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 Heliskiing and Cat Skiing for Novices 
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Post Heliskiing and Cat Skiing for Novices
Heliskiing and Cat Skiing for Novices
by: Lachlan Brown

This article is directed to all skiers who have either an unsatisfied craving for powder skiing or who want to become powder skiers. Backcountry skiing may provide your Nirvana. Prior experience is not required and there is lots of opportunity for intermediate skiers!

Is backcountry skiing for me? Can I do it? Is it safe? We'll speak to your fears and help answer your questions. Perhaps backcountry skiing is the answer to your prayers. Perhaps it is very much for you and you can easily do it. Perhaps it is really quite safe, at least relative to what you already do in life. Read on and find out.

There are thousands of powder skiing enthusiasts around the world who spend their winters waiting patiently for the next "dump", that rare event that deposits more light fresh snow overnight than the groomers can beat down before the lift opens. These patient folk range from intermediate skiers through experts but, irrespective of ability, they all share a love for making first tracks in fresh snow and the only thing that separates them is just how "steep and deep" they like it.

By opening time on those rare "powder days", the lineup at the chairlift can be so long that all the ungroomed runs will be entirely skied out before late arrivals even get on the lift. All over town, employees are phoning in "sick". For the early-birds, there is rarely more than a couple of good runs to be had in "great" untracked snow. It's really not a very encouraging picture!

What's the alternative? How can one get at least a few days a year of really good powder skiing? One choice might be a trip to Utah*(see note below), where "powder days" might be more frequent. However, it's still a horserace to the best snow and by mid-day things are getting a little worn out. Perhaps a better option is to head for the backcountry and its limitless reaches of deep untracked snow.

Some folks have the fitness, training, knowledge, equipment and the time to head for the hills on touring skis, or on downhill skis fitted with heel-release bindings. However, even that involves a heck of a lot of walking and not all that much powder skiing. Also, out-of-bounds skiing is certainly not for everyone that happens to be a fervent "powder hound". Most skiers just don't have the knowledge and experience to be safe in the backcountry, nor do they have the equipment.

The alternatives that really satisfy a "powder lust" are heliskiing and cat skiing. These activities provide a reliable means by which average intermediate and expert skiers can "ski their legs off" and to enjoy lots great powder skiing in deep light snow. Every day, all day long, almost every turn is made in fresh untracked snow. By the end of each day, intermediate skier and expert alike can expect to have very few turns left in them.

There is no question that heliskiing and cat skiing are relatively expensive activities. However, cost varies widely depending on the service provided. At one extreme is a snowcat skiing day-trip that might provide three or four 1500 to 2000 ft descents in the best powder imaginable. At the other extreme is a full-service multi-day heliskiing tour based in a luxurious mountain lodge where ski groups might comprise only 4 to 6 people. In between is a wide range of service with an equally wide price range. Only you can evaluate what a day or a week of great powder skiing is worth to you, what you can afford and which of the many options best meets your needs.

If you could consider a vacation in Mexico or Bermuda or Hawaii or southern France (depending on where you live) then you may well be able to afford a very nice multi-day, fully-guided backcountry ski trip. However, beware that backcountry skiing is highly addictive.

There are over two dozen heliskiing companies and about 16 cat skiing companies in western Canada alone. Most of them are doing quite well, and enjoy good bookings. By and large, these operators rely on intermediate skiers to keep their doors open. The barrier to mechanized backcountry skiing is much more a monetary issue than an issue of skiing prowess, age, fitness and backcountry experience, especially in the case of heliskiing.

Heliskiing and cat skiing do not require any backcountry experience or special equipment. None at all! You don't even need powder skis, just boots and clothing. The operator will supply skis that are well suited for his local conditions. The operator will also supply safety equipment and provide training and experience in its use. The guides handle all the rest.

Age offers no barrier to backcountry skiing. Heli and cat ski operators welcome male and female clients of age ranging from the 20's well into the 80's. Consider that the folks who can afford a high-end heliskiing trip tend not to be "young bucks" who spend their days in the gym and delight in throwing themselves off cliffs. They tend to be more "mature" folk who drive a desk all year and may not be particularly fit, or they may be retirees.

