Jan 24, 2009

Chick bonding - heli-ski style

Heli-bonding (n) the act of forming a close personal relationship through the frequent pursuit of killer ski runs, accessible only by helicopter and accompanied by the inhalation of copious amounts of snow over awesome terrain.

Last week for the fourth year running,” Jerry’s Kids” headed back to Canadian Mountain Holiday’s Valemount Lodge for a week of heli-skiing in the Cariboo Mountains. This year the chicks ruled and four of us ladies, Dominique Punnett, Kate Olson, Judith Ritschard, and I joined the group…and we were ready to ruuummmmmbbbbllle!

Lyndsay, Kate, and Dominique

The trip started with beer and obligatory onion rings at the YYC in the Delta Hotel attached to the Calgary Airport. Ten of us in total formed the group led by our host Jerry Murdock. Jeff Berkus, Tom MacKinnon, Chris Sacca, Richard Betts, and Dr. Jim Mitchell rounded out the group. Together, new friends and old toasted Kokanees for an amazing week to come. Reports heralded amazing amounts of snow, but also very high avalanche danger.

Judith waist deep

After a quick nights sleep and an early breakfast we headed to Sun West Aviation to board the plane up to Valemount. With all of our gear loaded, including seven cases of great wine courtesy of Murdock Cellars we were ready for some epic skiing. Valley fog and snow changed the plane’s itinerary to Jasper/Hinton, (very rough descent) after which we hopped in a van for about two hour ride on the Yellow Head Highway. The farther we drove into BC, the less reception our cell phones received and the stress of everyday life melted away as we took in the inspiring peak of one of Canada’s highest mountains, Mount Robson.

Lyndsay on Moustache

Once we arrived at Valemount we hurriedly attacked an amazing lunch buffet, adjusted skis (we used the Atomic Helidaddies) and began the safety chat. For those of you who are not familiar with the heli-ski concept, I will include you in a little heli-ski safety 101. Since all runs occur in the backcountry far from any ski area, safety is key. Following a few simple rules would assist our head Swiss head guide Danny Stoffel, and our German tail guide George Dempfle in providing a safe experience for everyone.  Both guides are internationally certified through UIAGM and have a combined forty years of experience. These guys know their stuff.

The helicopter accesses a vast amount of terrain including glacier and tree skiing. The safety chat covered a few main concerns. First, you must always ski close to the tracks of the guide, they set the line and you follow. One year a guest asked a guide, “Hey, what happens if we go over there?” the guide responded, “You go over there and you find out.”

Pro skier Kate Olson

Second, tree skiing involves having a partner (and getting to yodel yooohoooti to them), to prevent disappearing into tree wells. Since the snowpack can be as deep as ten feet, little trees sticking out of the terrain can actually be big trees covered in snow. If caught into one of these wells upside down tangled in branches, it can be very difficult to get out on your own. Golden rule of heli-skiing, everyone is responsible for each person in the group, If someone falls, you stop and help him or her find their ski, put them back on their feet, get the snow out of their nose and hair.

Next, there are shiny, neon green backpacks to be worn by the team, some with first aid kits, some with radios, all with shovels and probes in case of an avalanche. A twenty-minute video explained the use of the new Barryvox Beacons (all skiers wear an avalanche beacon that transmits a digital signal) and how to react when losing members of the team in an avalanche. After the video we stepped outside to practice searching for hidden beacons to solidify  our skills. The new Barryvox are so user friendly, one friend had his five-year old son use the device to hunt for his Easter eggs.

Lastly, Mike our Kiwi pilot, gathered us around the Bell 212 helicopter for an additional briefing. He reminded us that even though the chopper moves fast, it does not imply that you need to!  Skiers should move slowly while staying low and be in the pilot’s line of sight. Crouching gives him a little more room to play with if there are unexpected wind gusts. The rotors (tail and main) are the main source of danger. Never walk behind the chopper, or approach or leave the chopper in an uphill direction - the main rotors can drop down to roughly three feet in high wind or uneven terrain. For the same reason Mike reminded us when skiing towards the machine at the end of an epic run, stop outside the rotors. The pilots are very protective of their machines and the body will easily dent if a skier accidentally skis into the side. (They call it their “machine” or the “thunder chicken.”) FYI, the rotors create insane static electricity…NEVER touch the chopper before it sets down. It’s a little more of a shock than when you used to rub your feet on the carpet.

