The challenges facing B.C.’s heli-skiing industry

GET TO THE CHOPPER The first trip Hans Gmoser made in 1965.

A group of heli-skiers

The CMH Adamants lodge (one of 11 CMH heli-skiing lodges)

Skiing with Bella Coola Heli Sports

KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS The Kardashians go heli-skiing

The view from above

The sport of heli-skiing was invented in B.C. 50 years ago and has seen tremendous growth over the past decade. But can it survive the intense competition for skiable terrain, a slowing economy and the ravages of climate change?

In May 1965, Austrian-born mountain guide Hans Gmoser—prompted by Calgary geologist and avid skier Art Patterson and another friend, Brooks Dodge—assembled a group of guinea pig clients in a remote valley near the Bugaboo Range south of Golden. He used a Bell 47 helicopter to ferry the clients two at a time up into the high glaciers and untouched powder of the Bugaboos. It was a cumbersome operation with the low-capacity helicopter, and accommodations were the definition of rustic: clients were lucky to get two runs per day; they stayed in the uninsulated plywood cabins of an abandoned sawmill camp and shared kitchen duties. However, Gmoser knew that he had stumbled upon a winner and his guiding outfit, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), became the world’s first heli-skiing company—giving birth to what is now one of the most exclusive tourist experiences money can buy.

Fifty years on, CMH is a leader in an industry that now boasts more than 18 different heli-skiing operators in B.C.; cat skiing, a lower-price-point powder-skiing option in which guests are shuttled up the mountain in a snow cat, came two decades later (there are currently 20 cat-skiing operators in the province). While financial metrics for the industry are hard to come by, a 2013/14 report from the Canada West Ski Areas Association pegged revenues in both the heli- and cat-skiing sector at $160 million, up from $100 million in 2003. But the sector—which employs approximately 2,000 people in B.C. and accounts for 19 per cent of the $817 million generated annually by Western Canada’s ski industry—faces some serious challenges. The proliferation of companies entering the market, combined with a limited amount of skiiable land, has made for some intense competition. The industry is also struggling to move beyond its middle-aged-male base and find new high-spending clients. And then there’s the elephant in the room (or rather, on the hill): climate change, which has many in winter tourism gazing forward with trepidation.

“This is a mature industry with not a lot of viable terrain left in the province,” says Ian Tomm, a veteran heli-skiing guide and executive director of HeliCat Canada, a Revelstoke-based organization created in 1978 to represent the interests of heli- and cat-skiing businesses. “The focus is now really on growing the client base.”

Heli-skiing operators in B.C. have area-based tenures that are granted by the province and renewable for 20-year terms; tenures can be found as far north as the B.C.-Alaska border and as far south as the southern Kootenays

Heli-skiing operators in B.C. have area-based tenures that are granted by the province and are renewable for 20-year terms; tenures can be found as far north as the B.C.–Alaska border and as far south as the southern Kootenays. Until recently, one of the key problems had been that government was granting overlapping tenures to neighbouring, and competing, heli-skiing operators. HeliCat Canada worked with the province on developing a new adventure tourism policy, announced last March, that now governs all wilderness tourism activities and harmonizes policies between different government agencies; it was a complex undertaking given that there are more than 600 commercial adventure tourism tenures on B.C. Crown land, covering everything from river rafting and jet boating to heli-skiing and hiking. “Land use and tenure is the lifeblood of our industry,” says Tomm. “It requires constant attention.”

So, too, does hustling for guests and tapping new sources of heli-skiing clients. Over the past decade, heli- and cat-skier visits to B.C. mountains have remained flat at roughly 100,000 per year (split roughly 70/30 between the two). The clientele of Gmoser’s early days—willing to live like ski bums in a logging camp for the chance to ski fresh powder—has given way to today’s more exclusive skiers, mostly from Europe and the United States, who are willing to pay in excess of $1,000 per day to ski and dine in five-star opulence (or pay $50,000 per week, along with 10 of their buddies, for a dedicated helicopter and guides to shuttle them around the mountains in search of powder). It’s a customer base vulnerable to both shifting global economic conditions and an explosion of local competition.

Gmoser sold CMH to Kelowna-based Alpine Helicopters in 1995 (which, in turn, was sold to Intrawest Resort Holdings Inc.) and passed away in 2006 at age 75. But his legacy looms large over the mountain sports industry, according to current CMH president Joe Flannery.

