Paul Selig is a smart guy: after negotiating with the better half he gave his ski instructor daughter Kate two options for her 21st birthday – the big party or a heliski trip. Guess what she picked?
This trip was going to drain my bank account big time, so I wanted to be sure I chose the right heli operation. My brother and his mates had gone with another outfit and had great experiences, but been hit with big bills for extra vertical feet. With two of us skiing I didn’t need that sort of pain, so I started researching and quickly came across Mike Wiegele’s operation – ‘unlimited vertical’ and ‘1.2 million acres’ got my attention – that’s one hell of a lease area! I talked another ski addict mate into tagging along.
We warmed up at Whistler, where Kate has been instructing for 3 seasons. After 3 visits it’s no surprise it’s so often voted #1 North American resort. The run choices are endless. You can ski green runs from the top of the Peak chair all the way to Dusty’s in the village, or drop any number of cliffs or chutes because no one’s going to stop you. The options are immense and the resort caters for every level of skier.
Kate warmed us up nicely over the week, we spent a lot of time in West Bowl, Bagel Bowl and Tiger’s Terrace off peak chair. Around Harmony we skied some of the horseshoes and lots of bumps. Tree runs like Club 21 and Ratfink were great fun.
Blue River, the Wiegele base, is 215kms north of Kamloops. With a couple of hundred residents at most in winter if you don’t work for Wiegele you are likely a hibernating lumberjack, working on the railways, pumping gas or an unemployed heli ski bum. The town also has its own airstrip, busy with visiting Russian billionaires.
After lunch on arrival we met the guides, picked up our avalanche transceivers, signed the biggest mother of a disclaimer I have ever seen, covered off some safety stuff, then went to the ski centre and selected weapons of choice. I went with Atomic Rituals, Kate and Billy went with the Armada JJs. The JJ’s seemed to be the most popular ski and everyone enjoyed their responsiveness. The gear was in great shape and ready for us every morning on the heli pads. If you’re wondering, nobody uses their own skis, powder straps are no use given the constant loading and unloading out of the chopper, so when a ski is lost, it’s easy to say “forget it – its Mike’s ski anyway!”
Only one guy in our group had heli skied before, with over a million feet under his belt. This was his eleventh time at Wiegeles and a lot of the 80 skiers in the resort were return skiers.
The forecast was snow, and it seems its pretty much Groundhog Day in Blue River most weeks in peak season for that. The annual accumulation is 10m+, and Mike picked the place to set up his operation back in 1970 because the snow here “falls straight down”. After our week there I’d say his founding assumption is still valid.
Our lead guide was Mo Rasiah, who happened to be an Aussie from Sydney. Mo earned his stripes in Thredbo, went on an exchange program to Whistler 12 years ago, and never came back.
Both Kate and I are addicted to powder and the pure adrenalin rush that comes with making turn after bottomless turn waist deep in the stuff, wondering how you are going to breathe as the snow drives up your chest. Up until this trip we have fed our addiction with regular injections of Niseko powder over the last 7 years. I believe Niseko has the best lift accessed powder on the planet, and my bizarre concern was that after dropping all this coin in Mike’s pocket I would be a little disappointed with Blue River powder. Within 20 seconds of commencing my first run in the Monashees those concerns were consigned to the scrap heap.
This might sound bleedingly obvious, but heli skiing is all about the helicopter and more importantly its about the pilot. Have no doubt the pilot holds all the aces for the week. Your life is clearly in his hands, and they get into and out of some pretty tight drop off and pick up points. Their efficiency is a big driver of the number of runs you get, but most importantly the decision to fly is their’s entirely. If they don’t think the conditions are right to fly then they don’t, and not even mighty Mike will influence them. We lost the Friday in our week, it just snowed really hard all day and visibility was really poor. The upside to these down days is that the next day should be epic and our Saturday was no exception. Surprisingly Wiegele has limited “down days” with a 95% fly rate currently, not bad given the annual snowfall metrics.
Our pilot was a Swiss guy named Beat, an ex guide and excellent pilot with thousands of hours experience. He worked really well with Mo as they deliberated over the next line we would ski. Beat possessed a wicked sense of humour that tended to present itself on the last trip of the day when he would give us just a small insight into what a chopper was capable off.
There had been about 20cms of snow over Saturday, this was on top of about 30 cms in the couple of days before. Our crew was fully hyped while we waited for the choppers on Sunday morning. Our chopper was servicing 3 groups in total. The guides made the call to head into the Cariboos and we made our way up onto one of the Alpine glaciers for the first part of the day. The weather was pretty clear and as the chopper rose towards the first drop point at well above 2,500 meters the vastness and beauty of the Rockies opened up for as far as we could see.
