Snowcat vs. Heli

Heliskiing and snowcat
skiing are perhaps the sport’s ultimate vacation, but each carries distinct
advantages and disadvantages for the experienced adventure seeker. The choices
at times can seem overwhelming. Let’s look at the world of British Columbia
beyond the chairlifts.



Let’s start with a geography lesson.  Highway
5 is the demarcation between the Cariboo and Monashee mountain ranges.  The
Cariboos are west of Hwy. 5 and are the northernmost range used for heliskiing.  Crescent Spur and Robson Helimagic heliskiing operations are
in the northern Cariboos near Valemount.  The Monashees are east of Hwy. 5
and follow the west side of the Columbia River to well south of Revelstoke. 
Mike Wiegele’s permit area surrounds the town of Blue River along Highway
5.  The Selkirks are across the Columbia from the Monashees, home to the Selkirk-Tangiers
heliski area across the Columbia River from CMH Revelstoke.  East of that
is Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park, where only backcountry skiing is
permitted.  The Purcells are farther east, parallel to Hwy. 95 from Golden
in the north nearly to the U.S. border in the south.  Purcell Heliskiing is
near Golden and RK Heliskiing is in the Purcells just south of the Bugaboos. 
Great Canadian heliskiing and Chatter Creek snowcat are located north of Golden.

As a generalization, the Cariboos and Purcells
offer mostly alpine and glacier skiing (the tree line is lower at 5,500 to
6,000 feet of elevation), while the Monashees are most famous for their tree
skiing.  In the Selkirks the proportion of tree to alpine skiing varies by
latitude, ranging from mostly trees at Kootenay to mostly alpine at the Adamants. 
Great Northern snowcat skiing is between Kootenay and Galena, and there are
four other snowcat operators in the Selkirks east and south of Kootenay. 
Fernie and Island Lake Lodge snowcat are at the southeast corner of B.C.
in the Lizard Range, which has a localized microclimate similar to the southern
Selkirks.  TLH to the west is much farther from the coast than
Whistler and similar to the Cariboos and Purcells in glaciated terrain.  I’m
sure I’ve left out some operators, but by location and altitude one can make
an educated estimate of the terrain.


The obvious difference is cost (all quotes converted
to U.S. dollars).  Most B.C. snowcat operators will cost about $1,000 for
a 3-day all-inclusive package.  A 3-day heliski guarantee would run about
$1,800, but with cooperative weather expect to spend an additional $300-$400
for an extra 15,000 to 20,000 vertical feet.  The normal CMH package is an
all-inclusive week including transport from the Delta Calgary Airport Hotel
with typical cost of $4,000 at operations based in town hotels and up to $5,000
at remote lodge operations.  Single-day cat skiing without lodging is $200-$300,
or $400-500 for a heli with a low guarantee of 10,000 vertical feet or so.

photo: Brian Anglin

photo: Brian

photo: Marc Guido

photo: Marc Guido


photo: Brian Anglin

photo: Brian

photo: Brian Anglin

photo: Brian

The major uncertainty of heliskiing is weather. 
In most seasons Canadian heli operators average less than one no-fly day per
week. One of the people I skied with at CMH Kootenay had been to six different
CMH operations, always for the whole week, and there is some compelling logic
for doing that if you can afford it.  Losing a day to weather is not uncommon,
but over a week you’ll make it up with plenty to spare, unlike you may on
a 3-day trip.  He said you can burn out, but then you just take a day off. 
The standard week guarantee is 100,000 vertical feet, and at a typical CMH
operation you would get that pretty easily in 4-5 days of skiing.  He had
never failed to make the guarantee on his other trips.

Heliskiing offers a greater assurance of powder
snow, with vast permit areas and access to higher altitudes.  The mobility
can allow greater variety as well as quantity of skiing vs. a snowcat.  In
particular, snowcats range no more than 1,000 vertical feet above timberline. 
If you want predominantly glacier skiing, you should go for the heli.  A possible
exception is Chatter Creek snowcat in the Purcells, where a helicopter is
used to transport skiers to its remote lodge.

Canadian snowcat permit areas tend to be much
larger than their U.S. counterparts and it would be quite rare for them to
get tracked out.  At typically low snowcat altitudes there is a risk of spring
conditions by March if it hasn’t snowed recently.  I therefore recommend sticking
to January and February for advance booking a snowcat trip.  Untracked midwinter
powder really does stay light and dry for a couple of weeks in interior B.C.,
hard as that may be for us in southern or coastal climates to believe. 

