Springtime Heli-Sledding in Whistler
Milestones deserve to be celebrated. So when my 50th birthday rolled around this spring I decided to splash out on a daylong heli-sledding tour with Whistler-based Head-Line Mountain Holidays.
Story and Photos by Garth Eichel, Archipelago Media
Springtime Heli-Sledding in Whistler
The morning of my adventure starts at the Whistler Heliport where I’m greeted by Doug Washer, President and CEO, and Trevor Broemer, one of Head-Line Mountain Holidays’ most experienced snowmobile guides. The pair inform me and three other guests that there is a record amount of snow on the glacier today and snowmobiling conditions are excellent. The news generates a collective feeling of excitement and anticipation; everyone is anxious to get airborne and on our way to the glacier!
To that end, Washer and Broemer help the group gear up, fitting us with helmets, goggles, boots and gloves, as well as backpacks and shovels. I’m impressed to see the equipment is all top-of-the-line, and in excellent condition.
After a quick safety briefing, Washer and Broemer escort the four of us out to a waiting EC130 helicopter. Once we’re buckled in, the pilot lights the helicopter’s engine and the turbine howls to life. Sitting in the front seat, I watch as the pilot goes through a series of checks before lifting the aircraft up into a shallow hover. We pause momentarily before lurching up and forward, climbing westward out of the Whistler Valley above steep forested slopes.
After about 10 minutes of scenic flying the landscape below begins transforming as tree-covered hillsides give way to rocky mountaintops. Our pilot points ahead to the glacier we are destined for. It is a majestic sight: soon we are flying above a remote world of rock, ice and snow, far removed from the rest of the world. The pilot descends towards a small glacier hut atop the icefield, wheeling in a downward arc that offers everyone on board a panoramic view of a landscape rippled by the powerful forces of nature.
Glacier Snowmobiling in Whistler
Approaching the surface of the ice cap, the downwash of the rotor blades kicks up a whirlwind of snow as the helicopter touches down in a spot pre-marked by Head-Line’s guides. Washer and Broemer exit the helicopter and then signal everyone in our group to disembark, cautioning us to keep our heads well down, clear of the turning rotor blades. We rally at the nearby shed and Washer signals to the pilots that it’s okay to depart. With that the EC130 lifts off, showering us in snow, wind and noise. A minute later the aircraft is out of sight, and the din of rotor blades gives way to stark silence. There is not a breath of wind on the glacier, and time seems to be standing still. Our group is suddenly all alone, a long way from civilization.
But not for long. Washer and Broemer go into the glacier shed and moments later the snarl of snowmobile engines coming to life reminds us why we’re here. Each of us is assigned our own Ski-Doo, and I’m surprised at how large each is—especially the long track extending behind each snowmobile.
“A long track is better for deep snow and hill climbing,” explains Washer. “These snowmobiles are specially designed for backcountry sledding.”
A Gentle Learning Curve
They’re also easier to handle than I expect. I’m a novice rider with limited experience and ability, but after a quick tutorial I’m soon carving s-turns back-n-forth. I feel competent, bordering on cool!
“Glacier snowmobiling is actually much easier than trail riding,” explains Washer. “Snow conditions are far better, and the wide-open spaces are suitable for riders of all abilities.”
“You don’t need to be an expert,” he adds. “We use helicopters to transport guests up here where the best conditions are. The 20-kilometre forest trail most people ride to get here can be hard sledding at times, especially when it gets chewed up by lots of snowmobile traffic.”
Indeed, glacier snowmobiling is to trail sledding what heli-skiing is to chairlift skiing: one allows exclusive access to premium conditions while the other involves crowds, line-ups, and steadily deteriorating snow conditions. There is no contest between the two.
Heli-Sledding on a Beautiful, Empty Icefield
Because we flew in at first light there are no other riders on the glacier yet. We have this winter wonderland entirely to ourselves and I can’t wait to explore all the glacier has to offer.
To that end, our group sets off with Broemer in the lead and Washer bringing up the rear. We pick up speed across a flat section of glacier and with each passing minute my confidence rises, as does the speedometer. I am at first comfortable doing just over 50 kmph, but after 10 minutes I’m doing over 60 kmph. After 20 minutes I’ve reached the upper end of my comfort zone at around 75kmph.
Broemer coaches me on additional handling techniques, showing me how to turn in deep snow by standing up and forward on one side of the sled for maximum control. It feels weird switching side-to-side on the sled through turns, but after a few minutes of practice I’m carving through knee-high powder with a measure of confidence. I feel pretty awesome for 50!
Climbing on a Mountain Sled
The long-track glacier snowmobiles really come into their own going uphill. It seems counterintuitive to accelerate going uphill, but this keeps the snowmobile from bogging down in deep snow and on my first attempt up a steep gradient I’m amazed at how the sled soars skyward like a homesick angel.
The fast upslope ride is a tad nerve-wracking at first, but the reward at the top is a panoramic view of the Coast Mountains that surpasses any mountainscape I’ve seen before. In every direction are jagged mountaintops fencing in rolling glacier fields. The beauty of it is both fantastic and haunting.
Our group rests and enjoys the vista for awhile before pressing on. Abilities vary in our group from beginner to advanced, but each person’s confidence and capability increases with each new hillclimb and downslope. By mid-morning we are all handling our Ski-Doos better than we thought possible.
Fine Dining With the World’s Best View
Still, it takes strength and energy to handle a big glacier snowmobile, and after a few hours of sledding I’m starting to feel my age a bit. Fortunately, so is the rest of our middle-age group, and so we thread our way back to the glacier hut where Head-Line Mountain Holidays’ own backcountry chef, Danny O’Donoghue, has laid out a fantastic shish kebab barbecue, complete with chunks of grilled tenderloin, marinated chicken, giant prawns and large scallops, accompanied by baked nugget potatoes, fresh buns, and a selection of colourful salads.
Danny is the most popular guy on the glacier right now, but he has one more surprise in store. Before we departed on our snowmobiles this morning he slipped pork ribs wrapped in tinfoil inside the engine compartment of each sled where they slow-cooked atop the engine manifold. Peeling back the tinfoil on my packet, I discover a mouth-watering side of ribs cooked to perfection.
Backcountry cuisine just doesn’t get any cooler.
For the next hour our group indulges in exceptional food and cheerful laughter, and there is a feeling of camaraderie that comes from sharing in an extraordinary experience.
After a delightful lunch I’m not quite ready to get back on my sled with a full belly, so I take a bit of time to wander about and explore the surrounding scenery. I take several photos on my smart phone to record the moment and, to my surprise, discover we’re up high enough to get cell reception. I’m not an avid user of social media, but this is definitely one experience I figure warrants a post. I update my status accordingly, letting family and friends know I’m 50 years old today and on top of the world.
This story first appeared in In-Flight Review Magazine, and is re-published courtesy of Garth Eichel and Archipelago Media.