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Skiing with God

Christine Stanley
Sierra Sun
Courtesy Bella Coola Heli SportsOne of three A-Star choppers contracted by Bella Coola Heli Sports drops Christine Stanley and four other skiers at the top of a run measuring more than 3,000 vertical feet. The powder is endless here in British Columbia's Coast Mountains.
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I don’t stop ” won’t stop ” until the burning sensation nearly cripples me. I can’t control my laughter, and somewhere in front of me, lost in a plume of power, someone is shrieking a guttural “Waaahoooooo!” It’s 12 degrees out here but if I don’t get these gloves off soon, I swear my hands will melt. Sweat is slipping down my spine.

Finally, 3,500 vertical feet later, it ends. My legs are screaming, I’m gulping for breath, and damn it if I can’t stop grinning.

This adventure I’m on is called a ski trip, but I’ve been skiing my entire life in places like Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley and Zermatt, and have never ” ever ” had an experience like this. So now I’m wishing that this version of the sport ” heliskiing ” had a name all its own.

Buried in the enormity of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains is a modest adventure operation with a big story. Bella Coola Heli Sports offers a 1.5-million acre Alpine shrine into which die-hard powder hounds venture to praise the snow gods.

The whole thing got started when owner Peter “Swede” Mattsson got hooked up with the boys of Matchstick Productions and a couple “exploratory visas.” A few epic ski movies later, commercial heliskiing was born.

Bless you, Swede, bless you.

Out here, the power is deep enough to swallow you whole, and my God it goes on forever. The severity of the elements and the expanse of peaks are striking, and when the whirlybird drops you at the top of the world and flies away, the feeling of insignificance is overwhelming.

I’m pretty sure I’m not going to die out here, but still I can’t help imagining the possibility, especially considering that the topo map I spotted in the chopper didn’t have any place names on it.

My guide knows where we are, right?

I asked this question later to receive the answer of “usually.”

Down we go; 2,000 vertical feet. Now 3,000; nearly 4,000. Perfect zipper turns, side-by-side. Too many to count ” hundreds in a single run, maybe thousands in a day. My father, the most ski-obsessed man I know, logged more than 100,000 vertical feet out here in just three days.

Every face-shot is worth the cost, but I’ve got to tell you that this trip was not cheap ” about $1,000 a day. Consider, though, that the price tag includes enough jet fuel to power a small fleet of A-Star helicopters for as long as your swelling quadriceps can hack it, and gourmet feasts that are better than your mama’s. Oh yea, and a hot tub, a massage therapist and a big refrigerator full of beer.

All that good stuff is waiting for you in the warmth of the Tweedsmuir Lodge and its unassuming cluster of little log cabins. The chopper will practically drop you on the front deck, so you only have to drag your failing muscles a few feet before crashing in front of the fireplace and a spread of chocolates, smoked salmon and cheese.

The cabins are cozy, but not too small, so there is plenty of room to kick off your boots and relax after a hard day’s work. Don’t stay up too late (not that you’re physically able); we’ve got to do this all again tomorrow.

Or, at least we hope.

We booked a full seven-day week for this journey, but for the first three days our group of 15 is grounded by stormy weather. It’s the chance you take. But the guides here know how to deal with Mother Nature, so heli-flyfishing is this week’s fall-back sport. Who’d have thought.

On day four, the weather breaks. The Jack Daniel’s is gone, but the sorrow of that realization dissipates instantly as the sky clears to blue.

I can’t get in and out of that chopper fast enough. Run after run after mile-long run. I’m 5-feet tall and the snow is so deep that at times I have to quit my perfect powder-8s because I am literally choking as I laugh and huff and suck snow. Shoot if I forgot my snorkel. It’s up my nose and down my pants, and it might as well be Hawaiian ocean water because it feels so good.

Every run is the best run of my life.

And still, an underlying trepidation remains.

Beneath my jacket, strapped to my torso, the red avalanche transceiver pulses silently. There is a shovel and a probe in the pack on my back. I pray we don’t need this stuff, but on day two I almost lose my deal with God.

Woody, my intrepid guide, set off an avy that looked non-menacing from my vantage point above the slide, but which sent him into a chain-smoking tizzy below. It turned out to be a fairly sized event ” a 1.5 ” big enough to bury a person and ruin your day. Thankfully, neither occurred.

Avalanche danger is ever present here, where temperature changes can be quick and dramatic, and snow can fall for days on end, collecting in countless couloirs, chutes and sheer faces. It’s for that reason that the majority of heliskiing occurs on lightly sloped runs and away from looming crags and heavy-laden peaks.

Upon returning home from the trip, a friend and fellow skier asked me if, since we couldn’t throw ourselves of cliffs and straight-line down shoulder-wide chutes, it was worth going.

I couldn’t respond. I just looked at him dumb-founded.

Was he not listening to a word I had said?

Skiing in Bella Coola isn’t about racing, and hucking and GNAR points.

It’s about the electric blue glow of glacial ice. It’s about the absence of human existence beyond the scope of your own eye. It’s about seeing God ” whatever your version of him might be ” in the kaleidoscope of snow particles that dance on air like a breath of diamonds.

And more than all that romantic garb, heliskiing is about the lightest, whitest, driest, coldest, deepest, most indescribably uber-fantastic snow on the whole freaking planet, so why are you still reading this and not packing your bags?!

Who to book: Bella Coola Heli Sports can tailor a ski trip to fit your desires. Private tours allow for groups of up to 15 to have exclusive use of the helicopters and lodge, while new friends can be made through semi-private tours in which machines and facilities are shared. Heli-trips are three to seven days, and, weather permitting, you are able to ski the day you arrive and the day you depart.

When to go: Mother Nature tends to win, but if you head to Bella Coola between late February and early April, you’re more likely to draw the long straw. The days are also longer at this time of year, which means the hot tub will be lit until nearly 8 p.m. Bella Coola is a 75-minute flight from Vancouver on Pacific Coastal Airlines and the outfitter guides will pick you up upon arrival.

Choose your own adventure:

Reservations for the 2007-2008 season are already near 60 percent capacity, so booking soon would be a smart idea.

For more, check out http://www.bellacoolahelisports.com


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