Alex and Woody’s Excellent Heliboarding Adventure
(Alex: or Heli-Skiing if you’re not a plank-riding cretin)
Editor’s note: This blog post co-authored with the guy I heli-skied with, Alex
Woody: I am gliding through tight trees and deep fresh powder. My snowboard is making silent, graceful turns as I pick my way through the dense forest. It is the last run on the first day of a 4 day heliboarding trip in British Columbia and the snow is as deep as they had seen it in years. I am smiling ear to ear and I am having an amazing run, until I am not. As I shoot through a small gap in the trees the snow falls away revealing a fallen tree. My board goes under, I go over, and my knee takes the full force, blowing it out. Suddenly, I am hanging upside down over a deep tree well with my knees bent over the tree. Earlier in the day, a boarder my age only one mountain over fell into a tree well and died. We had heard the chatter over the radios we all carried.
I had always heard of people being overcome by panic attacks and drowning or dying in other circumstances that they could have survived had they not panicked. But I had never experienced it and I really didn’t think that I ever would. Dangling over the well, my knee was in tremendous pain and I seemingly was unable to pull myself back up. My heart rate spiked, my breath became short, and I felt every ounce of the panic I had heard about. It was scary. I am not going to lie. Thankfully, I was able to recognize it and I wasn’t in the well yet. So, I took some deep breaths, calmed myself down, and worked the problem. Once I was back in control of my fear I was able to begin righting myself. Fortunately, a buddy came along with a ski pole for some added assistance. I extricated myself and took stock of my situation. There aren’t ski patrols out there so I had to get me and my blown knee down to the pick up spot. There were no good options, it has to one-leg it! (Adrenaline is a wonderful thing though, and while it was painful getting down, it was a lot worse when the adrenaline wore off!). I eventually made it to the bottom, my trip, my knee, and my heliboarding career seemingly done for good.
That was 2 years ago and that wipeout on a fallen tree led to a full knee replacement a few months later. My knee had been dodgy for years, with multiple surgeries from lacrosse injuries, but the tree finished it for good. I was told by the doctors that skiing or boarding (or playing lacrosse for that matter) on an artificial knee was not happening. So I did the only sane thing a man in my position could do: I found another doctor who said I could continue to do these things.
A year and half after surgery, one cross country bicycle ride, and one lacrosse tournament later, I was headed back to British Columbia to get back on that horse and snowboard for5 days with CMH Heli with my good buddy Alex.
Alex: I will be sprinkling in my thoughts as well as my corrections to Woody’s blog because he has a tendency to conveniently forget important details or leave out facts that he doesn’t deem pertinent. Let’s start with his toss away line of “one lacrosse tournament later”. This is a lacrosse tournament that men in their mid-50’s should no longer play because they’re too old and their bones, tendons, and ligaments are too brittle. At this lax tourney, Woody was running along and then heard “a big pop” which was the sound of him partially tearing his Achilles. A severe injury suffered a mere 5 weeks before this heli-trip! Are you fucking kidding me? His participation in this trip was literally day-by-day because of his torn Achilles. I could have killed him.)
Woody: Whatever Alex…. Anyway, after my last Heli experience, I thought I would be giving it up. I had gone on 3 trips and had my fill of excitement and danger. I thought my artificial knee and aging body should stick to resort skiing from now on. Well fuck that. Nothing is ever gained my taking the safe path. Besides, it’s too boring. So let’s ride!
Day 1: The Drive
Arrived in Spokane WA and met Alex for our drive up. We had a 5 hour drive and the weather didn’t look great. Luckily we rented a 4x4 SUV. The drive started great but as we approached the Canadian border, the highway was closed due to an accident. After about 45 minutes of getting lost in the woods of northern Washington, and picking up a bottle of schnapps
Alex: To be clear, Woody bought a bottle of Goldschlager at the gas station/liquor store where we stopped for him to pee. He says “I had to buy something in order to use the bathroom”. Uh-huh, I am pretty sure that contributed to his crappy navigating.)