If you can ski almost everything in your local ski area, you probably have more than enough skill to handle backcountry skiing. Style is not important, just a reasonable level of skill and fitness. For heliskiing in particular, you should be able to ski for a day and still be able to walk.

The Web site of Purcell Heliskiing states that, "Skiers should be able to ski groomed blue runs confidently and be physically fit in order to get the most out of their heli-ski adventure". Purcell Helicopters also recommends that, "Snowboarders need to be advanced and able to board at higher speeds comfortably to get the most out of the deep powder conditions".

Powder skiing in the backcountry alpine can be easier than in the local ski resort, because the snow is generally unbroken, light and very consistent. There are no buried moguls to knock you about, or old ski tracks to cross or lumps of piled-up snow to contend with. It does not take long to "get the hang of it". You might encounter some wind crust or sun crust, but your guide will work very hard to avoid it. With heliskiing in particular, your guide will have many options for finding areas of great snow.

Your guide is a real pro! He (or she) is there, not to get some "turns" for himself, but to help you have the greatest ski day of your life. Your guide will select terrain that suits your ability and keeps you safe. However, he/she may challenge you to expand you horizons and improve your skiing.

Your heliski or cat ski operator will attempt to assemble ski groups that are as well matched in ability as possible and your guide will select terrain that suits the skill level of your group. Assembling well-matched groups is simplified when groups of friends book together. Many operators offer a discount to groups of particular size.

During your backcountry ski trip, your skiing will improve, possibly dramatically. The deep consistent snow will permit you to ski slopes that are steeper than you might normally attempt. Your guide will always be attentive to your concerns and can be trusted to find terrain in which you are safe. Some cat-skiing group organizers ski for free.

Tree skiing is a fixture of backcountry skiing. When the weather deteriorates, tree skiing provides the deepest, most protected snow and the best visibility. Some operators offer a predominance of tree skiing and many backcountry skiers prefer skiing the trees to skiing the open alpine slopes.

Generally, tree skiing in the backcountry quite different from tree skiing in your local ski resort. Again, the soft consistency of the snow and the absence of any old tracks and moguls makes all the difference. Also, in many areas, such as the Monashee and Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, trees tend to be large and well spaced and the very deep snow cover buries most of the smaller trees and all of the underbrush. Many intermediate skiers who try tree skiing for the first time find that not only can they do it, but that they come to really enjoy it.

For a novice backcountry skier who is unsure about his or her ability, snowcat skiing offers a very forgiving introduction to backcountry skiing. The snowcat rides between runs are relatively long (15 to 20 min) and are very comfortable. There is lots of time to rest tired legs, to adjust clothing, to warm up or to cool down and to take on food and drink. The snowcat is dedicated to your group, so you can take along changes of clothing and you can always sit out a run and ride back down the hill, either in the comfort of the cab or "up front" with the driver. The cat is never terribly far from the lodge so, if you want to quit early for the day, a staff member will be happy to come on a snowmobile to take you back to the lodge. It's all very relaxed.

On the other side of the coin, groups of expert skiers will find that snowcat skiing can give them a lot of skiing, with some operators able to provide over 20,000 ft a day. Experts will find that they are plenty tired by the end of the day.

Heliskiing can also offer the individual an opportunity to quit early for the day, but not always and sometimes not at all (conveniently). Two or more groups usually share the helicopter, so while you are skiing, the machine is shuttling another group. Compared with cat skiing, trips are shorter and there is not the same opportunity to "rest and re-organize" and to take along changes of clothing.

However, the heliski guide will match the terrain to a groups ability. Often, if a rest is needed, a group can simply skip a run. Alternatively, the guide might use lower landings or higher pickups, in order to "cherry pick" the section of a run which is most suitable for his or her guests. In this way, guides can give novice skiers a comfortable environment in which to learn and progress.

Generally, the greatest concern in backcountry skiing relates to safety. All reputable heliskiing and cat skiing operators and guides take safety very, very seriously. The guides that lead you are well trained and their major purpose and focus is to keep you safe. Guides know their terrain very well, they constantly monitor snow conditions and they compare their findings and conclusions with fellow guides and backcountry operators in neighboring areas. They know what's going on with weather and snow conditions, not only in their own area, but for miles around.

