This blog entry about the events of Saturday, July 27, 2013 was originally posted on August 07, 2013.
PART 14 (DAYS 31-33): “Two things. Don’t shake the pilot’s seat,” instructed one of the heli-ski guides. “Don’t touch the stick.”
I particularly had to pay attention — and heed caution — because I sat right between my guide Chris and the pilot with his control stick, due to me being the shortest in the group. “I’d be honored to be the shortest man here,” I told Chris. My 5’6” height advantage got me the front and center seat for the spectacular view of the North Harris Mountains, as the helicopter pilot took me, Chris, and four other skiers and snowboarders up above the snow line.
I THOUGHT I’D NEVER BE IN THAT HELICOPTER. For four days I’d waited for favorable weather patterns of clouds and wind to make a helicopter flight possible, and I wasn’t the only one. For me, it started in Queenstown, on a partly cloudy day, when I first enquired about heli-boarding at the Harris Mountains Heli-Ski company, after a remarkably mediocre trip to the local ski area. I waited for the next day to go up in the chopper, but the weather remained unfavorable — and then for another day. I eventually moved on from Queenstown to nearby Wanaka for a change of scenery in hopes I’d maybe go straight away from there, but even in that town I had to wait for weather to shape up.
“How’s it looking for tomorrow?” I asked Nina, a Vancouverite who worked the Harris Mountains Heli-Ski desk in Wanaka, inside the Racers Edge gear store. I was expecting her to say that things wouldn’t shape up for a couple more days, but “It’s looking good for tomorrow,” she told me.
“Yeah?” I said in disbelief. “Alana [the manager in the Queenstown office] told me probably not ‘til Monday.”
“[Well, the wind is shifting in the south. Looks like it could be a bluebird day,]” she told me. “[You can see here.]” She showed me a map on her computer screen with wind patterns, and told me that the wavy pink lines were indicating that wind might move out by Sunday, making it a perfect day to fly. However, the optimism of heli-ski companies always came with a caveat. “Well, we’ll see. It could change,” Nina informed me. “I’ll let you know at eight tomorrow.”
The next morning, the phone rang a little after 8 a.m. in my lakeside room at the lovely Wanaka Hotel. “Have you looked outside?” Nina’s voice asked.
“I did,” I replied. “But I don’t have my glasses on. I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.”
“Oh, it’s good,” she said. “We’re flying today.”
The gear I’d rented three days before at the Snowbiz gear shop — all the way back in Queenstown — found its way to me by way of a minivan that also brought other heli-skiers and heli-boarders from the Queenstown area to Wanaka. (Alana at Harris Mountains Heli-Ski had easily convinced Snowbiz to extend my rental reservation at no charge, since I never used them while waiting to fly.)
It was in the van en route to the helipad just outside Wanaka that I met a guy from Auckland, Dave from Perth, and an Indonesian father with his 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Everyone was amazed that such youngsters — even younger than Gap Year Kids — were being spoiled with an opportunity to go heli-skiing, something that the rest of us adults were doing for the first time. “You kids are lucky,” someone informed the kids.
“You hear that?” their father added. I think he really wanted them to know how big of a deal this was, so they didn’t grow up thinking that heli-skiing is a normal thing that people always do. Obviously, the family was well-off; this “extreme” sport comes with a price: $825 per person for a four-run day in the vicinity of Queenstown and Wanaka — pricey, but southern New Zealand is amongst one of the cheaper places you can buy a heli-ski package in the world. (In other places, the price tag for a similar package has four figures, not three.)
“I think it’s [less expensive here] because you don’t have to pay for the insurance like other places,” Dave assumed. “Here, they just assume you know the risks.”
Not that Harris Mountains Heli-Ski didn’t prepare you for conceivable mishaps. Our caravan of SUVs and minivans stopped off at the helicopter hanger for a briefing, so we knew how to behave when in the vicinity of a moving propellor. To be extra safe, we’d always need to crouch down while boarding the aircraft; the propellor of our particular helicopter wasn’t so high off the ground — a tall person could raise his hand and get his fingers chopped off.
Afterwards, we did a brief training of how to use an avalanche beacon, since a snowslide is a potential danger wherever you’re backcountry skiing/snowboarding — helicopter or not. My guide Chris showed us how to switch from transmit to search modes, and how to read the meter to figure out where someone might be buried. The 11- and 10-year-olds liked the practice exercise because it was like an electronic game of hide-and-go seek.
The Indonesian family, along with their private videographer, were put in a group for more beginner runs, while I was assigned to an intermediate one. Heli-skiing in New Zealand is available for all experience types — or at least marketed as such — although you definitely should have some pretty good experience beyond a bunny slope, like blue square experience at least. I was put in an intermediate group with Dave from Perth and Steve, a doctor originally from Florida on a working holiday in New Zealand, with his college-aged son.
THE PILOT, WHO WASN’T MUCH FOR WORDS, took us out of the valley of greens and browns, and above the white peaks of the North Harris Mountains. When he landed on a makeshift helipad only denoted by a wooden stick propped in the snow with a ribbon tied to it, we knew the drill from our briefing: Chris disembarked first, put a backpack on the ground — which marked where we needed to be within arms length of (for safety) — and then unloaded our gear out of the enclosure mounted on the side of the helicopter. Each of us left the aircraft one by one, kept a hand on the backpack while crouching down, until the helicopter flew away to pick up the next group.
