By Barton Tretheway
Barton Tretheway, with his son, Bowen, right.
How good can it get? Picture this — 11 snow skiers perched on a 9,000-foot peak in the Selkirk Mountain Range in British Columbia huddled tightly together bracing themselves against a gale force wind and flying snow from a helicopter which is ascending after just having dropped them off. Fortunately, the turbulence settles quickly. Immediately, one gets the feeling they are on top of the world, as looking in every direction are all majestic mountain peaks and vistas of high alpine pines, firs and snow. It literally takes your breath away.
But no time for that, as a scramble begins to retrieve and put on one’s skis, avalanche pack and prepare to follow your guide as he takes off down the mountain skiing fresh powder, at times almost waist deep. At the run’s end, skis and packs are taken off and the helicopter picks up the group to repeat the whole routine once again. Typically, we repeated this process 10 to 12 times daily, racking up on average 25,000 vertical feet of fresh powder skiing.
I regress, son Bowen (Latin ’10, Colby College ‘14) and I met in the Seattle airport this past March to fly to Kelowna, British Columbia, to heli ski . My wife, Jennifer, had given this trip to me as a 70th birthday gift. Nestled in the middle of the Okanagan Valley wine country, upon arrival, we joined fellow heli skiers for a half-day bus ride to Revelstoke, where outside of town in a dirt and partially snow-covered parking lot we were helicoptered 12 miles over forest, mountains and rivers to Galena Lodge, a snow-locked rustic ski lodge situated at the convergence of three major valleys. The bus trip was filled with valley and mountain scenery, followed by a short ferry ride across the Columbia River, which at that point was a lake. As we got closer to our destination, we were shown a video on heli skiing and avalanche safety. We also completed a short skiing ability self -assessment (how fast and how aggressive) which was used in part to put skiers into four groups of 11 with as best as possible similar skiing skills and ability.
Bowen and I were put in Group Two, which turned out to be a great collection of skiers from Boston, New York, Salt Lake, Portland and Chicago, and included four couples and two boarders. All were amazingly strong and technical back country (think powder and steep) skiers. Needless to say, I was the runt of the group, easily 30 years senior to anyone else. The group’s chemistry was great, we had an epic time skiing together and fun après-ski in the lodge. Speaking of après-ski, off the slopes each day, after the hot tub and sauna or just hanging out, the lodge put out an appetizer spread with all sorts of tempting warm and cold food.
Galena Lodge accommodates 44 guests and includes a game room, bar-lounge area, exercise room, lodge-sized hot tub, sauna and a family-style dining room. We arrived around 2 p.m. and were immediately assigned a room — ours was named Huckleberry, European ski style, two twin beds, bathroom with a stunning view of the Selkirks out our east-facing window. Galena is one of Canadian Mountain Holidays’ heli-ski resorts.
The view from our room.
Incidentally, also used for heli hiking in the summer. Bowen and I had skied their Revelstoke Resort 10 years earlier. Galena’s base elevation is approximately 3,000 feet, and our skiing elevation ranged from 3,300 to 10,200 feet. The area receives an average 59-feet snowfall annually. We were fortunate enough to get close to 8 feet of new snow at the higher elevations during our five-day stay which made for exceptional powder skiing.
After a quick unpacking, we reassembled to receive our group assignments, get our individually marked avalanche beacons, two-way radios and avalanche pack which held an avalanche shovel and 16-foot collapsible probe, then, outdoors with one of the guides to go through two hours of intensive avalanche safety training. Using the equipment, we became familiar and comfortable using the gear to locate an avalanche victim and what to do once located. The guides took this training very seriously as there is an ever-present avalanche danger inherent in back country: off-piste skiing.
Avalanche beacon testing.
Early each morning found Bowen and me up to join a group of stalwarts for a pre-skiing part yoga and stretching class. This was followed by an impressive European-styled buffet breakfast with fresh and dried fruits, waffles, hot and cold cereals, eggs prepared many different ways, breads, meats and cheeses. Shortly before 9 a.m., the lodge manager greeted us with the day’s forecasted weather, which helped everyone to properly dress, and the order in which the groups would depart for the day. The first group left by 9 a.m., with the others to follow shortly in staggered 10-minute increments. If it was snowing or diminished visibility, we skied the trees; if bright and sunny, we skied alpine — vast stretches of open bowls above and below the treeline.
The front of the lodge.
