Welcome to a world of deep powder, untouched runs, and epic mountain terrain. There are no chair lifts or long line-ups. There are no crowds whatsoever. No grading, crunchy corduroy, out-of-bounds ropes, shopping strips, or parking lots. This is a world measured in vertical feet. It’s going to cost a little (or a lot) to get here, because you’re going to need a modified helicopter or Piston Bully snow groomer. Cat skiing and heli-skiing carve virgin lines into your bucket list. But perhaps you’re wondering: how do they stack up against each other?
First, a primer: Cat skiing puts you inside a cabin attached to a snow groomer with the torque and tread of an indestructible alpine tank. The driver ascends white-knuckle inclines, skirting dramatic ridges and cornices, depositing you at the top of Seventh Heaven – not the famous run in Whistler, but the real Seventh Heaven – again and again. Skeena Cat Skiing’s base camp, accessed via an exhilarating helicopter ride from the town of Smithers, B.C., looks like an alien settlement on an ice planet. Guests stay in comfortably heated dome tents with notably soft bedding, and gather in the adjacent lounge to drink craft beer, feast on gourmet meals, and unpack the day’s events: a daily adventure consisting of a dozen runs, around 15,000 vertical feet, and unabashed “can-it-get-any-better” skiing or boarding.
I consider myself an intermediate boarder at best, but feel perfectly safe encouraged by our veteran guide Bruno, who I’m happy to talk about, oh yes oh yes (note: he hasn’t seen Encanto yet, the poor guy). Before setting out, Bruno gives my group a thorough grounding in avalanche safety and rescue, equipping us with avalanche packs, radios and airbags. I ask how often someone needs to be rescued with poles and airbags and radios. Not once in his 15-year career. Safety is taken very seriously, but don’t let the risks — and there are risks with backcountry anything — stop you. You don’t want to miss out on those moments where snow and ski and body and mind converge into an unforgettable peak life experience. Think about the best ski run you’ve ever had at a ski resort. Now concentrate that feeling, increase the elation by at least tenfold, and you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to cat ski in this part of the world. Meeting the cat at the bottom of a gulley, my group climbs aboard, whooping and hollering, discussing the lines and glades and bowls. The cat shifts into gear, treads bite into the snow, and here we go again. By the end of the day, my legs are exhausted. Cat skiing never gets boring for a second.
Heli-skiing has long been regarded as the pinnacle of the recreational sport: higher, faster, wilder, deeper. It takes a couple days for my legs and technique to adjust to powder this thick, for my brain to compute that a large whirlybird can function as a personal ski chair. I am immersed in the world of CMH Heli Ski, who operate a dozen immaculate lodges across the Columbia mountain ranges of British Columbia. Helicopters are pricy to operate, and heli-skiing is no cheap endeavor. CMH lodges are remote, wood-beamed luxury wonders that treat their high-end clientele the way high-end clientele wants to be treated. Skiers might average 25,000 to 30,000 vertical feet each day, with access to millions of hectares of terrain. Nothing comes close to it. My group, consisting of a dozen American lawyers on their annual northern retreat, speak of heli-skiing with religious reverence. The company awards a bright blue ski jacket to clients who hit one million feet of vertical descent, and I notice several clients wearing blue jackets that week. Repeat business is so strong that CMH often have a hard time finding space for new clients. Avalanche safety is taken seriously, everyone is well equipped and the expert guides know this terrain well.
Whomp whomp whomp! Skis and boards are placed in exterior cages, skiers pack into the heli cabin, and it doesn’t take long before we exit on top of the world. By the third day, when I at last find my footing, I scream with exhilaration, grateful for the opportunity to live on a planet where something like this is even a possibility. Heli-skiing is joy distilled, and the peak of winter adventure.
Pros and cons? Cat-skiing is cheaper than heli-skiing, but you won’t get as high in the hills, and your runs will be shorter. Heli-skiing is more intense: load in quick, exit quick, go go go! Cat-skiing can run in all weather, while helis might be blown out because of storms, visibility or winds. The pace of heli-skiing means that social interaction is mostly limited to après at the lodge, while cat-skiing gathers everyone after each run for excitable chatter, and some music on the speaker to soundtrack tall ski tales. Both pack lunches on the go. Skeena Cat’s lodge is a family affair; you meet the owners, play with their bear-sized dog, use the honour-system bar. CMH lodges are well-run mountain hotels, with morning yoga classes and a fine wine list. The bad news, it has to be said, is that both cat-skiing and heli-skiing will forever change the way you experience resort skiing. No matter how good your day is on the slopes of Whistler or Lake Louise, Vale, Aspen or the Alps, it will never compare. Cat-skiing and heli-skiing deliver an entirely different experience, the peak of any skier or boarder’s bucket list. Comparing them is not quite apples to apples, but more like champagne to prosecco. Who wins in the meaningless battle of cat skiing versus heliskiing? The answer is simple: you.