The Kodak moment came to an abrupt ending as Beat set the chopper down and Mo had us out and clipped in no time. The first couple of runs were range finders for everyone, the snow was knee deep, consistent and pretty light considering we were in the alpine. The terrain was awesome. During the first morning we also skied Sundown Trees through areas of burnt out forest – a little eerie, but lots of fun. Lunch is choppered up and we ate each day at a pick up point at the bottom of the run.
In the afternoon we dropped a little lower and into the pine trees, well spaced and the pitch fairly even. Mo got us into some great intermediate terrain for our first day, it gave us all the chance to settle into a rhythm, and him a chance to assess the group. Everyone was absolutely frothing by the end of the first day, except Kate who wanted a lot more pitch, she would have to wait. We skied about 22,000 vertical feet on the first day.
Over the next couple of days we settled into a routine of alpine early then straight into the trees from late morning until close of play. Mo was also gradually moving us into more challenging terrain. The standout highlight day for Kate and I was probably the Tuesday when we skied a couple of lines along a ridge known as Aloha Trees. The pitch was steeper, the terrain much more variable with lots of opportunity for drops, snow depth was consistently top of the thigh and face shots were coming thick and fast, to cap all off it was as close to bluebird as you can get. Often we would ski out of the trees into a logged section, playgrounds full of powder puffs, small drops and rolls of all shapes and sizes.
The majority of our tree skiing has been in Niseko, where the deciduous birch trees allow good visibility for a reasonable distance, it’s easier to keep the party together and the terrain ahead is more predictable because you can see it.
The pines in Blue River add another dimension. Because their foliage is so dense and wide at the base visibility is more challenging and often line options are much tighter, predictability a lot less. The run tends to unfold in small chapters, the lack of visibility requires a greater responsiveness and sense of awareness as you react to terrain changes. At Mo’s insistence we soon got into the habit of using our own call signs to keep together, our calls echoing along the ridge constantly as we made our way down these tree runs.
An additional hazard was tree wells. We skied with ‘tree buddies’ to manage this risk. The dense foliage of the pines creates a void close to the tree trunk. The depth of the void, or well, can be significant, in excess of 10 feet. Given the lack of compaction in the snow on the sides of the well it’s extremely difficult to get out (a bit like the ant lion traps I played with as a kid) and most skiers would require assistance. If you go in head first it can end very badly. This risk played on my mind, particularly when Kate (my buddy) was 150m ahead on Mo’s clacker.
By Wednesday night we had skied 4 days and clocked up just under 100,000 vertical feet, my decision to go with Mike’s outfit and the “unlimited vertical” was feeling fully vindicated. Mo made the point that as a guide he chases quality not quantity. It would have been easy for him to guide us to lower pick up points on each run, we would have clocked even more vertical, but would have skied lower quality snow as we dropped to lower elevations and encountered more sun affected snow. It dawned on me that Wiegele, with 1,200,000 acres, are spoilt rotten for choice, they don’t need to bomb, nor do they need to squeeze every vertical foot out of every line.
Thursday was another epic day, we had a late start due to weather, about 11.00 we headed into the Monashees and skied more tree runs. We often finished the day with a couple of runs on Saddle Mountain which was close to the resort and on the way home. Wiegele also has a cat skiing operation based there. The chopper set down point is higher up and we dropped into a gladed tree run, ideal for late in the day when the legs are starting to burn.
Friday was a down day so we checked out the town and snow shoed up the river, it snowed heavily all day. Saturday was our last day, we only had the morning, so just over 3 hours of ski time. Mo made the call to keep us close to the resort – less fly time, more ski time, a morning on Saddle Mountain skiing perfect thigh deep pow to finish the week. Spirits were high. Our total vertical ended up at just over 130,000 feet.
Of the 80 skiers in the resort there were 10 Aussies including us. It seems no matter where you choose to ski these days you will run into compatriots who share the passion for snow sports.
Mike Wiegele himself is an inspiration. At 73 he skies most days, is in the gym every day, he thrives on hearing the day’s stories from the guests, many of whom have become close friends after many years of visiting. His enthusiasm and passion for the sport and the experience of heli skiing is infectious and has no doubt kept him young at heart. What he has achieved in Blue River is testimony to what is possible when passion, perseverance and ability come together. Hats off to the guy!