Business taken care of, we slid open the door and crammed in ten deep threading legs and getting cozy.  Most flights out were about fifteen to twenty minutes. The first day we stuck close to the lodge and did a few runs on Christmas and Puff, racking up a quick 5000 meters (16,000 feet) to slide back into the heli groove and ramp up excitement for the first full day to come.

Dominique in the white room

I liken dinner at Valemount to eating at one of the best restaurants in Canada. The chef David Weslowski prepares a gourmet meal each night accompanied by Jerry’s killer wines. We sat and got caught up over the last year’s events and happenings while the heli-bond slowly started to strengthen, work was a forgotten memory and the layers of formality were wearing thin. Late night festivities were often an occurance in the lodge or out in the heli-shack.

Chris, Judith, Jerry, and Kate

The first day we will just call the “White Room.” Take-off was at nine sharp and after fifteen minutes we arrived in the stunning valley of Adolf Creek. Dom, Kate, Judith and I piled out of the helicopter, rolling over onto our backs to watch it take off. It never gets old, watching the pilot maneuver his way between the flags that mark the landings. The red flags on the stakes are essential, they show the pilot wind direction. He will adjust the landing accordingly, choppers always land into the wind. Getting skis on in a few feet of snow can be tricky. Sticking them in the snow at an angle allows you to brace on your poles, kick the snow off your boots on the bindings, and then step into the ski. Not always as easy as the guides make it look. After a few minutes of boot scraping noises, we were ready to roll.

Guides George and Danny

“We are on Enchantment, follow my line please”,  said Danny, and he was gone. I partnered up with pro skier Kate Olson, AKA the Steel Rabbit, and away we went. A few minutes later we were skiing in chest deep powder, face shots flying overhead making it difficult to breathe. I could hear laughing and giggles from everyone, like surround sound. We stopped and regrouped as we heard Danny yodeling just below to set us up for the next line.  “What a sh@tty sport!” he laughed. We all grinned ear to ear unable to suppress giggles and shouts. Our beaming smiles probably could have powered the lodge for a few days.

Back to my fellow chicas, we were ripping up the slopes!  I loved skiing with these women. Judith, born and raised in Aspen and first time heli-skier adjusted to the terrain as though she had been heli-skiing for years, jumping off ledges and dodging trees like slalom gates. Dom turned fluidly down the fall line in spite of her eighth knee surgery a few months ago. That to me is true love of the sport. Suffering though eight surgeries while rehabbing and icing constantly, she gets the award for the biggest heart. She inspires me.

This was year three skiing with Kate. I know exactly how she skies and vice versa. It’s a relief to see her jacket after launching myself into some crazy position. With a sigh of relief, I know I am gonna get out soon – I always got some serious grief in the process, but that is also the beauty of heli-skiing, it’s incredibly easy to laugh at yourself when covered in heaps of snow! The boys were all rockstar skier, some I had skied with for four year running, and the group energy was as good as the snow. It’s a connection I cant voice out loud- it’s heli bonding.


At the bottom of the slope everyone just stood for a minute and looked back up at the run in silent awe. Skis off, we broke trail through waist deep snow to do it again. I look at all the red faces in the helicopter, meeting everyone’s eyes willing myself to remember this amazing feeling when I am home at my computer buried in work.  We skied thirteen more runs in the “White Room” stopping only for lunch in the field.  After ten thousand vertical meters we flew home landing just as dusk set in around four thirty. We would ski a total of 67,000 meters that week. (220,000 feet)

Judith, Kate, Dominique, and Lyndsay

Food is never an issue at Valemount. Returning to the lodge we were greeted by “Welcome back,” from the staff who were ready with a plethora of heli snacks. Its just accepted by all that you will leave at the end of the week with a new friend, your heli-belly. Filled with quesadillas, spring rolls, beers in hand we headed to the Jacuzzi and the sauna for a day’s recap while seeing who could run farthest out into the snow and make the best snow angel. Piled in the sauna 7-8 deep the heli-bond had firmly taken hold and we had six more days to achieve our only goal - laughing and letting go. Brava Dom, Judith, and Kate!

