller whirling above us. As I crouched my way forward I could see that the skis had landed right by a a rounded cornice of snow that overhung a sheer drop of I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of feet.
Picturing myself doing a long, screaming, death plunge, I dropped to my knees and reached for my skis with trembling hand. Beside me, Emil walked straight to the precipice and jumped on the overhanging ledge of snow. Some frozen chunks dropped into the abyss and then he jumped back to safety.
I knew then that Emil was completely insane.
We finally put on our skis on and started our descent of a steep slope well above the tree line, in thigh-deep powder snow. This was a new experience for someone who grew up skiing the hills of Ontario, scraped bare and icy by crowds and wind. Rather than doing fast, carved turns I had to learn to ‘float’ my way through them. After a few tumbles, I got into the groove and began to do a series of languid, linked turns as I dreamed of flight through the clouds.
But all dreams come to an end. I woke abruptly with the approaching tree line. A regular ski resort would have nice trails cut through the woods. Not so here. While I was learning to do leisurely turns through the open powder, I was worried about my ability to do the fast, sharp ones needed to avoid crashing into trees.
My survival instinct told me to follow Emil. He knew the way, right? But I saw the guide rocket through the trees at full speed and go flying out of his bindings when his skis got caught in tree roots. I decided to make my own way to the helicopter meeting spot.
After a couple of descents down different mountains, we took a break for lunch in a valley. As the group of us started into a boisterous recounting of our adventures so far, we were shushed by Emil, who whispered that the slopes around us were ripe for avalanche, so we should keep our voices down. I looked at the towering peaks, buried deep under tons of threatening snow, and thought about the roaring noise of the helicopter landing and picking us up…
Luckily, the avalanche didn’t come. We did a few more runs and had a day I’ll never forget… and will never repeat, despite the 20 odd years I’ve had to get over my self-imposed aversion therapy. I still break out in a sweat thinking of my trembling hand reaching for the skis by the precipice. Were I to man up and decide to try heli-skiing again, I’d start planning my trip at heliski.com. But you should feel free to pursue this adventure of a lifetime. Make sure you have a will.
Author Bio: Peter G. is a Toronto writer for LaCure Villas who obsesses over whether it is better to go skiing in winter or to escape to a luxury villa vacation in a warm clime.