Woody: We found an alternate route that unfortunately added another hour onto our trip. Once over the border (and a slew of questions about our health and recent travel history.... thanks Coronavirus), we entered the mountains just in time to catch the snow
Alex: Snow? Blizzard. I should know. I was driving. Woody was handling the Goldschlager. Driving the first shift was a shrewd move by Woody).
Woody: The remaining drive was harrowing to say the least! Managing the Goldschlager was not easy for me. Alex whined a little about the snow but he’s a Californian so take that with a grain of salt….
Alex: Point of clarification, I grew up in British Columbia but moved to California as a teen. I would never whine about a driving blizzard let alone “a little snow” in Woody-speak. I did whine that he wouldn’t share the Goldschlager while I careened down the mountain side into Nakusp.
Woody: Fair enough… We were the only car on the road so maybe he had a point. After a few hours of sliding turns we pulled into Nakusp, a really cute Canadian town on a beautiful lake. We were late to the lodge but they held dinner for us and our server was a slightly eccentric, but very engaging local who told us everything we needed to know about the town!
Woody: Ok, fair enough Alex, the guys were great, I was just smitten by the new snow . There was about 2 feet of fresh which was great, but it was heavy with moisture so the first few runs were slow and challenging. I had opted to use a CMH board instead of bringing my own which turned out to be a big mistake. The burton fish, a powder specific board, was so slow I had to stay in skier tracks on the flatter pitches. It was fine in real steep terrain and tight turns but otherwise no fun.
Alex: This is 100% true. I had to pull that motherfucker out of deep powder all day. It makes one wonder why you would ever snowboard on a heli-trip in the first place. I mean it’s deep powder ALL of the time. I guess, if you’re dumb enough to still play lacrosse in your 50’s, you’re dumb enough to snowboard on a heli-trip.
Day 2: First day of skiing / boarding
The first part of the morning was spent doing safety briefings, avalanche rescue training, and helicopter info. Then 10 of us were loaded on the large Bell helicopter and ferried up the mountain.
Alex: Woody totally glossed over the other eight people in our helicopter. As part of CMH’s big group for our week of heli-skiing, we were joined by 8 other guys from two different groups of friends. One group was Danny, Matt, and Patrick. Three college friends from Penn that all live on the east coast. The other five were all Aussies. They were old boyhood friends named Jun, Simon, Stephen, Terry, and David. Our whole big group was great. All totally gung-ho for anything. Ready to ski whatever.
Woody: Turns out skiers are good for something! As the day progressed the temps dropped and the snow got lighter and much more fun. We stayed mostly in the trees and had some fantastic runs. Despite having a few slower people in the group and only doing 7 runs, we left the mountain completely satisfied. We skied amazingly deep powder (3 to 4 feet in most places) and bombed through the terrain with no fear. Kokanee was our favorite run of the day. TOTAL VERTICAL: 13,500 FT
The lodge had a nice apres ski set up and we found a great local beer (the Power Leopard for Nelson Brewing). It didn’t take long for us to develop an efficient ordering process to keep the beer flowing (one growl directed at the bartenders and two new leopards appeared).
Alex: After the first two (or five) Power Leopards, it’s easier to simply growl for another one. Canadian beer is fucking strong.
Woody: While we were skiing and oblivious to everything else, the world was melting down from the Coronavirus. It was amazing to hear all the panic and hysteria happening while we were pleasantly flying down amazing mountains. Each night we were hit with an avalanche of news updates and mass craziness. We all had to react in some way, I had to help arrange for my daughter to get back from her European semester abroad and we all had to try to be supportive of the family back home that were having to deal with the craziness. Luckily, we had plenty of Power Leopards and beautiful surroundings to help get us through....
Alex: I can’t stress enough how great it was to the enjoyment of the trip to be cut-off from the world all day. We left in the morning without checking the news and we were able to stay present and take in everything we were experiencing. The Power Leopards were ordered each night before we took our phones off airplane mode. As soon as we connected with the outside world, we were bombarded by a day’s worth of unimaginable events that was sending the whole planet into chaos. So surreal.
