Ptor’s Spacebook: Heli Skiing

'I’ve never mentioned first descents with the heli because to me it was... just half skiing.'


By Ptor Spricenieks

After a few years of without, I've had the good fortune to do several sweet sessions of heli skiing recently. This has in turn led to some thoughts and reflections on the subject. I’ll start by saying that I have never truly been “comfortable” with heli skiing, despite that I have always heli-skied. Not tons, but significantly in all its forms, and I've always loved it.

From my very first time, the crazy sensation of earth falling away, looking out from a noisy plexiglass and aluminum bubble, and stepping out on a mountain top about to explode with anticipation; the thrill and the alien-ness have never left me. And knowing well the effort of approach it removes, I’ve never taken for granted its powerful gift of access. I've never been against it, but because it has always invoked a particular feeling, I have an opinion about it.

Photo: Ptor Spricenieks

Photo: Ptor Spricenieks

When I first arrived in Whistler, I began hearing stories of Jim McConkey (Shane’s dad) heli-skiing the peaks around Whistler in days of yore. That, and the scene that Trevor and Eric were brewing up in the late 80s and early 90s, were part of the fodder for my adventurous heli days before tenureship ruined all the fun in BC. (Regulations that came with commercial heli ski land-use permits, or “tenures,” disallowed another commercial helicopter to do more than one pick up or drop-off in someone else’s demarcated zone.)

Back then and even into the early 00s, it was a pure "do-it-yourself" scenario. When we had money, we would organize a crew and "point-and-ski" the Tantalus Range, all around Pemby, and even Bella Coola. For a time, while living in Pemberton, my buddy “Batman” had his own Schweitzer 500C parked at the airport. As it was too small and weak to land on top of peaks, we would fly around to look for lines and then land somewhere as close as possible and go ski-tour our objective.

Once I was unbelievably picked up by the owners of Whistler Heli-Skiing while ski touring with my buddy Luddy (a one-and-a-half legged Olympic ski racer) in the Spearhead Range. They gave us an extra drop and then a ride back to the valley just because they had two extra seats in their 212. I've also done many heli-drop cabin trips and other expeditions. I've even been rescued by a helicopter on a couple of occasions—once in a remote part of Zanskar in the dead of winter, and another time by the Gendarmerie here in France; a heli came within 20 minutes of my accident to pluck me off the side of the mountain and deposit me safely at the hospital.

Despite all the good times, complete with "unskied" lines—stepping out of a toed-in heli perching all powered-up on a jagged summit, and even a few rides in the Chugach—it never touched me as the means to my end. It was always skiing on my own power—along with the effort of expedition, and the strength to climb and shred as hard as possible—that I took pride in. As such, I've never mentioned those "first descents" with the heli because to me it was, and always will be, just "half skiing."

From the get-go, its always felt better and more rewarding to ski the line on my own power; while camping or using remote cabins or using donkeys or just walking for as long as it took from the road. Thus, I never made it a point to pursue and find a means to maximize skiing opportunities with helicopters. Fortunately, many of the finest ski objectives remain naturally un-heli-able, because of National Parks, altitude, or just plain no heli's around. Skiing’s essence is going up and going down on one's own power, just like paddling out to ride waves, which is called surfing. As such, I'd say using the term "heli skiing" is as important as the term "tow-in surfing." In the same sense, lift skiing is also not too different from heli skiing.

I’ve always felt that if you could climb it, i.e. paddle out to it, then that was the proper way to de-virginize a mountain. The effort of romance and full love making of long caressing curves slowly going uphill with all that personal connection and intimacy seemed more respectful than the fast and intense blow-your-load out of the heli. I don’t see mountains as inanimate objects, so I say they deserve the same respect as any lover for their “first time.” I definitely spoke my mind back in the 90’s when other Whistler locals were trying to heli not even remotely remote "first descents." One excuse I heard was that they had to get it before the "Americans," driven by the new age of ski-porn films emerging at the time, would do it first.

