Ryan smacks the lip on his way down to meet the group Image:: Alex Horvath
Mountainwatch | Alex Horvath
In early April 1965, Austrian ski guide and mountaineer, Hans Gmoser, bushwhacked his way through thawing snow, across fluvial flood plains and along the well-worn paths of early colonial fur trappers toward what would eventually become the very first heli-ski lodge in the world. It’s hard to comprehend the sheer enormity and audacity of the task, but here was a man with a vision, a worrying lack of resources but one hell of a pioneering spirit. 50 years later – almost to the day – I found myself flying fast and low through Canada’s Columbia Valley – about four hours’ drive from Calgary airport – over pine and spruce treetops, past startlingly huge river deltas and straight to the backcountry luxury of the CMH Bobbie Burns lodge. Sitting next to me in the Bell 212’s jump seat, was Travelplan & CMH Heli ambassador, Torah Bright, and fellow Aussie professional snowboarder, Ryan Tiene.
In 2014/15, British Columbia – along with the majority of the Northwestern quadrant of North America – struggled for snow. December and January came and went mostly without mention. Then come February, the mountains were still left cold and desolate with little sign of the pristine powder that usually dumps in this part of the world. Our arrival was timed in early April, so we weren’t holding much hope for the promise of pow.
Lap after lap of the most perfect skiing known to man. Can you see the stoke? Image:: Alex Horvath
As we rolled into the heli pad at the CMH Bobbie Burns staging zone, it all changed for the better. We heard talk from the outgoing guests that the day before was the best of the year. But the thing was, it was still snowing. Some Russians – who looked a lot like a group of oil tycoons – were recounting their morning with a distinctly eastern bloc sense of humour. They spoke of the clouds that had socked in the lodge that morning as if to drown our hopes of anything similar, but I was quietly confident, there was a lot of snow in the forecast and outside the window, it was only getting better.
Part of the appeal of the CMH experience lies in the remoteness of their operations. The Bobbie Burns lodge is no different. First accessed in January of 1977, the Bobbie Burns tenure sits adjacent to the Bugaboos – CMH’s first area of operation. In December of 1981, the lodge was completed. It sits next to the headwaters of Vermont Creek and throughout the winter months it’s only accessible by snowmobile or helicopter. The lodge’s position is unique in that it sits at the confluence of the Columbia and Selkirk mountain ranges. This means that no matter the weather, there’s almost always good quality snow on varying aspects. The geography of the region sets it apart from nearly any other heli-destination. Perched to the west of the Rocky Mountains, the peaks are a magnet for the snow-bearing systems that move in a westerly direction and dump metre after metre of some of the driest powder snow anywhere on earth. Glacier systems dot the tenure, with high-alpine terrain spread across the Conrad Icefield, Thorrington Glacier and a massive expanse of low-angle rolling glacier terrain known only as: The Snow Ocean. On bad weather days, old growth forests offer plenty of playful pillows and well-spaced trees. These alpine rainforests are among some of the only ecosystems in the world that receive the majority of their annual precipitation as snow during the months from October – March. In the spring, this moisture melts from the snowpack and fuels the rapids of the raging rivers that follow the contours of the valley floor.
This lodge was our home for the week. To say it’s luxurious would be an understatement Image:: Alex Horvath
The Arctic flow that coincided with our arrival ended up delivering 45cm of new snow with perfect timing. Naturally, this created an air of anticipation in the boot room as we laced up for our first afternoon on the mountain. As any experienced rider will know, with new snow comes new risk. So avalanche hazard was a top priority for our first few days. Just two weeks prior, Rob Gmoser – son of CMH Founder Hans Gmoser – tragically perished while setting an uptrack for a group of ski-tourers near Sorcerer Lodge – a remote backcountry cabin near to Golden B.C. Rob had been an instrumental part of the CMH Family and his death had sent ripples throughout the community.
With recent fresh snow loading, and a persistent layer of instability in the snowpack, our first two days of riding were spent exploring on mostly safe, low-angle glacier terrain. Of course this high alpine riding presents an added hazard: the crevasse. As a result, we made the most of the opportunity to observe the terrain and learn to read the glacier. All the while, we were left speechless by the sheer size and potential of the mountains that surrounded us.
Scoping the options with Ryan and head CMH guide Andy Kraus Image:: Alex Horvath
By the morning of our third day, we flew out of the lodge under a thick blanket of cloud. As the helicopter banked up the valley and began to gain altitude the cloud started to thin – an inversion. As we punched through the low-hanging ceiling we emerged to a perfect, cold, bluebird morning. The helicopter landed amid a whirlwind of snow as the rotor-wash stirred up the featherweight crystals. The snow under my board as I dropped in behind the guide was bottomless. There were playful mini-rollers to the left, and super-long wind cornices that were shaped like endless left-hand waves lining the slope. Tiene, Torah and I became fully immersed in runs that will be marked indelibly in our minds for the rest of our lives.
