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Skiing from the Sky

For Skiers Tired of Following Other People's Tracks, Heli-Skiing Takes Them Away from It All
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 1)

"We begin taking bookings on the first day of the season for the following winter," says Marty von Neudegg, the marketing manager for Canadian Mountain Holidays, the oldest and largest heli-skiing operator in the world. This usually occurs around the second week of December. "By the end of January, we're 85 to 90 percent booked for the following year. People should call whenever they want, because there is always a space here or there or a cancellation, but if they are coming as a group and want a real selection, they need to be calling this year for the following winter--over a year in advance. If you're skiing with us in March and you wait until you come up to book your next trip, it may be too late."

Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing is Canada's other big destination outfit, and it enjoys similar success with reservations. "Guests who were here last winter commonly rebook the same week for the next year, so 70 percent of the seats are presold," says Leslie Woit, a marketing coordinator with the company. (Since the time of the interview, Woit has left Wiegele.) "We're usually full by the time the week rolls around, but some seats do go unsold, so it's worth checking. I think it's a misnomer that we are always fully booked." Nonetheless, she recommends making reservations a year in advance.

One of the reasons it is so hard to get space on these trips is that the operations take only a few skiers at a time. Mike Wiegele, which operates the single largest heli-ski area in the world, takes only 100 guests each week. The company's sole facility, in Blue River, British Columbia, consists of 19 chalets arranged around a central lodge, forming a self-contained village. The lodge houses a lounge, restaurant, gym, Jacuzzi, sauna, massage rooms with physical therapists, game room and wine cellar. Outside is a hockey rink, Austrian bowling on ice, and 12 kilometers of cross-country ski trails. That is the entire compound, but people come here to ski, and the hundred guests have a staggering 3,000 square miles of skiable terrain all to themselves. That's 30 square miles per guest.

CMH's lodges, which are also in British Columbia, are even more exclusive, accommodating a maximum of 44 and as few as 10 guests per area. As von Neudegg explains, the scope of the terrain is unbelievable: "There is no comparison with regular skiing. If you were at the very best ski resort, the largest ski resort in the world, it would be about one two-hundredth the size of one CMH heli-ski area, and we have 11 of these. Inside that regular ski area on a holiday weekend, there might be 30,000 skiers. In our area, it's you and 43 others in an area 200 times the size. Two of our areas accommodate only 10 guests, and they are not any smaller. If you have a huge snowfall at a regular ski area, by 10 o'clock everything is tracked up. We can easily go three weeks between snowfalls without crossing another skier's track."

To put this in another perspective, CMH's total area is almost 15,000 square miles, or about half the size of Switzerland, and there are never more than 400 people skiing there. This is why people like Forte and Epstein come back year after year, rotating their trips among the lodges. CMH's most private lodge, Valemount, is available only to a group of 10, which takes the entire facility, including chefs, staff and private helicopter, for the week. This fetches about $85,000 a week, and CMH is completely sold out for this winter. At another lodge, Revelstoke, one private party of four is accommodated each week, in addition to the 40 regular guests, and gets exclusive use of a smaller helicopter during their stay. This royal treatment costs the foursome more than $10,000 each for the week, and it is also completely sold out for the season.

"Time is a commodity, and if I am going to spend two or three weeks a year skiing, I want to make sure it's in powder, and get the most exciting skiing for my dollar--and that's heli-skiing," says Mitch Fields, a California contractor who has been heli-skiing for 20 years and has amassed almost 7 million vertical feet. "It's expensive, but when you compare the amount of skiing you do, it's really not. You can spend the same amount on a week of regular skiing with a nice hotel room at Vail or Snowbird, and you can't ski a third as much. You're standing in line with thousands of other people."

Since Mike Wiegele and CMH offer primarily week-long destination vacations, their lodges, though rustic, feature fine dining, massages and a variety of other diversions. Because they are remote, with Wiegele's guests bused in and CMH lodges accessible in winter only by helicopter, each week's group becomes a close-knit band.

"There is definitely a camaraderie that develops," says Forte, who has also done day heli-skiing at several locations in the United States. "You're in the lodge with the same people all week, and that's a lot of fun. I really like the lodge aspect. Everyone there is nuts about skiing, and they love being there. You see some of the same people each year, and you always meet interesting people. It's a certainty." Forte recalls skiing with professional and Olympic skiers and snowboarders, as well as royalty: "After the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the king and queen of Norway came up. I skied with them and their son and daughter and two pistol-packing security guys, who were very good skiers."

Few CMH customers have the special relationship with the company that Fields and his wife, Holly, enjoy, and they would certainly agree that the lodges have an appealing social dimension. "We met up there in 1982, and we even got married up there," he recalls. "It was her first trip, but I had been a few times." The couple often goes for two weeks back-to-back, and Holly has nearly the same amount of heli-skiing under her belt that her husband boasts.

"The non-skiing part is also excellent," Epstein agrees. "I've developed a lot of lasting friendships from heli-skiing, and so have a lot of people I know. There's no other experience I've been through where you have that type of camaraderie. It's almost similar to a country club." Epstein's family has gotten into the act, and his brothers often ski with him; two of them, Larry and Mark, have surpassed the million-foot mark.

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