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What about Wednesday? The Helicopter Day!
Sunday night at Panorama, they had a guest reception in the day lodge. Good carrot cake and bad cider. Folks from various resort departments telling you of all the fun you can have.

One of the people was Don Bilodeau, Ski Canada Magazine writer and director of the Ski School. I asked him about the "Powder, Stumps, and Bumps" clinic, which was reasonably priced, included lunch, and might afford me an opportunity to ski the "Extreme Dream" or beyond with something of a guide and a coach.

Well, after finally conveying to Don that I was not the average Panorama skier, he admited that this clinic might not be best for me -- aimed more at the aspiring powder bump stump skier.

So, at the urging of my lovely wife, the highly intelligent and beautiful Doctor, that pinnacle of womanhood with whom I share my life and livelihood, I made arrangements to join R. K. Heliskiing for a day of purchased powder.

Earn your turns? Why, when you've got a Visa card?

Here's the deal: R. K. heliskiing has a HeliPlex right there at Panorama. Walk to it from the condo. Plop down a piece of plastic, next day you are in the air. Packages included the "standard" 3 runs and lunch, or the "Deluxe" five run. Depending upon time and people, additional runs were available a la carte.


Somebody on this trip described Panorama as a donut hole. All around it are even bigger mountains, which gather snow like a frosting on a Maple donut. The hole stays clear.

While the sun shone at Panorama, it was dumping big time just a couple of miles away in the heart of the Purcell Mountains (adjoining the legendary Bugaboos).

Unfortunately, dumping just enough on Wednesday that the copter didn't venture to the glaciers and we didn't get much above tree line. So darn, this kept our runs in the 1800-2400 vertical foot range, rather that the 3000' possible on a good day.

The day went something like this:

8:45 -- Walk over to Heliplex. Check in. Eat complimentary fruit and Danish breakfast. Sit and get anxious.

9:15 -- Call comes to boot up and meet outside, ready to ski.

9:30 --> 10:15 -- Briefing session: bundling our skis for transport. Getting in and out of the machine safely. Emergency procedures. Ortovox avalanche beacon operation.

10:15 --> 10:40 or so. Group "A" boards helicopter and takes off. Group "B" takes Minibus ride to Mineral Springs staging area, couple miles into the mountains.

10:45 -- We hop on the chopper, fly up the valley and land near top of mountain, just above tree line. About 8000' altitude, about -2 degrees Celsius. About 8-10" powder on ground.

10:50 We're off!

Each group had about 11 people and one guide. Of the two groups, everyone including the guides were on some form of "fat boy" ski, except for Wesley and some old guy named Jim. On our first run, I skied about the middle of the pack, but probably led the group in spills and general wind sucking. While the snow at 8000' was pretty nice, after about 800' of vertical it got darn wet and heavy.

I dunno if it was the general excitement/anxiety, the snow, or the altitude, but for the first time I can remember, my vintage 1990 207 cm. Volkls just didn't quite hack it. I was sloppy. I was out of breath. I insisted that I was having fun.

At some point, trusty guide mentioned that there were two extra pairs of fat boys under the seat of the helicopter, just in case. I was stubborn. I was having fun just the same, I don't need no stinking cheater skis. I ski long skinny skis. That's the way I am.

It was a matter of misplaced and displaced pride, I think: while I was proud of my ability to ski the long boards, fact was, I just didn't look like a Ski God.

Our guide offered us an analogy: "Pulling your pud is OK, as long as your friends don't see you." At the bottom of run one, I relented. I strapped on a pair of ridiculously short, incredibly wide Atomic snow toys.

Next run, I was at near front of pack. They were short and squirrely, but they floated like clouds caught in a jet stream. Prereleased a couple of times, still not quite used to the feeling. Fat boys felt good, and nobody was there to see me. Well, now I;ve told 300 people about it. Call me a whose if you want -- I still got off.

Both these runs were on a western facing slope, each about 1800-2000' of vertical, 8-12" of absolutely untracked virgin, albeit at times heavy and packable, powder.

12:00 -- 12:30 or so. Lunch at bottom of second run. I was so exhilarated, I wasn't hungry. Barely finished my bagel sandwich.

12:30 -- Finally, we're off again, this time to other side of valley, to easterly facing slope. Here, snow was a bit colder, a bit lighter. a bit deeper. And a bit steeper, too.

My group consisted of two old German guys, four late fortyish businessmen/dentist types from Ohio, older guy Jim from Toronto who used to live in Vancouver and skied Whistler regularly (he was the other dude on traditional skis. He switched, too), a thirty something Brit, and two youngish guys from Idaho. These latter two guys -- Bill and Jay -- were true tribesmen. Bill was there by virtue of loans and debt: his regular gig was grad student. Jay skied 120 days a year and tended bar at night. Both ski at Schweitzer.

Jay, Bill and I became the powder pigs trio. Everyone else had just enough of a cautionary streak and some way misplaced politeness not usually seen at Mad River or other tribal territories on a Big Powder Day. Even when we started last, we finished first.

We dropped down through a beautiful steep and deep glade, much tighter than first two runs, and I finally hit my stride. Powder Pig mode clicked in. Godhood was restored. A Fat Buddah kind of godhood, but godhood just the same. Floated like a feather down through what seemed like piles of more feathers for some 2000 verts which seemed to end all too quickly.

That should have been that. I signed up for the 3 run package. But our guide told us that since we were skiing shorter runs that day, everyone got one more free. WooHoo! He then asked if any of the four people who signed up for 3 runs wanted to do more (and pay more). Well, a bit of a bait and switch -- just like the slushy snow before offering Fat Boys -- but I was hooked. Hey, it's only Canadian money...

And if I wasn't sure before, run four was one big inescapable hook. We went up a little higher, maybe two or three hundred feet above tree line, little more northerly exposure. Now we're talking serious knee deep or deeper, and some big wide open spaces, with lots of steep and a few rolls and drop offs just for fun. Last third of the run was gnarly stumps and bumps and jumps, all coated in soft white fluff. I guess it proved too gnarly for most of the group: the Powder Pig Trio and Guide could have done another run while waiting for the stragglers to finish up.

So much fun, we did it again, although we cut it short just above the gnarly section in deference to the old and flat land dwelling.

Finally run was back near sight of run three, but with a bit of a twist that dropped us around a small cliff and into the steepest and tightest glade yet. But a 20th Hole kind of glade, where you could scoot around a blind corner and it would always open up again just beyond. Finally, back into the more open but more gnarly lower slope above the waiting helicopter.

All in all, not the steepest I had ever skied, nor the deepest, but certainly the most consistent run after run top to bottom never cross a ski track untracked I had every skied.

Biggest regret? I'd like to have the last two runs back again on my Volkls.

Maybe next year?

Last modified August 22 2000 09:03 PM

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