Words: Eliel Hindert
The first rule of the Heli Club is you don't invite weakness to the Heli Club. The second rule of the Heli Club is you don't invite weakness to the Heli Club. So begins the Fight Club-inspired mantra of the Whistler-based Heli Club. With helicopter drops for as little as $85 accessing some of the biggest terrain in North America, these are rules you don't want to break.
The basic concept behind the operation is neither new nor complex. Heli companies need a half hour to warm up the machine before the real paying customers show up. If you know a pilot and can convince them that your group is capable and proficient in advanced backcountry travel then you can split the cost of a one-way drop during that warm-up period.
Let's do some simple math. Strip away the guides, the employees, the cooks, the management, the lodge, and what's left? The helicopter and the pilot. At about $1,500 an hour, you can get 0.3 hours for $500, and split five ways that puts you in a helicopter for $100. From there it's a one-way drop to any destination you can sell the pilot on.
The thing is, most of us don't know a heli pilot. What's more, most of us wouldn't be able to convince them that we had guide-level backcountry experience and could coordinate a group of four friends at the same level. Let alone navigate a drop up to 30 miles away from any road and navigate multiple ridges, glaciers, and peaks just to arrive on a rural road in the dark and stick your thumb out for a ride. That's where the Heli Club comes in.
They are an invite-only group of skiers, snowboarders, dishwashers, bartenders, and software engineers that have used collective knowledge and experience to streamline the process of heli drops. Last year alone, they ran 37 drops in the Whistler area. They negotiate the price, select from a library of routes and destinations, and represent some of the strongest backcountry partners one could ask for.
The self-proclaimed Tyler Durden of the club is Nova Scotia-native Shaun Gillis. He's not an employee since it isn't a business. He's not a director since nobody gets paid--in fact nobody even gets free rides. And he isn't a guide since there are no clients. Gillis is a facilitator, the mediator between the needs of the local heli operations and the wants of a pool of die-hard shred bums.
Gillis didn't introduce the concept of group buys on heli time but rather fell into it while working at a restaurant in Whistler in 2008. "I overheard the dishwasher say on the telephone. 'No I don't want to do a heli drop.' I told him to call whoever he just said no to and tell them I am in," says Gillis.
At that point there was no club, rather one-off events where individuals would negotiate with heli pilots on a case-by-case basis to get one-way drops in the area. It was up to the management to decide if the group was equipped enough to go and that was it. With the invite-only system of the club, you only get a spot in the bird if one of the existing members vouches for your knowledge and ability, thus putting both of you up to be dropped from the club roster.
The idea is that strong partners, collective experiences, and most recently extensive group practices throughout the year provide an environment where set guides are not necessary while still allowing for 'rookies' to approach the system.
Still the operation hasn't come without its critics. Longtime locals and users of the heli-drop option cite that brute force, like cornice cutting, is often used to negotiate more technical lines and roping into hyper-exposed lines puts some members into situations far beyond their ability. Last spring, a heli club skier cut a cornice that caused an avalanche to propagate near another touring party below. The slide ran several hundred meters away from the party so no one was hurt, but it did incite a flurry of criticism for the operation's methods and overall existence.
Additionally while the core members are well equipped to deal with the day's events, there are occasionally last-second replacements in the bird, which means people who are mentally and physically under-prepared end up in the heli. Riders getting a one-way drop to such remote locations have to be ready to do anything from rappelling into a 2500m couloir to spending the night in a backcountry snow cave if need be.
"Something is going to go wrong," says Dave Gheriani, a Whistler local and longtime user of the heli drop option before the club existed. "The loose confederation of riders Gillis has created is designed to fill the bird every time. It creates a strange dynamic, where last-second changes to the crew can leave users operating beyond their experience level and underprepared for the situations they put themselves in. Someone is going to get hurt or die, and we're not going to be able to do drops."
Out of the 300-plus drops that Gillis has coordinated, there have only been three search-and-rescue calls, two of which Gillis says were unwarranted and the third involving a non-life threatening injury that required air evacuation. Those are admirable statistics given the inherent danger that exists any time you take something as complex as backcountry travel and add a helicopter into the equation. Despite the lack of major accidents, Gillis states that, "If someone dies, I will stop dropping."
Agree or disagree with the concept, the camaraderie in the club and the opportunities it has opened up for working locals and pros alike is unique. The heli club gives riders another tool to their backcountry quiver, helping them travel just a bit further, and experience that much more. Nobody is in the heli because of his or her wallet; they're flying because of the connections they've made and the way they carry themselves.
"At the end of the day, all I want is a hug from my partners from the awesome day and to do it again," says Gillis. "Shit, this shit is the shit. I love it."