“I watched [pro snowboarder] Jeremy Jones’ Further before I came here to get me [pumped],” Dave told me. His board was tied to mine, making us snowboard buddies for the day — excited ones at that.
Chris looked down the slope to assess the situation — i.e. the possibility of an avalanche — and figured out a safe area for us to go. We untied our snowboards and skis, and attached them to our feet, and got ready — both physically and mentally. This is it, I thought. I eyed an invisible, virgin line in the snowfield and stood up.
Untouched powder slid underneath my board, allowing me to accelerate with the power of gravity.
Amazing, went my inner monologue. Fucking amazing.
I surfed down the mountain, trailing behind the others in wide, relaxing turns. There’s no boundaries of how wide I can go right now, I thought to myself. I can go anywhere right now. If I had become a snow snob before, I was definitely at the next level: Forget snow resorts; nothing is like heli-boarding from the top of a mountain.
We regrouped with Chris about a third of the way down between the peak and our next makeshift helipad, a flat area between the mountains — at an elevation before it started to get icy. He led us another third down, but I sort of mis-calculated how wide I could go. I actually got stuck down in a gully — which is like a natural half-pipe when it’s covered in snow — and had to climb out of it just to get to where the others were. It was slightly embarassing when I had to strap out of my board, and then use it as a climbing device to ascend about twenty feet out of the gully to regroup with the others who were waiting for me.
“Sorry, I thought this [gully] was going to meet up down there,” I apologized to the group.
“No, we’re going this way,” Chris told me.
That was my only mishap of the day — thankfully just on the first, warm up run. I gradually went from warmed up to hot in the next two runs. The helicopter picked us up and dropped us off, for Rides #2 and #3 of my life, like this:
“GRAB YOURSELF A SAVOURY,” Chris announced to everyone. He and the other four guides had set up their famous “alpine lunch,” a picnic for all the groups in an open valley between peaks where the helicopter was stationed nearby.
“We’re so civilized here,” I commented near the communal cutting board. There were savouries, bread, veggies, meats and cheeses, plus hot soup, coffee, and juice served out of what everyone assumed was a canister of gasoline.
“Don’t eat the yellow snow,” joked Steve, the Floridian doctor. Fortunately no one had pissed nearby (as far as I knew anyway). We only had one plastic mug per person to be used for all liquids, and most likely it was from cleaned out soup, juice, or a relaxing cup of tea.
“I made the mistake of bringing my wife here,” Chris told us as we admired all the mountains flanking us in all directions. “She told me, ‘You’re never allowed to tell me you’ve had a hard day again.’”
I WAS GIVEN THE OPTION to pay a couple more hundred bucks to make my four-run day a seven-run day, but with the winds picking up, that possibility blew away. And so, I had to make my fourth and final run of the day count. The helicopter picked my group up from the valley and landed perpendicular to a narrow mountain ridge — the narrowest of the day.
“Holy shit,” I vocalized for most of us. If the propellor wasn’t keeping the helicopter level, we could have fallen on either side of the ridge depending on weight balance inside.
“Grab onto you gear,” Chris instructed us as we untied the snowboards and skis. The ridge we were dropped off on was so narrow that skis or snowboards could slip away in either direction.
“You got yours?” I asked Dave for verbal confirmation.
“Okay, got it.”
“If it goes, you’re not getting it back,” Chris told us — probably not even kidding either.
I found my line, stood up, paused dramatically while finding a perfect track on my wristwatch iPod, then gunned down the mountain with The Prodigy’s “Omen” blasting in my ears for a maximum action experience. I shot down the virgin powder without much turning, building up speed. Faster! If I was warm to hot before, I was on fire now — and people had noticed.
“Wow, you just went straight down that thing!” raved a young woman observing from the bottom of the hill. (She only bought a three-run day — the smallest offered package for a lower price — and was already in the valley). “Everyone else is turning.”
The run, which was only about 1000-meters-long back down to the valley of our alpine lunch, was the best of the day. What a rush.
“I almost don’t want to do this again, so I can remember this as the time I went heli-boarding,” I told Dave when we’d landed back on grass, away from the snowy peaks. “But I’ll probably do it again.”
And maybe one day I would. Because like I said, nothing is better than riding down from the top of a mountain.
THE NEXT DAY, I LEARNED THAT HELI-SKIING WAS OFF AGAIN due to weather, and that I had gone on the only permissible day during my short time in New Zealand. I left the country a couple of days later, knowing that with everything I had done there, I’d definitely left on a high note.
Steve, the middle-aged doctor from Florida, quickly tired from our “extreme” heli-skiing adventure as the day pressed on. In fact, during our last run, he lost control of his skis and flew off a rock formation jutting out of the snow — but not gracefully like Jeremy Jones or Travis Rice. Thankfully, he was okay, plus his ski miraculously didn’t slide all the way down the mound.
“You’re out of shape, old man,” his college-aged snowboarder son teased him.
Next entry: Up and Over
Previous entry: Middle Man in Middle Earth
Stay tuned for the conclusion!
Up and Over
Middle Man in Middle Earth
THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY
Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with