Jan 13, 2009

Holiday Hill Climb

“Sugarloaf is now an uphill mountain!” reported one of the many emails Nina Silitch received after the huge success of the first annual Holiday Hill Climb held at Sugarloaf, Maine, this past December 27th. Close to one hundred people walked, skied, ran and skate-skied up 400 meters (1100 feet) at night by the light of headlamps and glow sticks lured by the promise of  a great pasta dinner at the finish.

Nina Cook Silitch and Warren Cook scouting the course.

Monte seche, nachtrennen, or night races, are held every weekend all over the Alps. On any given weekend and international variety of colorful spandex clad fanatics cab be found going uphill in the dark. Nina and I participate in the local SOMFY series held in the Rhone Alps and a few held in the Valais in Switzerland. They are a perfect opportunity to test the waters and learn about ski mountaineering without having to go the full monty. They are also a fantastic way to spend a weekend night.

Uphills traditionally last anywhere from thirty minutes to and hour and a half involving one big push to the finish accompanied by cheering  and cowbells. Often they are a family affair and after the race, competitors ski or take the lift down and meet at a local restaurant to share van chaud (hot mulled wine), fondue, and or tartiflette.

Nina grew up on skis ripping around Sugarloaf Mountain. She decided she needed to bring the Alps experience home to the ‘Loaf. “ I wanted to help share this fun fit energy and atmosphere at the local ski area where I grew up and help the sport of ski mountaineering grow in Maine.”she explained. “The best part of the race was seeing everyone lined up at the start, and having my dad take part.”

The idea of just “running” uphill was initially hard for people to grasp and management was slightly pessimistic. Nina pressed on with the help of her father Warren Cook, and the marketing genius of Jaime Badershall. However, after exceeding the race cap of eighty-seven racers, running out of race souvenirs provided by Petzl, Isis, Kiss My Face, Smart Wool, Marker, Patagonia, and Sirius Gloves, and additionally selling out of race t-shirts, everyone was singing a different tune. Race day buzz was brewing.

Most people hear ski randonne and think, “huh?” To educate all that its a sport, not a pasta, Nina held a clinic to teach and encourage all levels to participate. After some deliberate searching she rummaged up enough gear to outfit unsure participants thanks to the quick thinking of Nevado Adventures, Aardvark Sport and Sugarloaf Sport Shop. Mid-session one gentleman asked Nina, ” so what is the point of this again?” She laughed (as yes sometimes that thought crosses our minds too!) but he gave it a shot and loved it. Once you find your rhythm, its an amazing way to simply walk up hill with the reward of skiing down.

Racers lined up for a five pm start from the Super Quad. The sky was lighted up by headlamps donated by Petzl racers follow  the course via glow sticks and helpful groomers along the steeper more challenging sections. The weather was warm and foggy and wouldn’t you know that glow sticks don’t work so well in fog. The course  snaked up Tote Road with Chicken Pitch as the final tough climb before finishing at Bullwinkle’s Grill.

Exhilerated and exhausted finishers were given hot cocoa, water, and snacks after crossing the line. After a bit of recovery, racers skied down to the Sugarloaf Inn for a pasta party with a slide show on ski rando racing and skiing in the Alps by Nina and her husband UIAGM guide Michael Silitch. Numerous awards for all categories were presented thanks to the generosity of local sponsors. Pete Swenson director of the United States Ski Mountaineering Association won the men’s event with Tina Poulin winning the women’s event on snowshoes, and Nina coming in close second on randonne gear. Timing was provided by Randy Easter Timing. For a full list of results check the USSMA website.

Nina training at Saddleback Mountain

Nina is in the process of assisting with the organization of two more Maine events, the Saddleback Mountain challenge Febuary twenty-eighth and the Sugarloaf Reggea Rally on the twenty-forth of April. They both will be day events that will include transitions. Get ready to step it up! Questions? Email bravabella or Nina Silitch.

Brava Nina, and Brava Sugarloaf.