In March and later months a northern exposure
and altitude over 6,000 feet are needed to have similar confidence in snow
quality.  Some of the heliskiing terrain goes up to 9,000 to 10,000 feet,
so well preserved powder into April is common on the glaciers.  Conversely,
I believe that a snowcat is preferable to heliskiing in December and January. 
The warm rides up the hill in the cat might be quite welcome during that time
of year, plus flat light in the alpine is most severe in the early season.


The first consideration in deciding between terrain
above or below the tree line involves the effect that the timing issue just
discussed has on visibility.  The alpine is preferable March and later when
visibility improves, and the trees have the advantage in December and January
when flat light days are common.  February rates highly for either mountain

The glaciers and high alpine have a unique aesthetic
appeal.  On your first clear day up there you’ll burn up lots of film.  It’s
easy to get in a rhythm of powder turns that are rarely experienced in a lift-serviced
environment.  A fast paced group can really rack up the vertical, as it is
easier to keep track of everyone and not regroup as frequently as you must
in the trees.  Nonetheless, tree skiing is considered more demanding, and
CMH advises inexperienced powder skiers not to choose an operation where tree
skiing predominates.

The advantages of the trees lie in snow quality
and weather.  The snow is not affected as significantly by wind in the woods
and can be much deeper.  While no-fly days are infrequent, there are many
other days when visibility is poor in the alpine and therefore skiing must
start at timberline.  All three days that I have spent heliskiing in the Selkirks
plus one of my snowcat days at Island Lake Lodge near Fernie were in this
category.  This weather factor is the reason lead guide Ken France at CMH
Kootenay chooses to work at that operation.  All of the CMH lodges offer some
tree skiing in poor weather, but many of them are short vertical runs that
have been cut above the lodges.  The higher tree line present in the Monashees
and most of the Selkirks yields a great variety of 2000+ vertical foot runs
of naturally gladed terrain.

Some of the heliski permit areas offer long fall
lines of both alpine and tree skiing.  These would be Mike Wiegele (Cariboos
and Monashees), CMH Gothic (northern Selkirks and Monashees) and CMH Bobbie
Burns (Purcells and Selkirks).  In addition the CMH and Selkirk-Tangiers operations
in Revelstoke have considerable alpine above their better-known tree skiing.


Skiing untracked powder from a snowcat or helicopter
is less tiring than the tracked or chopped powder one usually experiences
at a lift-serviced resort.  However, falling (and particularly retrieving
and putting on equipment) is very exhausting, so it is understandable that
skiers with minimal powder experience could be apprehensive.

If cost is no object, CMH offers intro weeks at
several operations.  These groups move at a more relaxed pace and have an
extra guide to assist with instruction.  With fat skis the learning curve
is much faster than before.  Otherwise, the best option for a first timer
would be the day heliskiing trips from Banff (RK or Purcell) or Whistler. 
These offer three to six glacier runs for $400-$500. 

While snowcat skiing offers more comfortable rest
time between runs, all of the Canadian cat operations I have tried emphasize
naturally gladed and often steep tree skiing.  For first time snowcat skiing
I would recommend Grand Targhee in Wyoming and Blue Sky West near Steamboat
in Colorado.  Both average 450+ inches of snowfall and have abundant terrain
with an intermediate pitch.

photo: Brian Anglin

photo: Brian

Experienced powder skiers should favor a multiple
day trip.  On a single day trip the guides have to do the orientation/transceiver
drills and generally don’t get out onto the hill until 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. 
They then have to evaluate the ability level of the group, which means they
are going to be conservative in their terrain choice for a couple of runs. 
Single day groups may also have a disproportionate number of first timers
who may or may not be comfortable in powder.  On days two and three at CMH
Kootenay, we were in the vans at 8:15 a.m. to head for the helipad.  Also,
with multiple heliski groups the operator may reassign the skiers to another
group if there is too big an ability divergence.  Thus, a "normal"
day with CMH, Wiegele or TLH consists of 9 to 11 runs.


The cost and remote locations in B.C. deter many
skiers from visiting these areas, yet I have observed several skiers who have
made inappropriate choices.  Not only the stereotype punter beyond his depth,
but also the hotshot who blows $500 on three intermediate runs and wonders
what all the fuss is about.  Nearly all of the B.C. operators have websites
(see links for heli-skiing and snowcat skiing operators), and careful browsing will usually reveal the type of skier
to which they are appealing.  Do your homework and you may be rewarded with
the ski experience of your dreams.

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