Enjoy active travel? Then heli-snowboarding may be just for you. Global travel writer Daniel Scheffler tried it out
There is a certain fulfillment in making it to a remote space that is seemingly impossible to reach: the commitment of getting there, the effort expended in the process, the dangers involved, and the planning that goes into absolutely everything related to it. It is an offer to reassess a set of values, a chance to face a whole lot of fear. It’s done quite simply by just putting yourself out into the wild. Taking yourself somewhere unfamiliar, unchartered and unexplored by most of the world, to the untraveled, untrodden snow. Of course I was interested in finding out what this meant for me. Up, up and away from Canada’s Calgary – eight hours northeast, to be exact – is where snow is unplumbed and ready for all kinds of new discovery. Away from the tourists seeking snowboarding with gondolas, and nearby towns that can provide beer and sustenance, this particular area is all about the snow. The snow is the remedy and the cure. The diehards come here to revel in the snow, to celebrate its very existence and to push the boundaries of snowboarding as far out as they can imagine. To be able to get as close as possible to this unique snow situation is therefore tricky. And that is why Canada Mountain Holidays (CMH) offers its helicopters for unprecedented access to nothing less than 3,1 million acres of pure snow, high up in the mountains. If I had a fear of heights, at this point I’d have to let that just go.
In fact, heli-snowboarding born right here, north of the famed Revelstoke and Banff areas of Canada, up in the Columbia Mountains. Snowboarding itself originated in the United States in the ’60s, although the Turks used planks with no straps to zip down the slopes hundreds of years ago. It became an official Olympic sport in 1998 and spawned a massive subculture that once was rebellious, but now is pretty mainstream across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The idea of getting into a tiny helicopter frightens me as, arriving at the latest CMH lodge, I see the machine standing proudly nearby – but not enough to change my mind. The lodge itself, a home-style, very casual mountain structure called Gothics, is the perfect place to befriend people interested in something similar: challengers of the body and mind. At this point my mind was telling me that it would be an impossible task. How could I, a novice snowboarder, tackle the finest powder snow in the world?
Heli-Snowboarding Finally Kicks In
A night’s rest assists with any kind of doubt – allowing for talking yourself off the proverbial ledge, if you will. The morning is cemented with a solid breakfast, a joy that comes with being active all day. A long and thorough safety drill follows, and it feels hard to memorise – if you happen to, I don’t know, be in a snow avalanche. But I make a mental note of what to do when there is a ton of snow coming down the mountain straight towards me; I would have written it on my hand if I weren’t wearing gloves. Post safety drill, and all geared up with thick clothes, reflective goggles and a multi-coloured snowboard under arm, I watch as the heavy metal machine comes in for landing, much too close to me for comfort. The group I have been assigned to, notably with an Olympic snowboarder, all kneel down as the fine snow dust blows up hard against us. Thinking the noisy blades are closer than they are, I keep low to the ground and manage to hop-crawl into the jarring red beast. Time loses all its meaning as the reality of heli-snowboarding finally kicks in, along with the ram of adrenaline and a firm punch of excitement.
Suddenly the quaint lodge and the world below become small, and the sound of the helicopter becomes a white noise that doesn’t interfere with the graceful sensation of levitating above some of the highest peaks in the country. The white mass below seems gentle, and the cold is forgotten altogether – but only for right now. The helicopter drops position, with a soft touchdown on a snowy bank high above the lodge, which is now nowhere in sight. The autopilot in me flings open the door, hops out in the taught huddle position as I wait to exhale. With the helicopter disappearing into the distance, the silence of the mountains echoes through my head and my ears. Utter quietness, not a reverberation of anything but my heart’s musical beating, fills the space around me. I ponder how I’ve surely won half the battle at this point – I am standing on a tiny plank of carbon fibre, up on a mountaintop, ready to basically jump down with a whole lot of glee. Clipping on your snowboard in a familiar stance is different when you know there is nowhere to snowboard towards. There is no café up in the mountains where you can have a reprieve and a coffee to warm you up. There is definitely no chair lift that will bring you back up to a certain peak. And there is nothing familiar about the tracks either, because there just aren’t any. The snow is fresh and completely novel. For this a deep breath is most certainly required. My lungs lap up the fresh air and the pull of the slope lures me down.
You Are Free
It was Jim Morrison who said: “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” The fear certainly is gone as I careen downhill towards, seemingly, the abyss. The beauty of snowboarding, and I guess skiing holds the same value, is that you’re all alone up in the mountains, where humans have largely left the terrain alone. There is no pollution, no distraction, no cell service and no noise to sway you in any other direction. The sense of purity, of being at one with the wilderness, with nature, is overwhelming and absolutely in sync with what we want as humans. It takes you back to something primal and much simpler – something our ancestors understood as they hunted and gathered and led a rather uncomplicated, even straightforward, life. They were, of course, without the snowboard in its bright neon colours and a helicopter circling overhead as it comes to pick up other boarders, complicating things slightly.
The powder engulfs me as I hightail down the hill; I am not fast enough for the terrain, I quickly realise. Deep powder, like that which Canada offers up, requires lightness on the board and plenty of high speed, apparently. I sink deep into the whiteness. Quickly my sense of achievement of being able to get down the slopes with no fear is harshly overshadowed by my own shortcomings. At this point, I recall that everyone else in my group trained for this for three years – and then there is that Olympian whom I now see a mile downhill from me, racing like he knows what he’s doing. And so is life. The challenge is not to be the best at something; the challenge is simply to do, to do anything besides nothing. Heli-snowboarding brings back the challenge of life; it allows you to overcome something that could manifest as fear. It also takes you into nature, a privileged access to pristine wilderness, where we can be reminded of a set of values we hold dear. Values such as what is right or wrong, or what “ought” to be, suddenly have perspective, without the internet or society pressing up against the windows of your mind. Of course, these values are as subjective as ever, but space and time are just the ultimate in freedom. Up in the mountains of Canada, jumping – well, almost jumping – out of a helicopter and embracing nature grants the opportunity for canoodling with this exact freedom. Sometimes the journey to get there requires some dedication and teeth – gritting, but the bounty is almost always worth the effort – even if you’re not perfect at snowboarding into the white, white powder.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, and booking your journey, visit www.canadianmountainholidays.com
HOW TO GET THERE:
From Johannesburg/Cape Town, fly via London to Vancouver on Virgin Atlantic; from there a short hop to Calgary, where CMH will transfer guests to any of their lodges. Book on http://www.virginatlantic.com/global/en/destinations/canada/vancouver.html