When a group of women get together, there’s inevitably going to be some tears. Recently these tears were ones of joy, shed inside a Bell 212 helicopter as it lifted vertically toward the sky like a column of metal smoke. We’re on a heliski trip with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), with a dozen women who are heliskiing virgins: Some have never skied beyond a resort ski area boundary, most are new to using backcountry tools such as a beacon, probe and shovel, let alone an avalanche airbag. Some haven’t been away from their kids or husbands for longer than a night or two. And most have never huddled a body length away from a two-bladed, twin-engine helicopter with a rate of climb of 1,745 feet per minute, or climbed out on a knife-edge top of a snowy mountain.
On the first morning of our five-day trip, moist eyes behind high-tech goggles coupled with cheek-splitting smiles show the true nature of what is unique about women on an adventure together. For women, it takes so much to prepare for the journey (insert guilt of leaving responsibilities behind such as kids, husband, job, pets or parents here), that the beginning of the trip brings a kind of release. Any lingering guilt dissipates, however, with the fumes from the chopper as it banks a turn over a winding river and heads into the Canadian Rockies full of powder, fresh tracks and potential.
Heliski lodges have traditionally been filled with groups of men racking up vertical and a bar bill with their friends. Maybe the occasional wife came along or incredible athletes like Martina Navratilova (who has skied with CMH). More often than not, testosterone fills the hot tub or lines the bar. Not so this week—with the Chicks in a Chopper group, the amplitude of estrogen increases. This new tip of the scales excites the employees at the Gothics lodge, set deep in the Selkirk range of British Columbia. But women feel right at home here. The rooms are cozy, the women-specific powder skis are available in the correct lengths, two massage therapists are on duty, the fire in the stone hearth crackles invitingly in front of comfortable couches and chairs and the food deserves at least a two-star Michelin rating (which by definition is excellent cuisine, worth the detour).
After settling into our rooms at the Gothics lodge, we attend safety talks about the helicopter we’ll be riding (never move to the back of a helicopter!), learn how to operate an avalanche beacon (tin foil from your candy bar will interfere with your beacon!) and learn how to probe for a victim in an avalanche. It’s clear during these tutorials that women follow directions well and are very earnest in their studies.
The first morning arrives quickly and butterflies flutter in everyone’s stomach as we carry our gear to the landing pad and huddle up. The helicopter, piloted by a dapper pilot named Rocky, hovers overhead and lands with the skids merely inches in front of us. Rocky gives us the “thumbs up” and 12 of us climb in and buckle up. This is when the tears come. I’m pretty sure men don’t often hug each other at this moment, but this is what we do. We land, strap on our packs and click into our skis and follow the guide. He has the sense of humor typical of a mountain guide (one part self-effacing, one part sarcastic and one part kind) and his weathered face is a testament to his life in the mountains. He takes us to the best snow and we rack up our own vertical (over 18,000 feet and a dozen helicopter rides) as we float through powder, round old-growth trees and track up beautiful pillows.
Back at the lodge, we liven up the talk around the hot tub and the dinner table. Then we wake early, take a pre-ski yoga class and do it all over again. One day we track up untouched snowfields on a glacier, the next, we find knee-high powder on north-facing slopes. We whoop, holler, laugh and hug all day. We tell jokes, make up poems about why women should heliski and have snowball fights. All in all, the week felt like a wonderful dream… one filled with excitement, emotion, great skiing, fine food, scenic vistas, belly laughs—and the freedom to enjoy every minute. It must be that amplitude of estrogen, but a group of women on a heliski trip has proven to be a journey well worth the sacrifice, guilt and money, and the remedy to something in us that we didn’t know we needed.