Drop zone: Take to the skies over the Rockies for some heli-boarding action
Saturday 10 January 2009
"If you lose your hat, do not chase it – or you may not have a head left to wear it." Of all the safety advice we were given by our guide Andrew prior to boarding the helicopter, this was the bit that stuck in my mind.
It was my first time heli-boarding and I was a little on the nervous side. Although I'd flown in a helicopter a few times before, I'd only ever had to sit back and admire the view. This time, however, I was being dropped at the top of a Canadian mountain, at which point I apparently had to huddle down in the snow with my backside facing the rotor blades. I made sure that I did what I was told. As the machine lifted off the ground, it felt as though the seat of my salopettes was about to be scraped off.
If you try heli-boarding anywhere, it should really be in Panorama. Located in eastern British Columbia, about two hours' drive from the better-known resort of Banff, it's a purpose-built place, designed with heli-skiing in mind. Surrounding the resort is 1,500 sq km of spectacular wilderness, with more than 900 runs to choose from, spread over 120 different landing sites.
I was flown out to a spot called Sundae Glacier, located about 30km from the resort itself. In this area alone there's a choice of several alternative routes to the bottom. Each one funnels back down to the same spot, where the helicopter awaits to whiz you back to the top.
So it was that I found myself cuddling up to a bunch of strangers whom I'd only met about an hour ago. We were all getting to know each other very quickly, as we collectively mooned the pilot in order to shield ourselves from the blast of ice and snow being hurled our way by the rotor blades. Heli-boarding makes you feel like a real adventurer, a proper snowboard "dude", just like you see in the videos. Contrary to popular perception, though, you don't need the skills of a snowboard ninja to do it.
"A lot of people assume that heli-boarding is only for experts, but that's wrong," Andrew assured me. "As long as you can ride reds and blacks, you can easily come out with us and have the best day's skiing of your life."
I had no doubt about that, looking at the huge powder-packed amphitheatre that we were just about to delve into. For our opening run Andrew had chosen something reassuringly mellow – akin to your average red run in terms of steepness. But this was much more exciting than any piste I'd ever ridden before. The contours of the bowl wrapped around us like an icy stadium, huge peaks undulating away into the distance.
Andrew dropped in first, marking out a left-hand border with his tracks; anything to the right of us was up for grabs. After watching a couple of the others go on ahead, whooping and hollering like overexcited kids at a firework display, I pointed my board straight down the mountain and floated my way to the bottom on a cloud of fresh, fluffy snow. Immense.
The fabulous thing about riding powder is that you can slow down really easily. Just lean into a turn and you immediately scrub off speed, while a wonderful shower of snow shoots out behind you. It's addictive stuff.
For me, the experience was especially sweet. I'd signed up for heli-boarding twice before at different resorts, but both times had been denied due to bad weather. At Panorama, however, the odds are in your favour. "It's very rare for trips to get cancelled here because of the weather," said Andrew. "We have some really good terrain which we can use when conditions are not ideal."
Every time I peered out of the helicopter window I was greeted by the same sight: endless deserted mountain faces, each one totally untarnished. "No one really comes out here apart from us," said Andrew. "You can walk for two weeks out here and not see another soul. I know, because I've done it."
As the day wore on and our confidence increased, the runs got more challenging. By mid-morning I was cranking out huge powder turns on the steep stuff. Leaning in hard on my toes, my knees hovered just centimetres from the ground, the fingers on my trailing hand running through the snow as if it was cake mixture.
Even if you aren't heli-boarding, there's plenty of off-piste stuff to keep you occupied back at Panorama. Head to the top of the mountain and you'll find the Extreme Dream Zone. Those brave enough to venture through the gate will find some seriously steep trails, twisting and turning their way through the trees, with the odd cliff-drop thrown in for good measure. I preferred the slightly mellower Taynton Bowl, where the trees are slightly more spaced out.
In the unlikely event that you get bored of making fresh tracks, there's a huge array of long blue runs which dangle their way down the mountain. And as with the off-piste stuff, you invariably end up having most of it to yourself, which allows you to clock up some serious miles in a short space of time. But I found it difficult going back to the straight and narrow.
Once you've tried heli-boarding, nothing else quite matches up.
The writer travelled to Panorama with Inghams (020-8780 4444; inghams.co.uk) staying at the luxury Panorama Springs Apartments, where prices start from £554 per person for a week, based on four sharing in a two-room apartment, room only, including return flights from Gatwick or Manchester (Glasgow flights cost £69 more) and resort transfers. Scheduled BA flights from Heathrow are available at a supplement.
A pre-bookable six-day local Panorama area lift pass starts from £194, six-day adult ski and boot hire starts from £72 and ski school (three hours a day for three days) starts from £108.
Heli-skiing trips (rkheliski.com) cost £367, including heli-ski guide, flights, three descents, "Fat Boy" ski rental, safety briefing and picnic lunch.
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