By Tsunami Ranger Steve King
As winter inevitably yields to spring I escaped to soar and crash down frozen waves of water in British Columbia not far from Revelstoke, Canada. I am not referring to a literally frozen wave of water, such as this image below from one of the Great Lakes during this winter’s “polar vortex episodes” but rather to water when it turns into crystallized powder snow.
Surfing and rock garden play in kayaks have a lot in common with choosing a route down the nice fall line of a mountain especially when the choice is made after stepping out of a helicopter in the Canadian Rockies. In late February I managed to slip into a group of seven serious snow boarders and skiers who rented a helicopter for two days to experience the bliss of heli skiing.
The first day was -20 Celsius and a bit windy, not ideal kayaking or skiing conditions. As in ocean kayaking it’s all about conditions, conditions, conditions: what’s going on around you. As our sub-group of four plus one very experienced guide strapped on our back packs stuffed with back country shovels, tracker beacons, personal radios and Float 22 airbags it occurred to me that maybe I should have had more then one day of skiing under my belt this season to prepare for this trip. But such is life.
The first two or three runs were not easy; the snow was a bit crusty but also deep in some places on exposed slopes, changing on almost every pitch. One had to stay tuned in, just as on the water when a large wave appears out of nowhere, or a cross current tugs on the bow. It was challenging and I was glad that my bindings released a few times when I biffed a turn. Most of the time when we were picked up by the chopper we could see the other team of snowboarders flying down the mountains, usually it appeared without stopping.
The guide, Trevor, allowed us to pick a line next to his tracks in fresh virgin snow. We had to make some quick decisions about trees and rocks and not get too far from our group. This reminded me of slipping into a wave, taking the ride and bailing out or running into a safe zone on the ocean. The difference was that when surfing one circles back and picks up another wave, sometimes over and over again with great glee. In this environment no run was ever repeated. On each run a new set of obstacles or joyful powder turns appeared (with or without wipe out).
We all convened for hot soup and lunch after six runs (may have been eight for the boarder group as they lapped us a few times that morning). After lunch two of the skiers and one snow boarder decided it was time to call it a day and were flown back to the base of operations. I was asked if I wanted to continue and being a Tsunami Ranger and protégée of Eric Soares and Jim Kakuk, I said, “Yes! Let’s go for it!” I found myself alone for the afternoon in the chopper with a great guide and the pilot and it all started to come together. The snow softened up, the sun came out, and we found some gorgeous lines and got into the zone. It started to feel like an ocean surfing session when wave after wave takes you away almost without trying. That day ended well and we were all looking forward to the next day.
On day two it was snowing steadily and the viability did not look so good to me but I was assured only fog and high winds stop these pilots who can put down these machines on ridge lines like landing on a beer can. I was very impressed as the guide and pilot would look at a chart of the mountains and the nearby landscape as they picked the next landing and run. They were evaluating avalanche potential, looking for locations where compression from two sides of a valley would hold the snow in place versus open bowls that might allow larger amounts of snow to break loose, similar to evaluating ocean conditions where a wave series could carry the unaware surfing boat into a vortex with little escape until one had been hammered a few times against jagged rocks.
On this day due to the overnight snowfall the snow was perfect. We spent a lot of time in the trees, making choices turn by turn, pitch by pitch. This also reminded me of making quick reflexive decisions in and around rock gardens when moving down a new area of exposed ocean coast. Trevor, noting that we were all better the next day, loosened the leash a bit so we were picking lines through trees and trying to keep track of each other and especially him since he knew where we should end up for the next heli pickup. The team cooperation started to feel like a Tsunami retreat: individuals exploring but staying connected as a group, that familiar feeling of going for it but staying safe via a group connection.
This day kept getting better and Trevor took us through the woods to some relatively tight canyons with steep pitches so we could let it rip as best we could. Moving up and over natural bumps on the mountain felt like dipping in, up and over a wave trough. It became clear that, like in paddling, one could use minimum energy and yet have maximum control and flow if you could stay relaxed but tuned in.
For the last run we were asked if we wanted to be picked up where we had just stopped or if we wanted to have a more “ski adventure run” for our finale. The snow boarder in our unit gave the “Let’s go, man!” sign and off we went, into some tighter trees and gullies. The last slope looked like a theme park, bumps of snow covering stumps on a clear cut, up and down, over and around, deep snow, what can I say, the end of an awesome day.
This experience helped me realize how interrelated outdoor sports are and made me glad that I had hiked up Purissima Creek mountain trails on several weekends each month with fellow Tsunami Ranger Don Miguel aka Michael Powers, as it would not have been so much fun without that regular training!
We are all interested in what other connections our fellow paddlers have found in related sports activities in any season, land or waterscape. To comment, please click below!