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Flying On Your Own

Mica Heli Guides stands alone in the world of powder for two simple but obvious reasons: its terrain (which is massive and private) and its helicopters (which are small and also private). Ski Canada editor Iain and I made a weekend visit to the only heli-operation in the Rockies last April to check out the sometimes chest-deep (not so difficult when you're Iain's size, but even I disappeared occasionally) snow that draws skiers from around the world.

The access route to Mica Heli Guides follows a valley wedged between the Selkirk and the Monashee mountains-both prime heliskiing territory-but Mica is an all-Rockies operation. That's significant in itself. The Rocky Mountains have a bad reputation in backcountry skiing circles-they're said to be too dry, too windswept, too cold, too avalanche-prone. Consequently, the vast majority of snowcat- and heli-skiing takes place in the warmer, snowier mountain ranges to the west.

Mica Heliskiing puts the lie to the Rockies' dire reputation. Well, that's not quite right. Vast regions of the Canadian Rockies especially on the Alberta side-indeed are relative powder deserts, and consequently prone to killer shallow-snowpak avalanches. But hidden in this vast range of ranges are certain zones that due to mysterious geographical quirks, are blessed with a local climate seemingly transplanted from the Selkirks or Monashees. Mica Heliskiing is one of those zones.

The cedar and hemlock growing among the more familiar spruce and pine were one indication we were in a unique zone. The most obvious, though, was the snowpack, which, even in a bizarre winter like 2005, was double the depth found elsewhere in the Rockies. Normally, this region averages 1,500-2,000 cm of snowfall per year at 2,000 metres, or just below treeline. Compare that to 400-500 cm typical for the Alberta Rockies, and it seems almost unbelievable we're talking about the same mountains. Despite that precipitative bounty, the weather at Mica Heliskiing is less humid, on average, than the Selkirks, with a bigger share of sunny days. As well, it's less prone to the fog and rain that can leave other heli-ski operators with a frustrating number of down-days.

Last season, if you wanted to be sure your heli-ski holiday booking resulted in actual turns, you couldn't have done better than Mica Heliskiing. All other heli-operators suffered at least one major rain event to their peak elevation. Some lost entire weeks of operation, taking the unprecedented step of sending batches of glum guests back home. Mica Heliskiing also suffered cancellations-because some prospective guests assumed it was rained-out. It wasn't; the show went on throughout January, and in early April, the time of our visit, the snowpack was deep and solid and the fresh powder was well beyond copious.

The overall result: Mica Heliskiing is putting the Canadian Rockies back on the A-list of backcountry skiing destinations, where this stupendously beautiful mountain range belongs.

Mica Heliskiings mountain lodge stands alone on a broad, open slope with a stunning vista overlooking Kinbasket Lake, a gigantic reservoir that backs up the Columbia River and fills the Rocky Mountain Trench for more than 200 km. The Monashees and northernmost Selkirks rise across the water, the Rockies loom out back. Matt Callaghan, the superlative throttle-jockey transplant from Hamilton who performed the smoothest take-offs and landing I've encountered, would place his little A-star right beside the mountain lodge, its three-bladed rotor coming within a few metres of the front porch posts. He laughingly assured us the missing spindles on the lodge's upper railing weren't from trying to land too close.

The lodge looked small from the outside, but proved roomy and comfortable. After all, if houses only 12 guests (mostly American when we visited, but also a few Euros), who sleep in a mix of eight single and double rooms, each with its own bathroom. The spacious dining and relax areas included great views. During winter, the lodge is accessible only by helicopter, yet it has wireless Internet access and satellite TV. But despite the TV prattling on the evenings (this was a guys' trip), no one seemed to be watching but instead each took turns retelling the day's events or enjoying self-deprecating ski stories from former times.

With so much snow our first night an early grey morning that filled in our view of the lake, we fretted that our first of two days would be spent entirely in the lodge. But our optimist guide Craig Ellis was bang-on when he said it was going to clear by the time our safety procedures (which required wallowing around up to our thighs finding hidden plastic-wrapped transceivers) were done.

Truth be told, I lurched around clumsily most of the first day, never really finding a rhythm in the deep snow and uneven, often steep and treed terrain. I staggered like a hung-over '80s-era rocker from a Pat Lynch article, my turns displaying the mellifluous fluidity of a Helix guitar solo. Iain rambled on the next morning trying to analyze his dreams that centered around skiing massive swallowing powder-and flying. Go figure. Day two was another world entirely and given the limited length I'm allowed to write, I'm happy to write about one spectacular day.

A flight barely long enough to buckle our boots and adjust our various dangling accouterments brought us to an isolated knoll high above the reservoir. More snow had fallen overnight, but the previous day's humidity had evaporated and the first turn, in which I plunged chest-deep into dry snow, told me this would be a singular skiing day. Our route followed a broad avalanche path down a series of rollers-plunge down, bench out, plunge down, bench out, for 1,000 vertical metres.