Woody: Exactly Alex! The skiing was a blast and challenging so staying in the moment was really important, both to fully enjoy the experience but also to stay safe! It was shocking how much the world changed on a daily basis and how spun up people back home were getting about it. So we focused on the most important things we could: dinner and drinking. Dinner was again delicious, served family style in a large room with all the other skiers. We even indulged ourselves with a great bottle of Okanagen red wine. We then retired and passed out before 10!
Alex: Listen, somebody had to do the eating and the drinking while the NBA cancelled its season, baseball did the same, and Trump closed our borders to air travel from Europe. It was an alarming 24 hours and we were very fortunate that we were insulated from the insanity.
Day 3: Second day of skiing.
Woody: Today we had a new guide (new one each day). Day 1 we had Diana, a sarcastic joke-telling rookie guide who was a great skier but could communicate better. Today we got Jeff, a senior guide and CHM lifer, and what a difference it was! Jeff was laid back but super professional, communicative when needed (“stay right over the final ridge, you don’t want to be walking home”) and letting us run when it was safe. Just a really nice and experienced guy.
Alex: Jeff was fantastic after we had a rough first day with our first guide, Diana. She talked down to us. She gave us terrible directions. She told a ton of stupid Toronto Maple Leaf jokes. We were all Americans and Aussies and we could not have cared less about hockey jokes. Jeff, on the other hand, was mellow, funny, helpful, patient. A true professional. The juxtaposition between Jeff and Diana reminded me of the old fable of the old bull and the young bull standing on a hilltop overlooking a field of cows...
Woody: My Burton still sucked despite getting it waxed overnight but the snow was lighter and Jeff took us to great terrain in the morning so I was fine. First run was a wide open bowl called Too much Fun that was perfect for waking up the legs. Snakebite was the favorite run of the day, a great mix of very steep trees at the top and an open glade of pillow drops and jumps at the bottom. Don’t Tell was another great run where Alex and I took a slightly different line from the group and fun an amazing long run of deep light powder all to ourselves. (Alex: YES! A fucking tremendous run that made you understand the beauty and the brilliance of heli-skiing. Don’t Tell put it all on display). Lunches are served on the mountain all together. Sandwiches and soup standing in the snow tasted great. On one of the afternoon runs a staffer was coming in for the day and had a different board, my length and stance so I swapped. HUGE difference!! So much faster and a much better board for me. It was a lot stiffer so I needed to adjust my technique a bit but once I did I was flying! Our crew was running a little faster overall as well so we got 9 runs in for a total of 18,000 vertical ft. Apres beer, food, dealing with Corona hysteria, and then blissfully passing out. Today was what heli is all about. Legs tired, permanent grins, great camaraderie, and delicious beer to cap off the day! The locals had a little band going after dinner and I stayed for a few songs with some of the guys from our ski group. It was fantastic.
Alex: I give Woody high marks for showing up at the local talent night at the lodge. I was exhausted and went home early to go to bed but the Old Man rallied and made it out. Good on ya, Freeman.)
Day 4: Third ski day
Woody: Armed with my new snowboard I was excited about the day. We had a new guide again, another young sarcastic Canadian guy named Tyler. We had met him a couple nights before and were a little apprehensive. He showed up a bit surly, either tired or hungover we couldn’t tell.
Alex: Tyler was a lot surly, a lot tired, and VERY hungover. We learned later that the local talent night at The Lodge is the top social event in Nakusp twice a month. He was out too late crushing too many Kokanees and he took it out on us. After our great day with Jeff, I didn’t dig Tyler’s smug, self-satisfied attitude that morning. But he did rally thankfully and showed us a good day...with one little incident...caused by me.)
Woody: It was a little colder and the snow was lighter and nice. Unfortunately, the wind had kicked up so the available terrain was limited. We still had great runs and one of mine on Snakebite was the best of the trip so far. It was one of those runs where every turn felt perfect, and each change of directly opened up better and better lines though the trees. I was totally in the zone and could do no wrong, such a fantastic feeling.
