Beyond Vertical 

A next-level heli ski experience in the South Chilcotin Mountains

click to flip through (6) PHOTO BY VINCE SHULEY - The helicopter lifts off.
  • Photo by Vince Shuley
  • The helicopter lifts off.
 

Our truck rumbles along the dark gravel road, the reflection of storming snowflakes in the headlights almost hypnotizing. The Bridge River Road demands undivided attention from our driver, the sheer drop off just metres away keeping him laser focused on the task at hand. Sometimes the most worthwhile destinations come at the expense of an arduous journey.

We are bound for Tyax Wilderness Resort and Spa, an oasis amongst the rugged canyons north of Lillooet, B.C. A luxury lodge in the summer for hikers, bikers and horseback riders, but in the winter Tyax is the headquarters for TLH Heliskiing. If the weather tomorrow clears, our day will be an all you can eat buffet of powder turns and rotorwash.

Rising at 7 a.m and heading straight to breakfast, the floor to ceiling windows in the dining room reveal an optimistic blue sky. The snow that made last night's drive a labourious task now sits calmly atop the exterior deck, glistening in the morning sun.

After suiting up in warm clothes our group gets a quick training session in the use of avalanche safety equipment, including ABS Airbags. These last-measure lifesavers are on the backs of all guides and guests throughout the day. An equal amount of time is spent familiarizing guests with the loading procedure for the 14-passenger Bell 212 helicopter, the dangers of overhead rotors when landing on a slope the chief concern of guides and pilots. The gist of it: keep your head down, and never walk behind a running helicopter.

A few staff from the lodge take the opportunity on their day off to fill empty seats in the aircraft, one of the perks of working at a remote wilderness heli lodge. Though they have ridden in helicopters to ski powder many times before, the excitement is painfully obvious in their faces as we lift off.

Alighting at the top of a sprawling glacier our guide, James Blench, informs us of the terrain hazards in the current avalanche conditions before setting the first set of ski tracks down the slope. Our group briefly suffers from some very Canadian over-politeness, with everyone insisting that someone else go first. I indulge, knowing that there is enough powder up here to lap the slope a dozen times without crossing a track. The snow is the highest quality I've ever experienced in the Coast Mountains, a result of cold temperatures and light winds overnight. The slope is not steep, but with every turn I effortlessly spray snow over my shoulders, my face getting delightfully covered in the cold, smokey powder.

Though TLH is not the only heliskiing operator to offer days of unlimited vertical, they are one of very few who will dedicate a heli for a single group. Larger operators will often coordinate a single aircraft with several groups of guests, meaning potential wait times while the heli drops off another party before coming back for your lift. At TLH, your aircraft and pilot is there waiting for you at the bottom of every run, making you feel like a celebrity hopping into your own flying limousine. It also means you keep skiing and riding in helicopters until the day is over, sometimes amassing over 7,000 metres of vertical skiing.

Part of the reason for TLH choosing to service single groups is logistics. The operation's vast tenure — which spans almost one million acres across the South Chilcotins — means that some initial flights are up to 15-20 minutes long. Having the heli backtrack that distance for other groups would burn too much fuel to be equitable, so keeping the one group with the one heli — several mountain ranges away from the lodge — makes sense, not just for guest experience, but also for the company itself. It also means that seats need to be filled, so unless you have nine friends joining you expect to be sharing your day with other parties and making friends. Regardless, with a dedicated heli, everyone benefits from the unlimited mileage.

Back at the lodge, happy hour is in full swing as guides and guests mingle over après drinks. Today's conditions are touted as some of the best this season and tomorrow's forecast is looking even better. Guests break off to hit the spa as guides adjourn to complete their daily reports.

At dinner time the lodge is bathed in a warm glow from the fireplace and table candles. Three courses await us from Chef de Cuisine Liam Paul including veal sweetbreads, a duo of sable fish and pork belly and molten chocolate cake.

I thought at 10 a.m. this morning that the day couldn't get any better. I've just hit the next level.

DETAILS:

TLH is located at Tyax Lodge in Goldbridge, approximately 3.5 hours drive from Pemberton. Five-day or longer packages include the 20 minute flight to and from Pemberton Airport. Standby rates start at $950 per day with one night stay at Tyax lodge with all meals. Visit tlhheliskiing.com for more information.

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