The five of us-Mica Heliskiings lead guide Craig Ellis, Iain and I, and happy American pals Dan and Jay immediately fell into the rhythm that had eluded us the day before. Amiable fellows and enthusiastic skiers, it would have been great to ski a whole week in Dan and Jay's company. Iain quietly remarked several times on their ability, wishing his friends back home, who are intimidated at the thought of heliskiing or catskiing, could see how the pair of advanced but not necessarily expert skiers were enjoying deep powder.

It was a decadent but comfortable feeling not skiing out of a massive 212 chopper with 12 in a group like other operations. Skiing with only four guests makes Mica Heliskiing stand out in the heli crowd. There was never a scramble to go first each run, or who would have to play tail gunner, no waiting for the slow one in the group and no worries about having to keep up with the best skier. Everyone was relaxed and simply enjoying the skiing at his own pace.

Craig's smile seemed to come more easily on day two. Gazing out at the chequered panorama of peaks and cliffs, dark forest and huge open snowfields, overlain by a sky of puffy fast-scudding clouds and patchy blue sky, Craig commented: "You can see how unusual this part of the Rockies is. These outer areas basically look like an extension of the Monashees, broad and round-shouldered and very skiable, while over there, one valley over, you can see those are unmistakably Rockies-like, and they get steeper and cliffier the farther in you travel." Others have compared parts of Mica Heliskiings area to the Himalayas. I couldn't see it myself-local Canadian analogies plus a couple of adjectives seemed more than sufficient. But there's no accounting for certain writers' verbal flights of fancy.

It would have been great to do a day of full-blown exploration. For me, that's what so much of skiing is all about talking about, dreaming of, traveling to and exploring new terrain, then reliving the experience at the end of the day. If it was purely and solely about turning in powder, then why ski more than one slope your whole life? I knew there were descents up to an incredible 2,500 vertical metres lurking out there, huge glaciers, massive alpine bowls and narrow ridges spilling couloirs, with the towering peaks of the Rockies' main spine in Jasper National Park seemingly within grabbing distance.

I was lusting to push farther out into Mica Heliskiings immense terrain, a provincial tenure containing seven major drainages covering an astounding 4,700 square km. To date, several substantial zones have seen only exploratory flights, if that. This season, the company aims to ski the more remote terrain regularly, enabling lucky groups to christen dozens of new runs according to their tastes. Mica Heliskiing is already talking about building a satellite lodge to the south, bringing terrain that's currently too remote to practically shuttle three groups within easier reach.

Sadly, the high alpine avalanche danger remained a tad too substantial for Craig's liking, leaving such adventures sitting prominently on our next-time-around list. There was plenty to do right here in the Molson drainage, thankfully. Our first run was just the outermost descent of row-upon-row of lines marching up the valley, all of them starting just at treeline before plunging into forests chequered with hidden glades and narrow gullies. Safe from the hazards of the open alpine, Craig led us on a series of ever steeper, ever-tighter pillow-hopping forays.

Sadly, the high alpine avalanche danger remained a tad too substantial for Craig's liking, leaving such adventures sitting prominently on our next-time-around list. There was plenty to do right here in the Molson drainage, thankfully. Our first run was just the outermost descent of row-upon-row of lines marching up the valley, all of them starting just at treeline before plunging into forests chequered with hidden glades and narrow gullies. Safe from the hazards of the open alpine, Craig led us on a series of ever steeper, ever-tighter pillow-hopping forays.

After several miles of steady vertical and lateral progress, we could see how the Molson drainage hooded abruptly to the north and climbed, finally sealed by a long circling ridgeline enclosing a great amphitheater of mostly alpine terrain. We did two runs on its forest-fringed edges, but Craig several times mentioned his "Spider senses tingling," and we soon returned to the trees. Despite the relative confinement, we didn't cross an old track all day, and even the tightest lines left room for all five of us.

On one of these runs it suddenly hit me that, were we in a normal heli-skiing group, that wouldn't be the case at all. Often, the eighth-or-so skier would be left with cut-up snow, and the 12th would face a virtually packed slope. And if there were four groups of 12, half the guests would be slithering though moguls. Mica Heliskiings all-small-group approach, with three groups of four guests, each with one guide, alters the experience substantially. The guide can pick much tighter terrain and know that everyone will wallow happily in pow. With only four people to manage on descents and load/ unload each run cycle, the pace can be simultaneously more relaxed and much faster than in traditional large-group skiing. Except for fuel runs, there's never any waiting for the helicopter. And all this privacy for a price only slightly more than large-group heli-skiing. Amazing! So amazing, I can't imagine it'll last forever.


About the Author: George Koch is a lifelong skier and award-winning journalist who has written about skiing, business and politics for the past 20 years. His skiing articles appear primarily in Ski Canada magazine, and have also been published in Powder, Warren Millers Snoworld, other U.S. and Canadian publications and various European magazines. George has heli-skiied, snowcat and resort-skied all over western Canada, and spends a good chunk of each ski season obsessively exploring the Alps. Read more at www.micaheli.com




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