Off the Tracks
Story and Photos by Ben Davidson
A helicopter had just deposited me, my Burton Custom snowboard and a few companions on top of a wintry white peak deep in the British Columbia wilderness and, I admit, I was little freaked. Moments earlier, I had been in the heart of the bustling Whistler Valley, one of the most popular ski areas in the world. Now I was just a speck in a vast snowy expanse. It was humbling—and a bit surreal.
The theory was that my board and body would somehow steer me safely down into the white void more than 1,000 feet below, where our whirlybird would collect us and bring us back up top for another run. I had my doubts. Had I gotten myself into something that was literally over my head? But once our guide disappeared over the edge, I didn’t have much choice except to follow—and ready or not, I did.
With a few whoops and hollers, we plunged into a steep canyon, cutting turns as gracefully as possible through untracked powder that reached our thighs. This was winter fun at its absolute best, the ultimate experience for skiers and snowboarders. It was frosty, fantastic and, despite my racing heart, pure fun.
Heli-boarding: A must-do adventure
I had learned to snowboard on a whim after 20 years as a skier. I now enjoy both, switching between the two depending on the snow conditions and mountain terrain. The snowboard, I discovered, is a stable, two-edged platform with amazing versatility in a wide variety of conditions, especially powder snow. The rhythmic edge-to-edge moves, the floating sensation and simplicity of the equipment are especially addictive. After many seasons of practice, I felt confident enough venture out into wilderness by helicopter. For me, heli-boarding was a must-do adventure and a test of my snowboarder skills.
My companions, another snowboarder and two skiers, had convened at the heli-ski firm’s office and ski rental shop in Whistler Village. Loading our equipment in a minivan, we shuttled a few miles to a small hut and helipad, where we met our guide, Chris, and pilot, Steve. After viewing an orientation video, we went out into the snow for a safety exercise using the avalanche transceivers we would wear strapped to our chests while on the mountain. After the drill, a Bell helicopter landed to gather our group. Before I could really ponder the sanity of what I was doing, we were airborne, being whisked upward toward the snowy ranges above.
Only 10 minutes of exhilarating flight later, we touched down on a windswept ridge. Pellets of snow fanned in every direction as we exited the copter, crouched over and walking swiftly to a spot safely away from the spinning rotors. Our equipment was unloaded and the helicopter flew off, leaving us in silence amid a landscape of snowy mountains unfolding to the horizon like a huge white cape. We checked our transceivers and reviewed the protocol: ski one at a time, stay behind the guide, turn parallel to the previous skier’s tracks, stay close to the group—and have a blast.
Adrenaline pumping, I followed Chris over the edge, easing my board down the fall line into a powder-lined canyon. When I made my first big turn of the day, the board responded beautifully in the fluffy snow. Two more turns and I was ecstatic. This was bliss.
We stopped midway down to take photos of each other cutting turns. Tom, a former ski patroller from Colorado, caught big air over a cornice before landing softly in the fluff. Mark, the other boarder, bulleted past before leaning into a series of long, graceful turns.
Near the bottom, we headed into our only tree run of the day. We had to traverse the slope cautiously due to the limited early December snow coverage. Carefully picking a path through the trees in deep snow proved difficult, especially on the snowboard. I became bogged down in a thick section full of serious hazards like “tree wells,” pits of deep snow that collect around tree trunks. Literally crawling out this potentially bad situation, I rejoined the group at the bottom, my lungs heaving and my ego a bit bruised.
The helicopter reappeared and touched down agilely on a small, flat clearing. Aboard, we headed toward a ridge called Wolverine, where we made our next run: a long, dreamy descent, each turn feeling more elegant than the next. We lunched on sandwiches halfway down, sharing stories of the day.
The sun was already low when we started our last run down Peterson Glacier, a vast, treeless snowscape of wide bowls creased by crevasses and bluish glacier ice. We made turn after turn, gaining speed for a long, flat run-out to the landing spot, where our chopper was waiting to take us back to the comforts of Whistler Village.
Image 2: Skiiers are dropped on the ridge.
Image 3: Whistler Village at dusk.
Powder skiing is usually for the lucky few who happen to be at ski resorts during or after big powder dumps. But for those with the verve and the cash to hitch a ride into the winter wilderness aboard a helicopter, there’s powder to be found all winter long. A four-run Whistler heli-skiing tour (6,000 to 10,000 vertical feet) costs around $800. More information at whistler.com/heli_skiing