The deep blue ski

22:38, Mar 04 2012
BC heliski
POWDER BUFF: Mike Wiegele's heliski operation in British Columbia, Canada, still provides perfect powder after 40 years.

Blue River, British Columbia, is not really a town. It's a petrol station and a convenience store, halfway between the towns of Jasper and Kamloops.

Mike Wiegele discovered Blue River. Or, at least, he put it on the map. Now, 39 years after he arrived, there is a sprawl of luxury tourist cabins across the road from the petrol bowsers, as well as boutiques, dining rooms and fitness studios. As I pull into the resort's drive, I wonder how the locals feel about it.

They only have themselves to blame, though - especially Molly Nelson. In 1972, Wiegele was a young Austrian ski instructor who leaned out his car window to ask for directions. "Anyone here ski?" he asked. Not only did Nelson ski, she kept handwritten snowfall records dating back 34 years. Wiegele spent hours at her place that night, poring over the charts. He had found what he was looking for.

It snows more at Blue River than in some of Canada's more celebrated ski destinations, such as Banff or Lake Louise - a lot more. When I visit, snowdrifts on either side of the Southern Yellowhead Highway obscure the elevated roadside billboards. The highway remains perpetually white, storms swiftly erasing the twin lines of bitumen laid down behind the cars in front of me. The snowploughs can't keep up.

Where others might have seen a backwater isolated by wilderness and giant snowfalls, Wiegele saw the future - as a ski resort but not as we know it.

From a resort with 22 log chalets in Blue River, he would take skiers into the world's best terrain and deepest snow by helicopter.


Now, the shrewd septuagenarian owns most of the town - and he has plans.

One night last February, in the cavernous log-cabin dining room that is the heart of his resort, Wiegele told his 100-odd guests he hoped to turn Blue River into the Vail he so fondly remembered from the 1960s, before the famous Colorado ski town was transformed by multi-storey villas.

The remark comes midway through the rambling story of his quest to find Blue River, which he tells with his arm draped over the shoulders of an elderly German man. The stooped little man had joined Wiegele 40 years earlier on one of his frequent trips into the wilds of the Monashee range, guided by little more than Wiegele's ambitions; they had become hopelessly lost and had run out of food.

Now there is plenty of food - sandwiches and hot apple cider served on the side of a mountain - and Wiegele and his guides have learnt their way around. His well-regarded helicopter service now offers week-long trips into deep powder.

The brochure recommends a fitness regime before arriving. Don't worry about technical ability; if you're considering the adventure, you're likely to be sufficiently competent. Worry instead about your athleticism.

It starts like this: With nine others, I board a helicopter about 25 metres from the door of my cabin.

After a 15-minute flight, we land at two wooden posts topped by fluorescent orange tape marking a landing zone somewhere along a ridge deep in the Rockies.

I follow the others outside, drop a knee in the snow and turn my face from the spindrift kicked up by the rotor blade. We watch the chopper dip and beat below us, banking as it disappears up another valley.

And then silence. There's a moment of chatter, a backward glance from the guide and I pole away from the clearing.

Then, the rush - along fast, narrow lines through forests of hemlock and spruce, then a steep, boulder-strewn canyon and an impossibly soft pocket for a landing.

The guide veers right and I break into a virgin clearing and make four wide turns before looping again into the trees. Then, finally, an open expanse of giant, white pillows.

There are hundreds of vertical metres of dry, low-density snow here. I remember fast, untracked lines in waist-deep powder, the whoop of fellow skiers echoing from somewhere among the trees and a guide who launches off a cliff when he thinks no one is watching.

Then we arrive at another landing zone, hop back in the chopper, and I make my next turn less than 15 minutes after my last. A typical day involves as many as 15 of these laps, chewing through 3000 metres of vertical terrain.

I could spend the rest of my life making turns at every other conceivable location around the globe (by that stage, penniless and divorced) and still not beat a day at Blue River. It's the stuff of fantasy. It's perfect.

Linton Besser travelled courtesy of Travel Alberta and Tourism British Columbia.


Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing has a three-day trip from $C3876 ($NZ4715) a person in low season (November 24-December 29) and a seven-day trip for $NZ12,893 in high season (January 19-March 16), including guiding, meals, cabin accommodation and use of deep-powder skis. See

When to go

You're almost guaranteed powder right through the season, November 24-April 20.