It’s great to see high-performance guys like Seth and Dav, previously known for their heli-skiing prowess, bringing the roots “ski-mountaineering” aspect back into the mainstream. But as professionals, they are crossover athletes. Could all this archaic revival eventually and ironically reduce marketing departments’ budgets by not spending so much on helis and thus pass on some savings to the cash-strapped, banker beaten consumer? Part of the irony of all this also lies in the angle of reverse apprenticeship that the youth ultimately sees from such high profile "opinion leaders"— seemingly heli-skiing one’s way to "Freedom of the Hills" knowledge. I’d say the film title “Further" actually means "closer" to the roots, for both sideways and foreword facing skiers.

This January, I finally visited my old buddy Andre Ike in Stewart, B.C.; he is now the lead guide and manager for Last Frontier Heliskiing’s Ripley Creek operation. Haglofs, the clothing company I work with, needed some film and images for their new line of clothing, so upon my suggestion a team was organized and off we went. The Swedes I was with were blown away at the remoteness and vastness of the central coast of B.C. After flying into Terrace, driving between Kitwanga Junction and Stewart, we saw three cars in three hours and only a handful of buildings, at Meziadin Junction. A perfect place for heli skiing.

All there is around Stewart is rugged terrain with difficult and limited access even with snowmobiles. It snows a lot there and even with a slow start this year, we skied a four-meter base at treeline. People hardly notice the heli flying around, mainly because there are pretty well no people. But I’m sure there must be some folks, out of the 300 in town, who don’t appreciate the sound of the heli firing up in the morning.

Stewart is a stark contrast to heli skiing in populated zones like Turkey, India or most of the ‘Stans, where foreigners paying top dollar buzz over the heads of locals living at sustenance levels, highlighting a significant disparity. Those people could never in many years save up enough to go heli skiing, nor even spend that kind of money, and shoving that in their face seems kind of rude. They get no benefit and their silence is stolen. It is, after all, their place.

In mid February, while the rest of the Alps was going through a drought, I was skiing with my fabulous Dutch clients in the Piemonte region of Italy. There, they had been enjoying the odd meter dump while the north was really scratching. Around the Sestriere area exists a small heli operation, called oddly enough Pure Heliski, that we took advantage of to get after some untracked remnant powder. Great success and the terrain I got to see there was surprisingly more amazing than I expected.

On one run, we flew up to a nice peak from the backside and got out only to see a group ski touring up from below. My heart sank and deep down the day was bittersweet even though we had scavenged some great preserved powder in some remote corners. We heli skied one more day after an 80cm dump, which was amazing, but I was yet again left with that particular feeling. Here in the Alps, with such dense populations and numbers of ski-touring enthusiasts, it not hard for the heli to piss in someone’s oatmeal. The mountains behind Sestriere are exceptionally void of a lot of infrastructure, but generally, with all the lifts all over the Alps, you don’t really need a heli.

The whole heli argument takes a different turn when you are no longer dealing with wilderness. The classic example is the Wasatch Powderbird Guides; they fly in a zone that is not even close to remote, super easy to access and well-used by self-propelled skiers, and they regularly drop clients on terrain that is barely an hour's ski tour. Although that is the ideal heli useage (low flying-time and fuel use by bumping people around close to the base), in this case I would definitely have to agree with the likes of Andrew McLean and concur that it seems like an abuse of heli skiing itself. You don’t need a helicopter to ski in the Wasatch. Surfers in the line-up still catching waves by paddling definitely object when there’s someone trying to tow in.

Utah is not the only place where the heli debate rages. Switzerland, one of the Alps' last bastions of heli skiing, is right now a hotbed of debate, with pressure from environmental groups to end it once and for all. Switzerland is a special case to begin with, having only a limited number of landing zones where it's permitted in the first place. That is, unless you have someone with a press card in your crew and a Swiss mountain guide pointing the way—in that case, anything goes. And that was the situation I luckily found myself in last spring.