Tyler was definitely not the greatest guide unfortunately. He gave almost no guidance other than “go down” or “follow my tracks”. We were all laughing about it until we weren’t. On the run right after S, Alex and I took the lead behind the Tyler. Tyler gave almost no guidance as usual and took off into the trees. Alex followed and I followed him. When skiing in trees it is really important to stay with your designated ski buddy in case there is an avalanche or one of you falls into a tree well (deadly if you go in wrong and can't get out). Alex chose a line to the right of the guide’s but we quickly lost his tracks. Before we knew it, we were at the top of a deep ravine with no way out except to traverse across and make our way out towards the bottom. Ravines can be high avalanche risk so we did our best to stay high and away from the danger. We knew we weren’t supposed to be there. I radioed Tyler to let him know where we were, that we were fine and making our way out (and so the others behind us would know not to follow). We got out fine and reconnected to the group quickly. Once down at the pick up spot we got scolded pretty badly for not following Tyler and creating a potentially dangerous situation. While I totally understand we made a mistake, I was pissed that Tyler never thought to tell us about the terrain features ahead! A simple “hey stay left as you enter the trees” would have been extremely helpful and I let him know that. Talking back to the guide is apparently not advisable, so I was in the dog house....
Alex: Yep. Woody went into the doghouse. I knew that I made a big mistake and I felt that I needed my scolding. So, I just took my beating and kept quiet. But I do appreciate Woody sticking up for us - as ill-advised as it was!
Woody: Yes, sometimes I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer but as anyone who knows me will tell you (including the entire faculty and staff of the military school I was sent to for high school), I don’t like being told what to do.…. Alex: *nods head emphatically*
Woody: The rest of the day held a number of great runs despite the tension and we ended on a great open glade called Fallopian tube. It was a fast flier with a wind-packed base and about a foot of fresh on top. Complete fun. We ended with 11 runs and close to 20,000 vertical feet! A good day no doubt which led to…. wait for it… Après, beer, food, and passing out, we were developing a nice pattern
Day 5, fourth day of skiing:
Colder and winder today, no skiing in the morning unfortunately. We had a lazy morning; I explored town and bought a thermometer (apparently the entire US was sold out due the corona virus scare!). Nakusp was a cute small town on a big lake. Pretty in winter, I bet it was stunning in summer. We all met up for lunch assuming CMH would announce that the rest of the day was cancelled as well. To our surprise the afternoon was a go, the wind was starting to die down and the sun started to peak out. Within an hour we were headed up the mountain. Our guide was the older Tyler and he was experienced and good. We found amazing runs through the trees and moved pretty quickly. We ended up getting 7 runs in for a total of 13,000 vertical feet. We hit snake bite again and found some great untracked runs there and some beautiful open glades. We also hit Kokanee again (a favorite from the first day) and had an even better run this time. Snow was faster and we were flying down the mountain. By the end we got plenty of great runs on a day we thought was a bust.
Alex: Tyler the Elder was a nice antidote to Tyler the Younger from the day before. Much like Jeff was the ibuprofen after a tough day with Diana. Also, our second run on Kokanee was WAY better the second time. We knew it was there this time and all of us were mentally preparers for it. As a result, the whole group killed it. Each person skied to the bottom with a huge smile on their face. Then, they looked back up at their tracks and their smiles got even wider. It was a truly signature moment for the trip.
Woody: Tyler also gave us a tip, we needed to hit the Royal Canadian Legion for drinks after dinner. Apparently, it was the locals' local spot. After another great apres, some Power Leopards, a few margaritas and another delicious dinner Alex and I prepared for a big last night in Nakusp! One more Power Leopard and a fireball shot at the lodge bar and we headed to the Legion. And the Legion did not disappoint!
Alex: No. It did not disappoint. The Legion is a veteran’s club much like The Elks Club here in the US. The room had all sorts of military paraphernalia and tributes to HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Canada is a commonwealth country after all! As you know, old vets can be a cantankerous bunch. Drunk old vets even more so. This environment was definitely just what we wanted out of our night out in Nakusp.