After lunch, our guide yelled out to me, “Alex, I have a feeling you guys are going to like what we have to show you next.” Perplexed, and unsure of what he had in store for us we loaded up the heli and took-off up the valley. As the helicopter neared a ridgeline, we made a sudden sharp turn to the right. Looking out the window, all Ryan and I could see from our position was a long, steep slope that extended down nearly 1,000 metres into the valley below – covered in pow. The pilot attempted to land the bird on a small platform that was really only as wide as the heli’s skids; he didn’t like it. We made a sharp climb as he brought it around for another attempt. This time it was perfect, and we landed a top the ridge and unloaded the bird with a little more urgency than usual.
Torah Bright sinks the tail into some fine Bobbie Burns crystal Image:: Alex Horvath
“We need to be quick, he’ll be back with the next group and we need to clear the landing,” said our guide. “Alex, this one might be good for a few shots if you guys are feeling keen? It’s called The Serac, this steep entry is probably one of my favourite runs and we haven’t had the chance to ski it all year.” I strapped in and stole a peek over the edge. The afternoon light was casting a kind of yellow alpenglow over the slope, and I could spot what looked like one of the most perfect fields of pow I had ever seen. I turned to the guide, “I think we might just shred this lap if that’s alright with you?” “Sure,” he replied, “who’s going to drop first?”
At that moment, I pointed my snowboard downhill, straight into a pristine, maybe 50-degree slope covered in two feet of Selkirk snow. With the golden light breaking through the clouds and the roar of the twin-engine bird flying over my head, I couldn’t help but feel that this was it. This transcendent moment was the pinnacle, the culmination of everything I’d given to snowboarding, the moment all threads in my life came together in the simple joy of one; two; three; four perfect turns down this pristine slope. It was sublime.
Over our week at the lodge I started to reach a realisation. Up there, among the utopian existence of perfect luxury and world-class riding, the mountains are only half the story. It’s the people that make CMH what it is. The simple pleasure of the mountains draws people together like nothing else. It doesn’t even matter where that is, from Perisher’s Front Valley Terrain Park to this exclusive mountain enclave nestled at the confluence of the Purcell and Selkirk Mountain ranges it’s all the same.
Ryan pops through the pillows Image:: Alex Horvath
In a show of homegrown pride, all the guides at the Bobbie Burns display a black and yellow badge on their outerwear with the outline of a bat – not dissimilar to Batman’s. It’s their official symbol, a badge of honour that distinguishes them from every other CMH lodge. Throughout evenings spent chatting with the guests and lodge staff I really started to realise that these people were in many ways exactly like us. They loved the mountains and were prepared to do just about anything to make sure they were close to them. Whether that meant a guest dropping thousands of hard-earned dollars to spend a week at the Bobbie Burns; or a staff member dedicating themselves to years of study just to become a pilot or guide; the result was still the same: day after day of pristine riding and endless good vibes.
Late on the evening of our final night, I got chatting with our pilot, Ben Wilkey, about the week we’d just experienced. “These last few days have been some of the best all year,” he described. “With clear weather, no wind and easy landings, it’s been what us pilots call rockstar flying.”
Torah Bright in her element Image:: Alex Horvath
After discussing the capabilities of the various toys that he gets to fly, I posed a question that had been bugging me all week: “I keep hearing whispers of something called the ‘Honey Badger’. It’s usually in the context of a conversation about CMH pilots, too. Care to explain?”
He laughed; almost hysterically. “The elusive Honey Badger! Where were you around 4pm this afternoon?” I shrugged non-committedly – I think I was in the hot tub. Ben continued: “If you were sitting next to me up the front of that bird you would have been treated to a front-row seat. The Honey Badger is an age-old CMH tradition. I think it was started in honour of some of the original pilots. Anyway, all the girls that work here at the lodge line up on the front deck and lift their tops right as I make my final fly-by for the day – it’s a nice treat that doesn’t happen all that often, but us pilots keep our eyes peeled.”
Transfer travelled to CMH Bobbie Burns as a guest of Destination British Columbia & Travelplan Ski – More information: http://www.travelplan.com.au/
Cost: CAD $3,965 – $14,145
Back to the lodge to do it all again tomorrow. Image:: Alex Horvath