Cat ski and heliski operators develop operating procedures and emergency and communications plans that cover every contingency and all staff are well versed in these plans and procedures. In western Canada, HeliCat Canada (formerly the British Columbia Heli and Snowcat Skiing Operators Association [BCHSSOA]) sets operating and safety policy and procedures for all operators and regularly inspects heliskiing and cat skiing operations to ensure safety standards are met.

The Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) provides much technical training and support to the operators and to the guides and guides' associations. Among other things, the CAA co-ordinates daily delivery of early morning reports covering the entire Province of British Columbia. These reports are based on detailed daily reports from all backcountry operators, as well as government operators such as the Ministry of Highways and ski areas across the Province. These reports predict trends and conditions as changing weather patterns sweep across the Province. Similar provisions and support are provided in other jurisdictions where heliskiing and/or cat skiing is found.

Your heliski or cat ski operator will provide all clients with a transceiver that everyone wears when outside the lodge. The guides will provide training and practice in the use of the emergency equipment and in the on-hill safety procedures. Operators will also provide other safety equipment such as shovels and probes.

At any time, it is common for there to be areas within the ski terrain that at are entirely safe to ski, while other areas impose some degree of risk. There are many factors that affect snow stability and hazard, including the amount and type of precipitation, aspect (north-facing, east-facing, etc.), exposure to sun and wind and exposure to dangers above. Sometimes the issue is not one of snow stability, but one of finding the best skiing. Whatever the issue, safety is at the root of it and the guide's job is to navigate a safe route while finding the best possible skiing. When there is doubt about a particular slope, the guide will simply not ski the "line" in question and will opt for a safer alternative.

It's imperative to follow the guide's instructions. When the guide says, "Keep to the right of my track", there is usually a very good reason for it, one that many not be at all apparent. Then the guide stops to allow his troops to re-group, never ski below the guide's stopping point. He has probably chosen his stopping point for a good reason that you know nothing about. Trust your guide and follow his or her instructions. Your guide will keep you safe and lead you too the very best skiing around.

Many guides feel they are much safer doing their work in the high mountains than they are driving to and from work on our highways.

For a backcountry novice who is unsure about attempting a first heliskiing or cat skiing trip, a prudent approach is to arrange a ski trip to a ski area where there is a backcountry operator that offers day-trips. Try to pick an area to visit that has reliable weather and good snow at the time of your visit. Remember that heli and cat skiing is done at high elevations so, if it rained in town last night, it probably “puked” where you will be skiing. When checking out the local operators, ask about the access time to the first run, the current snow conditions, the number of runs that will be provided and the vertical drop that will be skied. Also, ask if there is good tree skiing in close proximity to the lodge. If it snows and the visibility drops, good tree skiing will be very important. Finally, if you have doubts about your ability or level of fitness, speak to a few operators and ask for their advice. Different operators provide different levels of skiing.

When looking for your first backcountry ski trip, shop around and talk to a number of operators. They will always work hard to give good advice and to help you choose the best venue for your skill and fitness level. Every operator will want you to become a backcountry skier, but no operator will want you in one of their groups, if you will be out of place and become a liability. If you are well placed for your first trip, you will be back next year, a much stronger and more skilled and confident backcountry skier. As we said, backcountry skiing is infectious. Some say, "It's better than sex".

Good luck.

A very experienced heliguide writes, "I think this (the Utah reference) is a myth. The interior BC has as many powder days if not more. Checking the snowfall and smowpack depth statstics breaks the myth. Interior BC has it. Also, the runs are longer in BC and there are far fewer people with less pressure on the land base. ie the fresh snow."

About The Author
Lachlan Brown

Co-authored by Editor and cat skier, Lockie Brown and by Eagle Pass Heliskiing owner and mountain guide, Norm Winter. Lockie has a bio at ... ckie_Brown and Norm's bio is found on his Eagle Pass Web site at:

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Mon Mar 07, 2011 11:24 am
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