Woody: The Legion was a big building with a large dining hall and separate brightly lit bar with darts and pool. In the hall the local Rod and Gun club was holding their annual dinner (I am not making this up), so Alex and I ordered a couple Sleeman’s Honey Brown (BC beer) and settled in for some darts. As we got progressively more snockered our game deteriorated badly. The dinner ended and the locals filtered into the bar. Apparently, they were hitting the sauce as hard as we were. Two local guys decided to challenge us to darts. Given our condition, this should have been a rout on their part but we beat them two games in a row (both sides demonstrating some terrible terrible shots).
Alex: When the two locals challenged us to a round of darts, I was very suspect about their intentions. There were 4 or 5 other dart boards in the bar that were not being used. They could have easily played at another board. Nope, they wanted to play the two Yanks in town for skiing. As I watched them play darts far worse than Woody and I, my Spidey-sense kept waiting for the inevitable round of betting to start. Sure enough, they wanted to put money down on another game after getting crushed by us in game 2. Really? You don’t think we’ve seen “The Color of Money”?
Woody: Now fully pickled, a bearded gruffy local challenged Alex to a one shot game for the win and $5. Alex, immediately seized the opportunity to wager our $5 against the guys neon pink Kokanee beer fanny pack (circa 1990) which he clearly cherished.
Alex: I mean...wouldn’t you play for this instead of 5 bucks? Not for nothin’ but that’s $5 Canadian too!
Woody: We knew taking the win was not very neighborly and potentially dangerous so with 20 local spectators cheering on, Alex stepped up, closed his eyes and shot, hitting a modest 10. His opponent stepped up, took care aim and missed the board entirely! The roar from the crowd was hilarious. Not wanting to be the ugly American, I offered him one more shot to regain glory. After even more careful aim, he again missed the board entirely. Now we had no choice but to take the pack, which Alex immediately did and wore it for the rest of the night. We spent another hour at the Legion, with the locals putting up increasingly larger sums to play us for the pack. When we left, it was up to $75! I was holding out for a chainsaw; we were in the middle of a pandemic after all and that would come in very handy!
We rolled out of there laughing so hard we couldn’t stop. At the next bar, we were telling the people about our hard won prize when a millennial woman walked up to us. Turns out that she was the niece of the bearded, dart loser. She told us that she was in the bar when he lost it. She said that he loved that fanny pack and that he was proudly showing it off to everyone before the rod and gun club dinner. Then she asked to play us for the pack! Alex was not having it, the fanny pack was his and he wasn’t giving it up!
Alex: Goddamn right! I won that fucker fair and square.
Day 6, Final day of skiing:
Woody: Morning came hard on the final day. Way too much fun (and shots) the night before and we were paying for it today! We had the option of a full or half day and originally were planning on the full but after the night we had we would be lucky to complete a half. It was a spectacular day, bright sun and clear so we headed above the tree line for some bowl skiing! The first run was amazing (Too Much Fun). The helicopter dropped us right on the ridge line and we had top to bottom fresh turns, it was fantastic. The second run looked like it would be too but ended up being really wind packed and hard, no fun at all. We then headed into the trees and had some great runs culminating in a final run that was perfect.
Over the 5 days we skied/boarded just about 70,000 vertical feet, just below our paid limit of 71k, perfect! It was an amazing experience that I highly recommend to anyone. I had the great fortune to do it with a good buddy which as you can tell, made it a lot of fun. I had some concerns coming into the trip because of a partially torn Achilles tendon suffered 5 weeks before and my new artificial knee. I did not have much chance to train due to the Achilles and it was still sore when I arrived. The Achilles held up thankfully, it was sore at the end but not re-injured (much). The real surprise was that my new knee felt terrific and my fitness level was great!! I felt that I could do more runs each day and felt energized at the end, something I had not felt in over a decade! It made me very excited for what I can do once the Achilles is better and I can train more.
Alex: The trip was the greatest ski experience of my life. Thank you, Woody, for joining me and making my 50th birthday present from Melissa a fantastic adventure!
Woody: And yes, Alex wore the fanny pack skiing all the next day...