Upon first arriving in Calgary, ski boots in hand, I immediately felt reassured by the CMH staff, who helped me get all of my belongings in order. The next morning before the sun was up, the other skiers and I hopped on the charter bus to drive through Banff to the mountains we would call home for a week. And after a day or two, it did feel like home; about 40 heli-skiers from all over the world came together to share the same experience and bonded over stories and laughter. Most of them heli-ski every year, either in Canada or elsewhere. CMH, the world’s first heli-skiing operator, houses several different lodges in various British Columbian mountain ranges, but I had the privilege of staying at the Bugaboo Lodge, which opened in 1965 and is none other than the birthplace of heli-skiing. I was in for a treat.
We could get to the lodge only by helicopter, so we intrepidly walked off the bus and into the chopper — which, by the way, produced gale-force winds that knocked me over the first time I attempted entry. After being airborne a few minutes, I spotted a snowcapped lodge in a valley that looked as serene and cozy as the air was cold and crisp. Sitting by the fire all week in the elegantly rustic building and sipping a cup of coffee might have suited me just fine, but that’s not what I came for. I came to conquer the mountain.
Our guides made sure we were properly trained in avalanche safety, with our probes, shovels, transceivers, and radios on our backs prior to taking the plunge. I had placed myself in the intermediate group, thinking I’d fit in right in the middle and go relatively unnoticed. After the first run and a few falls, wipeouts actually, I could not have stood out more. I realized my novice mistake of thinking powder skiing would be the same as regular skiing. Thanks to the staff, who seamlessly shuffled the groups around, I was moved to the “Powder 101: Intro Heli-Skiing” group the next day, where I belonged. But let me get one thing straight: The intro group members were no beginner skiers. They all, like me, were used to doing difficult runs on resort terrain. Most of them had not heli-skied before, like me, so we started off on a level playing field where encouragement was given when a person dove headfirst into the snow just as much as when that person flew down a run perfectly. Our fearless guides, Dani Loewenstein and Roko Koell, led with patience and humor but also pushed us to do our best. After every run, they would tell us what we’d done well and what we could improve on, and surprisingly enough, their words started to sink in sooner than I thought. Koell’s words still echo in my head: “Plant the poles, lean forward, weight the skis equally.”
Every night at the lodge, after we’d had our fill of flurries for the day, we would gather in the warm dining hall and eat a hearty family-style dinner while recounting the day’s feats and fails and making new friends so fast you’d have thought everyone already knew each other. Skiers from Australia, Austria, the United States, Canada, England, and other countries had flown many long hours to ski the “best powder in the world,” according to more than one repeat guest. That’s what brought this eclectic group together. And every night after dinner, our little intro group of about 10 people sat around a television screen and watched footage of that day’s bumps and bruises that Koell had taped, where he talked to us about how to improve.