Heli-Skiing Photos: Snowater's Kootenay Sampler

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Whistler-Blackcomb might get the lion's share of British Columbia's skiers and riders, but this northwestern province boasts more than the 2010 Winter Olympic venue. The best way to experience the typically unseen BC? Sign up for the seven-day Kootenay Sampler package, as I did in March 2010.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Snowwater, a boutique heli outfit that mixes backcountry skiing and riding with luxe lodging and gourmet cuisine, organizes the trip. It's a heady mixture of resort skiing, cat-skiing, and three days in pristine backcountry with a B2 A-Star helicopter shuttling you from the bottom to the top.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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It all starts at Red Mountain, a resort near the small mining town of Rossland. The resort was built in 1957, its first chairlift fashioned from old mining equipment.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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But don't let the mom-and-pop vibe fool you—Red sees 300 inches annually, with a vertical drop just under 3,000 feet, and a total of 88 runs accessible via eight lifts. Even on days like this—my first in the province—the resort proved harrowing and exhilarating in equal measure.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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On days two and three, the base camp shifts from Rossland to Nelson, a mountain town imbued with a hippie/hipster vibe that's a mere 20-minute drive to the real reason you're here: Valhalla Powdercats.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The sister company of Snowwater, Valhalla's snowcats access 21,500 acres of the snow-choked Serlirk Mountains, proffering as many as 13 runs in a single day. Push it and you can clock 18,000 vertical feet.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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A 45-minute drive in a retrofitted school bus gets you close to the good stuff, the last stretch a near-steady climb off the 3A. The bus shares the road in a near-Mexican standoff with mining vehicles who radio down to announce that they're heading to the main highway. Fortunately our driver Martin—Valhalla's founder—has been driving these roads, five days a week, for almost ten years. Familiarity imbues confidence.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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After disembarking, the skiers and riders receive a thorough avalanche beacon and safety training. All guides are certified and boast excellent knowledge in both mountain rescue and safety, as well as intimate association with the terrain.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The outings include drinks and lunch—typically eaten while looping between runs, so as to save time. Other needs are more easily addressed outside the cat.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Runs are consistent, uninterrupted fall-line descents with smattering of trees or more narrow crevices. Here Martin leads the crew into Moneypenny, which required a few tight turns before opening up into a wide, steep slope punctuated by rocky outcroppings.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Clark, one of the cat drivers, is a Nelson local who once groomed runs during the Calgary Olympics and also helped build the lodges that reside at Snowwater's backcountry HQ, home for the next three days.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Founded in 1993, Snowwater boasts a 150,000-acre tenure across three ranges of the Selkirk Mountains, along with backup snowcats to ferry customers to the pow should weather conditions ground the chopper.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Fortunately, the birds were able to fly my first day, albeit with less-than-ideal visibility. The crew of 12 skiers and riders—the max number allowed—was divided into groups of three by ability level, a typical practice that lets each group get in as many turns as possible.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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After one day at Red and two days of cat skiing, my intro to heli-skiing belied the hardcore images that dominate the mind: James Bond jumping onto a ridgeline or a ski-porn star balancing on the bird's rungs. Instead: an express transport to the fresh tracks, time after time after time, with pilots so skillful they could set the helicopter down on a snowflake.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Each night you return to Snowwater HQ for drinks and meals prepared by the skilled on-site chef. Afterwards? Choose your poison: hot tub, ski movies on the huge flat-screen, a few swank cocktails... Or combine all options into one, blissfully drawn-out scenario, hoping for dawns like this one to arrive.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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By the second and third days, the clouds parted—and the bluebird skies stayed.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Within ten minutes, we went from eating steak topped with a pouched egg and hollandaise sauce for breakfast (food and drink part of the all-inclusive price) to standing on the top of a snow-covered mountain.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The do-no-wrong conditions kept us cruising throughout the day, pausing only to wait for the heli to shuttle us to another ridgeline or to eat lunch while basking in the warm, mid-March sun.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Then, back to HQ for another big dinner before rising early and heading out again. And then, in a blink, it's over and you're flying back to Valhallah to return to Nelson, where the Kootenay Sampler concludes.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Being the ski obsessive I am, I also opted for an additional 24 hours in British Columbia, and visited Whitewater, about 20 minutes out of Nelson. Like Red, it's a total skier's mountain, with about 70 percent of visitors originating from the region. Less than ideal conditions that final day, and my legs were mush. But the near-instant lift-service access to the backcountry inspires a return visit—as if I didn't have enough reasons already.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
 
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