R.K. Heli-Ski: A Perfect Day

Panorama (BC), Canada – I was beginning to wonder if it
was really worth getting up in the middle of the night for the coach trip to
R.K. Heli-Ski at the base of Panorama Resort, an Intrawest resort outside of
Invermere, British Columbia, and 2 hours from the comfort of my bed in the Chateau
Lake Louise. This was to be my first time heliboarding, and I had booked the
3-run package, which included transport, breakfast, lunch, safety equipment
rental and instruction, a guide, 3 heli runs and a souvenir certificate and
badge – all for the bargain price of $577 (all prices in Canadian dollars).

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Once the sun came up, it was clear that we’d been really lucky with the weather;
there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Upon arrival at the R.K. Heli building, we unloaded
our stuff from the bus and went inside where we were issued our avalanche transceivers
and sat down for breakfast (as much fried food as you can eat).

The stuff dreams are made of.....

The stuff dreams are made of…..

The view from halfway down "Surfs Up" (tracks clearly visible)

The view from halfway down “Surfs Up” (tracks clearly
visible)

When everyone had finished, we went outside for our safety briefing. We were
split into 2 groups; a group of about 20 skiers and boarders who were to share
the larger helicopter, and a smaller group consisting of 4 other boarders and
myself. We were introduced to our guide, Kris Newman , who told us that we would
have the smaller A Star B2 helicopter to ourselves for the day. He ran through
all of the safety features of the helicopter, including what to do for landings/takeoffs
etc. He then explained how to use our avalanche transceivers and we set about
trying to “find” his rucksack in the car park (although I don’t know how I’d
fare in a real avalanche situation).

Due to weight limitations (you get weighed when you book, as well as having
to sign the biggest liability waiver you’ve ever clapped eyes on), we weren’t
allowed to take our backpacks with us, so before leaving Kris advised us to
put our cameras and anything else we might need into our pockets. We gave our
boards to Kris (the guide is always responsible for loading the skis/boards
into a basket on one side of the helicopter, while you get in the other side)
and we all clambered in.

Before we knew it we were up in the air, circling around the heli-pad and slowly
moving off towards the Coppercrown zone of the massive R.K. Heli area. After
a 10-minute flight, mostly occupied by our yelling “THIS ROCKS!” and
bouncing up and down like kids in a sweet shop, we reached our destination.
We passed around a few mountains while Kris discussed with our pilot, Kim Hyllstad
, the runs that looked best/safest, and which landing site would be suitable.

They eventually decided on one, and Kim landed the helicopter, spraying massive
amounts of snow everywhere. We were to get out of the helicopter while it was
still running, and it would take off and leave us behind (you never have to
walk away from the helicopter while it is still running; you either wait until
it shuts down, or it will take off and leave you behind).

Once Kris had given us the thumbs-up, we all took released our seat belts and
Paul (our designated doorman) got out and held the door open for the rest of
us. While we were getting out, Kris unloaded our boards and the two rucksacks
containing avalanche rescue equipment, one to be carried by him and one by the
person determined by the group to ride last. Once out, we crouched down in the
snow and Paul gave Kim the thumbs up to signal we were all out safely. Kris
did the same once all of the stuff was unloaded and the helicopter took off
in an enormous cloud of white.

Once the noise subsided, we arose from our huddle to discover that we were
at the top of a massive south-facing powder bowl, chock full of sparkling, untouched
powder. Kris advised that this particular run was called “Surfs Up,” and set
about explaining the procedure for riding own, cautioning that we could ride
either side of his tracks just as long as we didn’t ride past him. He also politely
asked if we could refrain from swooping all over the whole bowl, ruining the
snow for other people who might be there after us.

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Kris set off first, followed at a distance by the rest of the group, now with
permanently stupid grins on our faces. The first few powder turns were unforgettable,
turn after turn in deep, untouched snow, bouncing from one side to the next
with huge waves of snow flying from under our boards.

About a third of the way through our descent, Kris stopped to allow us to regroup
and take a few pictures. Throughout the day, Kris was an outstanding guide,
photographer and film director all rolled into one, using our cameras and Dave’s
video camera at every available opportunity to capture as much footage as possible.

We set off again down to the bottom of the bowl, towards a narrower section
through some trees. The snow in the last section was still really deep, but
we had to follow Kris’ line much more closely, as he was navigating around the
odd rock and a small creek which ran through the trees (during the day, if there
was a flatter section, Kris would tell us well in advance and usually go first
to bash out some tracks to help us snowboarders along a bit).

INCOMING!

INCOMING!

Before we knew it we were at the landing site 1,800 vertical feet lower than
the landing site, and Kris explained the procedure for a “hot pickup”. We all
gave our boards to Kris, who stood about 15-20 feet away, and we all gathered
together in our nice tight huddle peering over our shoulders to get a view of
the helicopter as it descended to a landing (our faces now beginning to ache
from smiling too much). Initially, as the helicopter approaches everything is
quiet, but once it gets below a certain height the noise becomes deafening and
snow is blown into every available space (a nice tight huddle is essential at
this point). Kim put the helicopter down between Kris and us, with our door
about 4 or 5 feet away from us. Once the helicopter had settled into the snow,
Paul opened the door and we all clambered in one by one and we set off towards
the top of our next run. This type of pickup is by far the most exhilarating
and intense part of the whole heli experience, almost eclipsing the riding itself
(almost). I tell you, when you’ve had a helicopter land 5 feet from your head,
your life is never quite the same again!