Thursday, our group had the first morning run. As each of us approached the helicopter with our gear and our beacon transmitters in the “on” mode, we spaced out about 15 feet apart, and as we approached our guide, he checked to make sure our transmitter was working properly. As with each pickup, we would stack our skies and packs on one side with the guide, and we would group on the other side; the helicopter would land between us and the guide. Once the heli was on the ground, the guide would put our gear in a large basket attached to the side of the heli, and we would cram the 11 of us like sardines into the back behind the guide and pilot.
One of our group was designated the day’s doorperson, whose responsibility was to open the door, get everyone inside, shut and lock the door, and give the thumbs up to the pilot that we were ready to go. And the reverse would happen when we landed. The doorperson opens the door, skiers scramble out and get in a huddle 10 feet or so from the heli, the doorperson then gives the pilot the thumbs up and joins the huddle, and the heli takes off creating a huge snowstorm to pick up one of the other groups. The pilot has this timing worked out to a science, as we never had to wait more than a few minutes while he staged the pickup and dropoff of the four groups. On our last day, Bowen got designated to be our group’s doorperson. He was pleased to do so.
Door person Bowen.
The skiing is pretty straightforward, deep powder skiing with a few simple rules. Number one is the guide always goes first. This was fine with me — let him scout out the avalanche danger. Once he got a feel for the mountain, he would tell us to ski tight in his tracks or that we could fan out in our run down the mountain. Number two is always ski with a buddy. The latter is not so important in wide open areas, however, if skiing on a glacier, one needs to be aware of crevasses, and in the trees, it’s possible to get separated from the other skiers. The other danger with trees is the tree wells; and, in fact, one in our group did fall into a tree well. When he did, our group was well below him, so another heli had to bring in two guides to locate him and dig him out. Fortunately, he did not panic and was freed in less than 30 minutes. Still, it’s pretty dangerous hanging upside down buried in a tree well for that amount of time. At least, he had something to talk about that evening around the bar. Bowen and I, of course, were buddies, which worked fine for me; however, at times, I am sure he wished I was a faster skier.
Our meals were amazing; it was like being on a luxury cruise ship. There was always something to eat. Before our first ski day, we signed up for sandwiches or wraps which were delivered each day slopeside by a heli. Along with the sandwiches were soup, fresh and dried fruit, various energy bars and delicious chewy cookies. There was a guest fridge in the kitchen which was accessible 24×7 should someone be hungry. Dinners were top of the mark, like eating in a fine Chicago restaurant — lobster and beef filet the first night; delicious, perfectly prepared Alberta rack of lamb another. All meals were well plated. What makes all of this more impressive is the fact that all the food needs to be brought in by a helicopter.
Meals were a fun occasion, as the staff and guides spread out among the tables of 10 along with the guests from all over the world made for some very lively conversation. Our last dinner had a costume theme, which added to the merriment. Outside the ski shop, following dinner on an area map, the day’s skiing was highlighted with different colored markers so we could see where we had skied that day. Also, our vertical feet skied was posted, which always gave bragging rights to the group with the most vertical skied that day. After dinner, the bar stayed open into the night; some of us retired to our room to read and relax; while others, like Bowen, partied on into the night, probably enjoying one too many ski shots. To add to our fun and excitement, famed Olympic skiers Picabo Street and Bode Miller were with us during our stay. Both held forth and blended in with everyone else.
Bowen in front of the lodge.
But it’s all about the skiing. Galena is located in a wild and remote setting surrounded by challenging varied alpine and tree skiing. We were in the Badshot Range of the Selkirks, known for abundant snow and rugged beauty. Heli skiing is to a large degree weather dependent — snow and avalanche conditions are hard to predict with any degree of certainty. When it’s snowing too hard and visibility is low, the helis do not fly. Our third day skiing, we got out on the slopes but were brought back to the lodge for an early lunch and then on hold till later in the afternoon due to inclement weather. While cooling our heels, one could read, play games inside or, for the more active, there were cross country skis, snow shoes and four fat tire mountain bikes which were pretty neat to ride in the snow.
The beauty of heli skiing is the wild uninhabited mountains (no chair lifts, nor accompanying lift lines), giving you a sense of adventure; and you do not mind pushing yourself a little. Many of the tree areas were quite steep and had the best skiing. The skiing was truly epic and very “Warren Miller(ish)” — each turn, you dropped about 5 feet into a pile of powder which just exploded you back up for your next turn and another 5-foot drop. Do that a few times and you are yelling at the top of your lungs with delight. Heli skiing with your son, it does not get much better than that!