Trials and Tribulations of (Not) Heli-Skiing

A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited on a 2 day heli-ski trip in the North Cascades of Eastern Washington.  Me?! Heli-ski?! You bet! Now, I have no idea why they thought someone who spent the last 14 years in Tucson would be a good candidate for heli-skiing (I can rip it up lift skiing but have limited backcountry experience) but this was an opportunity of a lifetime and was not going to be turned down!

I flew into Spokane, WA to meet up with two other folks in my group- Paul Fish, from Mountain Gear, and our host, Aaron from The North Face. (Michael, also from The North Face was going to join us a day later.) From the airport we drove several hours to Winthrop, WA for late dinner and then we were off to bed to be ready for an early start the next morning.

After breakfast we enjoyed a short walk to the ski center and were introduced to our guides and instructors for the day. We spent the next hour picking out gear (big fat powder skis), made binding adjustments and became familiar with our packs and backcountry ski tools (avalance beacon, probe, shovel, radio, etc.). We then spent half hour learning about backcountry safety, emergency procedures and helicopter safety rules. We then headed outside to put our skills to use; it was actually quite fun utilizing these tools as I haven’t had an opportunity before!

Finally it was time to send the first group off in the helicopter. (We were separated into 3 groups of 5 people- 1 guide with 4 clients.) Paul, Aaron and I were in the second group. It was pretty exciting to watch the first group take off knowing we were just 20 minutes away from the opportunity to go ourselves. Unfortunately snow and cloud cover was not cooperating and the chopper was unable to land and had to bring the group of skiers and borders back. So, it was time to wait. And wait. As with any weather dependent sport, often times it is all about “hurry up and wait”. Then the weather got clear, we scrambled to get ready and the first group was off! And then they came back…again. This time it was the wind that was the challenge. So we waited some more and called it a day.

While it was disappointing to not go skiing, we had another day and decided to make the most of what was left of the afternoon. Paul went for a winter run and Aaron and I decide to go cross-country skiing. I had never been before so it was quite fun enjoying the beautiful scenery while trying not to lose my balance on skinny little skis. After our activities we had a great dinner, met up with Michael, and settled in for the night.

The next day the weather was clear and beautiful! So off we went ready for a day in the powder.  This time we were in the third group. After waiting around for a while (see a trend here?) it was our turn to head up! The helicopter ride was exciting and fun. The mountains were amazing and it was cool to see the skiers of the first group carving turns below. But wait, why are they skiing in an area that was showing signs of a fresh avalanche slide? Uh oh. After circling a few times we touched down and waited to see if everyone was all right or if anyone needed help. It turns out that even with extra precautions taken the third person in the group triggered a slide and got caught up in it. She was fine but a bit shaken from the experience. The pilot then took us back to the shop and due to obvious safety concerns that was the end of our heli-skiing adventures.

Not to be completely deterred from skiing, Paul graciously asked if I wanted to skin up Mount Spokane at 5:00 AM the next morning to get in some turns before my flight. So, off we went to pick up some randonnee skis from Paul’s shop and next thing you know, it is 4:30 AM and time to get rolling!  Having always done downhill skiing I have not experience much skinning uphill; it was actually way more fun than it sounds!  It was great to be outside and enjoying the fresh mountain air and to be on snow.  About an hour or so after skiing up we had a few fabulous minutes to really rip it up coming down; those Mountain Gear guys can really ski!  It was over all too soon but well worth the effort and it was time to head back to the warmer weather of the Southwest.  Maybe someday I will get a chance to use those big fat powder skis…

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