Heli-skiing: R.K. Heli-Ski
Now that I've found my balance again, both physically and mentally, it's time for the real thing. I head 150 miles south to Panorama Mountain Village, home of R.K. Heli-Ski. As exclusive concessionaire to 1,240 square miles of prime mountain parkland, R.K. never lacks for snow. Few other heli-ski operators are willing to take customers up for a single day (three to seven days being the norm for top-notch outfits like CMH Heli-Skiing, the world's first helicopter skiing company). Most are wary about taking skiers out without first assessing their abilities, since an inept skier on the slope can ruin everyone else's day. R.K., on the other hand, happily caters to anyone who can handle intermediate runs. The company is, however, a stickler for safety—it was founded by the legendary Roger Madson, "the king of bombing," as one employee describes him. "He's been flying since 1972, and they've never had a major accident, because if he sees any snow he doesn't like, he bombs the crap out of it."
I arrive at R.K.'s office just before 9 a.m. to sign the bulletproof liability waiver and collect my skis. "I can tell how good a skier you are just by the way you carry your skis and poles," Roger says as the rest of the day's 30-odd customers filter in. Most are middle-aged, either European or Canadian. They don't remind me at all of the Vikings I met at Kicking Horse—in fact, the people standing next to me are talking about the dinner buffet on their last cruise.
Before heading out, we're briefed on avalanche safety. Each of us will carry a radio transceiver strapped under our clothes. If I'm buried by an avalanche, the others can use their transceivers to home in on mine—assuming they're not buried, too. We spend a fruitless half-hour looking for buried transceivers in the parking lot, waving our units around like Spock on Star Trek. I imagine that finding one in the panicked aftermath of a disaster would be even harder. My strategy: If there's an avalanche, try to be somewhere else.
We split into groups of 11 and drive a few miles by van to the staging field. A helicopter descends on us in a blizzard of rotor blast; we rush up, doubled over and holding our hats, and load in. Pressed together in the cramped cabin, trussed up in our heavy clothes, we can barely move. The helicopter rises, dips forward, and gains speed. Out the window, the steep snow-covered valley falls away. We're barely over the shoulders of the mountains when we bank, slow down, and settle atop a vertiginous ridge. Everyone clambers out with their skis and huddles together in a ball as the chopper rises straight overhead, buffeting us with 70-mph winds.
The thup-thup-thup fades out, leaving us in mountain stillness. The entire trip took just a few minutes. After slipping our skis on, we follow Gord, our lead guide, to the lip of the hill. "Keep your weight forward, and bend your knees," he tells us.
For a while we stare at the expanse of snow in awed silence. Eventually, Gord turns to us and asks, "Well?" Someone musters the courage to slide forward onto the virgin field, and one by one we follow, trembling with timidity and anticipation.
The snow is fluffier than I'd imagined, and endlessly deep. It seems to suck me in, like a big down comforter, and I have to keep moving to avoid sinking. I try to do as Gord says, but instinct tells me to lean back, so just staying upright is a constant struggle. I finally lose it and embed myself sideways into the hill, snow down my back, my skis crossed somewhere under the powder. Deep breath. Dig out. Straighten skis. Get moving.
Gradually it dawns on me that the powder is softer than any feather bed, and that sprawling out horizontally is the best way to rest. The less I mind falling, the more quickly I improve, as I start to get a feel for the fluid side-to-side bouncing motion, which reminds me of a child's bobbing top.
After lunch—a cling-wrapped sandwich furiously gobbled between the day's two helicopter rides—I'm assigned to a more aggressive group. We are picked up by a chopper; minutes later we're standing in a cirque rimmed by craggy cliffs. Clumps of snow slough off the cliffs and tumble down in disintegrating sprays of white. The guide tells us to be careful: this is avalanche country. He goes first, then stops 200 yards below and waits for us.
I'm not sure what "being careful" means. All I can do is grit my teeth and hope I don't trigger any catastrophic collapses. As I slide forward, the haze of white on white makes it impossible to see the snow under my skis. But the next thing I know, I'm flying. It's a sensation of floating, a flowing weightlessness as I bounce from one turn to the next as if on springs. The snow hisses as it zips around my chest and stings the exposed tip of my nose. For a few moments I'm not even there. I'm just motion, air, heartbeat. My skis go: hush, hush, hush.