Words and Photos by Mark Sissons | posted December 6, 2016
Take a group of strangers from different backgrounds, cultures and even countries. Toss them together right after they’ve first met into an unfamiliar environment that many have imagined but few have experienced. Then expect them to function as a cohesive, precisely choreographed unit almost immediately while encouraging them to love every hair raising, sphincter tightening, toe curling minute of their brief time together.
I could be talking about the US Marines. But a similar sort of intensity forged camaraderie also applies to heli-skiers, that special breed of thrill seeking individual who can meet someone and within fifteen minutes be ready and willing to jump into the proverbial foxhole with them. Or out of a helicopter and onto a powder-packed glacier together.
“I’ve got your back, man.”
Seldom have more welcome words been heard when contemplating the notoriously gnarly and lengthy forested run called Big Bubba at CMH Galena. Famous for its ultra‐deep snow, steep tree skiing and plenty of drops and cliffs for those who are into big air time, this legendary lodge at the convergence of three major valleys is a magnet for expert riders and skiers, including the world’s snowboarding elite. Even for intermediate backcountry skiers like me, CMH Galena adds up to a powdery paradise, albeit one that should never be taken lightly.
The gentleman offering to keep an eagle eye on me as we plunge into Big Bubba’s evergreen abyss has even less backcountry skiing experience than me. Lloyd Taylor pens screenplays for a living in Hollywood. He’s never come close to navigating the sort of steep and deep descent we’re about to plunge into now. But like one of the heroes in his screenplays, he’s game to plunge into the unknown.
I’m very happy to have Lloyd aboard as my tail gunner as we drop like lemmings into the forest in pursuit of our guide, bad ass Bernie Wiatzka, one of CMH’s longest serving guides, and a man whose champagne powder dry wit and deadpan delivery are matched only by his deep knowledge of these mountains. Lloyd and I almost instantly veer off course and get temporarily lost en route to our helicopter rendez vous point far down in the forest below. At one point, he even has to help me dig my skis out of metres of snow after a headlong crash. When we finally catch up with the group, Bernie scolds us for deviating from his happy (and safer) path.
“What part of follow my tracks didn’t you understand?”
Chastened but still buoyed by tackling Big Bubba, Lloyd and I have experienced what heli-skiers so often feel soon after their first run – a sense of bonding like brothers (and sisters). And it has taken us all of thirty twisty minutes on the side of a mountain so pregnant with powder pillows that we can’t stop grinning like a pair of old powderhounds. That evening over beers at the lodge, Lloyd sums up our run rather poetically, as any self-respecting screenwriter would.
“There’s no sensation on earth like floating through powder for as far as you can see surrounded by the most beautiful vistas you could possibly imagine.”
I’ll share more high flying heli maneuvers and magic carpet ride moments with other members of our group over the next few days as we pound the powder on high alpine and gladed runs that never seem to end. I’ll enjoy endless glacier cruises and wild wooded rides dodging tree wells and plummeting between pillows behind Todd, a technology consultant and certified ski guide from Lake Tahoe. And even further behind the nimble Henry, an intense young financier from Australia. I’ll inadvertently play crash test dummy for Lloyd’s pal, Paul, also from L.A., whose free spirited snowboarding style often threatens to cut me off. I’ll even pair up with a middle aged Frenchman named Francois on epic runs like Rendezvous, Java Jive, Mike’s Hump, Cheesecake and Amadeus. All the while following in the carefully calibrated tracks of our three wilderness wise men – intrepid CMH guides Adam, Mike and ‘Feel the Burn’ Bernie – over the course of several magnificent late March days.
Chances are that our newly forged band of brothers – and one sister, Stephanie, a CMH Banff head office employee on break – will never see one another again. But that’s ok in the end. Together, we’ve braved many nervous moments – along with a few glorious white icing cake walks – to safely explore the majestic slopes surrounding our luxurious wilderness home. Along the way we’ve each traversed personal peaks and valleys as our wilderness skiing skills have grown and our confidence has soared.
In the end, everyone departs from CMH Galena with priceless memories collected during intense days of heli thunder spent together as a team. An exhilarating time when each of us has depended on the kindness (and alertness) of strangers, our bond forged by the communal experience of heli skiing. Knowing that I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine, unquestionably, on countless thrill rides through gladed runs, over pillow drops and across vast, glistening glaciers. That’s what a true heli-skiing foxhole feels like out here in beautiful British Columbia’s still wild heart – a place of endless wonder where we get to collectively write our signatures, as have so many fortunate CMHers before us, on the face of the mountain gods.
– Mark Sissons, travel journalist and guest at CMH Galena in March, 2016