In early May last year, GNS Prodz and I went to Zermatt to session with young mountain prodigy Samuel Anthamatten and film an episode of "Ski Here Now." Samuel and his brother, Simon, are Zermatt locals, full Swiss Guides, do a lot of self-powered mountain stuff and are notorious heli users. It turned out that our only window of opportunity was a morning blue hole in what was otherwise weeks of bad weather. So along with another local cameraman (with "the press card"), we picked the ideal scenario (something Samuel had always wanted to ski) and went for it with the heli.

It was an incredible day, and crucial to our success in creating a media piece. Those 4,000-meter summit drop offs sure make your head spin! Although it was part of the plan to represent the three major veins of skiing—ski-mountaineering, heli and lift—in the three episodes of "Ski Here Now," in the end our sponsor Black Diamond asked us to edit the final version and remove all visual and verbal references to the heli. Kind of ridiculous considering it was still painfully obvious that we heli skied, but understandable and illustrative of the sensitivity the matter evokes. BD Europe is based out of Switzerland, Samuel and Simon are BD athletes and in the middle of the heli controversy to begin with, and sure enough—there was a letter from a pro-wilderness group regarding using the heli, anyways.

The Swiss will figure it out, being the most democratic nation I can think of, and whatever they decide is fine with me. Meanwhile, I’d say the notion of wilderness is a bit of a silly pipe dream in the Alps. What are they going to do, start introducing bears and wolves all over the place, kick out the cow farmers, take down all the mountain huts, ski lifts and cover over the trails? Infrastructure in the Alps is beyond inevitable; it’s pretty well permanent. The irony here is that the heli is both the thing that builds infrastructure, like ski lifts (they even do heli hay transport in Switzerland), and the thing that needs no infrastructure if used for skiing. All there needs to be is a few stakes with pink flagging tape.

Infrastructure is what lures most people into the mountains, and also that which degenerates wilderness or creates economy, depending on how you look at it. Not every tourist that lives outside the mountains leaves Rotten Ronny wrappers lying around everywhere and supports our misguided civilization that threatens "nature" to begin with. But, the more stupid the infrastructure, the more stupid people become. Ski lifts are generally built with helicopters. Rescue helicopter pilots and operations are kept sharp and financially viable by flying in the mountains with regular work with heli skiing. And what euro-eco-nazi-rando-gweeb turns down a heli rescue when his foam-toothpick skiing ass needs saving?

Which leads to the ever-nagging eco arguments about helicopters. Generally, I agree it is frivolous and it supports the proliferation of petrochemical hegemony within our global "operating system." On the other hand, I'd rather have a couple of helis a day fly past me while ski touring than hours of snowmobiles whining through the mountains spewing two-stroke fluids everywhere. And that is all, above and beyond, the BS C02 AGW propaganda, which I don’t buy into. Real pollution is a reality and so is clandestine climate manipulation like HAARP.

Bottom line: The heli ski industry is absolutely nothing compared to the industrial-military complex, the biggest polluters on the planet. Compared to the militaries of the world, every ski bum should have the right to own and operate their own helicopter. I’d say if were gonna have some austerity, lets get rid of the superfluous junk like armies. Total failure as humans to work things out or just plain old reptilian aggression is nowhere near as good or cool as skiing powder. Let’s get our sacrifices for the environment right here, people. What are the real frivolous and unnecessary things? Joy, bliss and powder skiing or war, death, suffering, greed and depleted uranium munitions scattered across the planet mutating people. Give us skiers some of those black ops anti-gravity machines you cupcakes! Brown's Asymmetrical Capacitors? Phase synchronized microwave beams? Use ’em for something useful, like skiing!

So to me, heli skiing has never been really a greenie/hippie type issue (for lack of a better word), just a moral skiing dilemma. Maybe in the end it’s the contrast that the heli does give us that is what it's all about. I'll always heli ski and maybe that's opportunist, but it will also always be in small doses and it will always be "half skiing." I think it’s the extremes that end up narrowing the cornucopia of life's pleasures and create the problems that limit all of us. Moderation and balance in life are indeed the keys to happiness. I like the French saying that to truly understand and thus enjoy life you have to learn to eat the hard crust as well as the soft bread inside.