We flew low through the mountains, passing by our first run with our tracks
clearly visible in the snow below (in fact, the only tracks we saw all day were
our own). By now we’d gone through all the usual comments of first time heli-skiers/boarders:

“That rocked”

“That was better than sex”

“I don’t want to go home”

“You’ve got the best job ever" (To Kris….. he has, by the way).

Following further discussion between Kim and Kris, we descended toward the
top of our next run. Instead of getting out of the helicopter while it was running,
we waited until it shut down, and all got out for a much deserved tea break
(All the food and drink for the whole day was carried on board the helicopter,
as we didn’t return to base until we’d finished). Our second run was called
“Christmas”, which again consisted of a huge powder bowl with a flatter, tighter
drainage through the forest just before the pickup site. At 2,500 feet of vertical
drop, we also covered more ground than on the first run. Kris again skied down
first, but this time with the video camera to filmed us all riding down.

Waiting for the pickup at the bottom of "Christmas"

Waiting for the pickup at the bottom of “Christmas”

Lunch with a view

Lunch with a view

At the bottom, we waited briefly while Kris chopped a few small trees which
were impeding the pickup site, and we flew to the top of the Melody/Coppercrown
runs – which was also to be our lunch stop. Dining consisted of immense sandwiches,
chocolate bars, cookies and hot honey tea. Over our meal, Kris explained that
the small trees he chopped down at the landing site were not small trees, but
in fact the top 2 feet of 10 foot trees!

The view from lunch was outstanding, as we must have been able to see for 100
miles in every direction without a cloud in sight. While eating, both Kim and
Kris advised that they only get a handful of days in a year with such perfect
conditions. It was so warm (-5°C) and sunny that Kris passed around the sun
cream at one point.

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Kris took a few pictures of us standing next to the helicopter with our boards
before it was time for our third and “last” run, “Coppercrown”. Initially, we
had to traverse a bit to avoid some avi debris set off by R.K. Heli to make
the run rideable. This run didn’t have a flatter section at the bottom, but
instead dropped onto another, steeper slope following our mid-run pause. Kris
took the video camera and skied down through the trees at the side of the run
to leave the snow untouched for us.

Jacqui hit the steeper pitch first, opting to avoid a small cornice entrance
via a slightly flatter section which Kris had made for her. I was the first
to drop the lip, stomping the landing and cruising down the steep slope to where
Kris and Jacqui were waiting. Once we’d ridden down to the pickup site, we realized
that this should have been our thirrd, and last run. Obviously we were all dying
to do more runs, as there was plenty of time left (extra runs are a ridiculous
$59 each).

By now we were all shouting “TAKE MY CREDIT CARD AND BLEED IT DRY!
All agreed on a fourth run, we called for the heli and flew back to our lunchtime
landing site with the intention of riding the run called “Melody”, which starts
at the same place as “Coppercrown” but trickles down a different face of the
mountain. General consensus was that we definitely liked the steeper part of
the last run best, so this route promised to be a good ‘un.

The avalanche danger was obviously greater on the steeper slope, especially
with 5 snowboarders hurtling down it. Kris instructed us to ride down the first
third of the run one by one to reduce the avalanche risk, all the time still
filming us. During the middle third of the run Kris slowly snow-plowed down,
holding the video camera and letting us overtake him so he could get some decent
action shots.

The bottom third of the run descended a drainage like a giant 25 foot tall
half pipe – bloody brilliant, you could go all the way up the sides making massive
tracks in the powder. The sun was starting to go down by now and Kris took advantage
of the hour by filming us from the pickup site with the sunlight reflecting
off the snow we were all kicking up.

When we got to the pickup site, Dave looked at his watch and it was only 2:40,
so we opted for a 5th run (this was to be the last one…honest). After consultation
with Kris, we decided on a combination of the steep top part of Melody and the
steep bottom part of Coppercrown, which included the cornice drop. We rode this
one pretty fast because we already knew the basic layout of the terrain – we
rode at a reasonable pace all day, generally stopping for safety reasons so
that Kris could point out the route for the next section. There were still tons
of fresh, untouched snow to be had, not much danger of that one ever getting
tracked out!

Kris let us ride the last half of the run first, while he stopped at the top
to film us riding down. I didn’t land the drop this time, instead opting to
perform my signature “Mute Grab to Face Plant”. We rode back to the pickup site
and the chopper was already there (getting in a stationary heli is not quite
as exhilarating). After taking a few last minute pictures, we flew back to base
where we were presented with our certificates and badges (as well as the bill
for our extra runs). While we were waiting for the other group to get back we
watched the video that Kris had made for us, drank 5 pitchers of beer, sat in
the R.K. Heli teepee (!!) and drank whisky through an ice sculpture (!!!) before
boarding the bus back to Lake Louise.

All in all, it really was the perfect day.

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