“I don’t think when Hans first started heli-skiing that he could have imagined what this industry would become.”

The company Gmoser founded—headquartered in Banff, Alberta—now has sales reps around the world and a fleet of 11 lodges throughout B.C. CMH is the titan of the industry, but with tens of millions of dollars of capital invested in lodge infrastructure, it has to remain nimble to keep beds and helicopter seats filled in the face of competition. Today, a lot of that competition is coming from smaller operators such as Bella Coola Heli Sports, based in the Bella Coola Valley, and Northern Escape Heli-Skiing, near Terrace, which both emerged as heli-skiing shifted to a more affordable, boutique-style product.

“Boutique,” in industry jargon, refers to smaller group skiing using aircraft like the A-Star that seats five or six skiers rather than Bell 212s, which are like buses in the sky with room for 14 passengers. (Bell 212s were the bread and butter of CMH’s high-volume approach in the 1980s and early ’90s.) CMH has also shifted some of its product to smaller groups and offers more four-day packages as opposed to the traditional week-long trip.

Beyond economics there’s the demographic challenge: finding a younger, more diverse clientele. Of particular concern is the lack of female heli-skiers; Bella Coola Heli Sports, for example, says that just 10 per cent of its clientele are women. “There’s still a perception that heli-skiing is an extreme, testosterone-filled sport—and ski movies have done a lot to perpetuate that myth,” Flannery says. “In fact, heli-skiing is very accessible, and someone who is comfortable on blue runs can have a great experience.” That’s why CMH offers special weeks dubbed “Girl Powder,” with instruction led by female pro skiers, in an effort to defuse that old-boys-club image.

In another strategy to expand its demographic appeal, CMH partnered several years ago with K2 Sports, a youth-oriented ski and outdoor gear company, and rebranded its Nakusp operation (100 kilometres south of Revelstoke) as CMH K2 Rotor Lodge. Guests have the opportunity to ski with sponsored K2 athletes and test new K2 models before the product hits the retail rack. “The K2 brand gets to access the largest database of heli-skiers in the world,” says Flannery, “and CMH accesses the next generation of potential heli-skiers.”

Beat Steiner, owner and business manager of Bella Coola Heli Sports, is one of those who believe there are still a lot of potential heli-skiing clients who have not yet tried the sport. Steiner got the idea for a heli-skiing company in the 1990s while working as a Whistler-based filmmaker, shooting ski movies around the world. Bella Coola Heli Sports, which he co-owns with Christian Begin, now boasts a tenure in B.C.’s Coast Range larger than the Swiss Alps and so vast that some guests are still skiing first descents and naming new runs. As for where the next generation of guests will come from, Steiner believes that affluent skiers who pay top dollar for ski vacations at tony resorts like Vail and Aspen are heli-skiers in waiting. “For those who can afford it, heli-skiing is the best skiing experience you could ever get.”

The one threat to that experience, which is on everybody’s minds these days, is climate change and the impact it is having on the heli-skiing season, which typically runs from mid-December until late April. “For years, operators have been talking about the changes they are seeing with glaciation, annual snowfalls, winter temperatures, flight conditions and other weather occurrences, and that dialogue is ongoing,” says HeliCat Canada’s Tomm, who worries that “tough winters” like last year’s are a more likely occurrence in the years to come.

When clients book precious holiday time for a week of heli-skiing in B.C. only to sit in the lodge for most of that week, operators are forced into damage control mode. A bad snow season may cause some guests to browse the marketplace for other offerings in places like Chile, New Zealand, Iceland and even Russia and Turkey. However, Steiner of Bella Coola Heli Sports is convinced that when snow quality and variety of terrain, not to mention political stability, are factored in, the smart money from discerning skiers will always land in B.C. “These are sort of novelty destinations, but they don’t offer the reliability and stability of B.C.”

John Forrest, founder of Terrace’s North Escape Heli-Skiing, is—like many in the industry—hoping for a better winter in 2016. As for the long-term prospects for his business, the Edmonton-born entrepreneur is philosophical. “The weather cannot be controlled and thus you get what you get. Mother Nature rules. Generally it’s awesome skiing, sometimes it’s not great, and sometimes it even sucks. However it’s always great to be out in the mountains skiing in amazingly wild places with friends and family.”