Seconds before I became airborne I heard the guys below yell “CLIFF”, but the warning was too late . . . I didn’t even see the huge boulder drop until I launched straight off. As I flew through the air I had just enough time to wonder how high I was (visibility was near zero) before landing with a thump 25 feet below – fortunately in chest-deep powder.
2020 – a new decade and big year for me as well, was off to an adrenalin rushing start! Rewind a bit to Dec 26, 2019 when I received an email from Canadian Mountain Holidays rep Julie Noble Bakkala (daughter of Fred Noble, the subject of my documentary film “The Noble Spirit”). “If you were presented with the opportunity to go on a private exclusive trip to the Nomads Jan 18-23rd, 2020 could you go?” Hell yes I thought, and immediately called for details.
Turns out there was a last-minute cancellation in an exclusive private tour so there was space for me to accompany the group to capture action photos. This was a dream assignment of mine since my mid 20’s working in the snowboard industry. It seemed too good to be true, so I asked “Is there a catch?” Julie answered “I know you are an incredible snowboarder but would need to feel comfortable that you could keep up with the guys. . .”
Ok just 3 weeks to prepare, could I do it? Wish I hadn’t indulged in those holiday wine dinners, been chained to my desk the past months editing photos from my busiest work season, and had time to snowboard beforehand to test the gear. I now seriously regretted not following a consistent workout regimen. But I’m never one to turn down a challenge and have been on a successful heliskiing trip with CMH before to film the Noble Spirit documentary. I’m also an experienced snowboarder with an expertise in aerial photography, so I figured that if I couldn’t keep up on the runs I could capture stunning aerials from the helicopter. A call to the group leader reassured me of their expectations, and Julie was also able to join as my buddy and carry support gear, so I committed.
The first signs I had of my challenges were at the dinner gathering the eve before we flew into the lodge. Turns out the group members were more expert skiers than I’d realized, and in great shape. Flying Squirrel (I’ll call them by their well-earned nicknames) loves jumps and had snowboarded with Jake Burton; Honey Badger is an avid surfer and trains regularly at home by swimming pool laps on his surfboard as fast as he can; and most of the group had been heliskiing many times – 25 years in fact for some, with on average over 2 million vertical feet of elevation tracked.
The next challenge was the weather. A sudden change in temperatures had caused a fog layer over the mountain passes, delaying our helicopter and causing us to miss our first partial day warm up introduction. Day 2 started off early with everyone anxious to make up for missed time, and as the helicopter circled over potential terrain my heart sunk when I realized my first run would be through a steep forest. After the safety and rescue demonstration when our guide purposefully dropped down into a deep tree well and we learned how to dig him out, we were off.
I thought I’d experienced some pretty incredible powder runs with CMH in 2012, but that was nothing in comparison to the conditions we encountered this trip. Over 13 feet of powder had fallen recently in the Canadian rockies, and this virgin untracked snow was so deep, light, and fluffy it flew over our heads on most turns. I couldn’t believe the floating sensation . . . a dream until I needed to check my speed through thick trees, follow a traverse path, or when I fell in less steep sections – have you ever tried to stand up with both feet attached to a snowboard in chest deep powder?
The first day despite my lack of athletic conditioning, low visibility, and other challenging photographic conditions, I managed to capture quite a few decent shots of each skier. I shared photo selects with the group over dinner; after a happy reception and semi-recovered muscles from a hot springs soak and intensive deep tissue massage, I felt buoyed & ready to tackle new challenges.
Each day I did in fact get more comfortable, my muscles remembered how to perform from past experience, and we continued to find steeper and deeper powder. It didn’t stop snowing the entire trip and, although I never got the chance to photograph from the helicopter, the snow conditions were incredible. In fact even the guides with thousands of runs commented that the powder was some of the best they’d ever skied.
By the last day of the trip, I felt confident enough to let it rip, allowing my powder board to fly down the slopes for the ultimate feeling of freedom while hearing the guides coaching in my ears “Speed is your friend in deep powder”. Which is how I found myself sailing over a 25-foot boulder cliff that was invisible from above. I somehow managed to land upright; before I could catch my breath to move away from the landing zone I watched our guide also accidentally launch off the same cliff (remarkably performing mid-air acrobatics to avoid a dogpile), and laughed that it’s all well that ends well. After all, every epic day is only earned with challenges, and it was all perfect in the Noble Spirit legacy of Fred, for which I am ever so grateful to have experienced.
Here’s a link to my favorites photos from the shoot
https://andreajohnson.photoshelter.com/gallery/CMH-Nomads 2020 best
For more information on Canadian Mountain Holidays private helilskiing adventures, “Your personal heli-skiing safari, three million acres of variety …. Nomads gives you and your friends access to the best terrain in five distinct mountain ranges – Galena, Kootenay, Revelstoke and Bobbie Burns tenures are just a flight away.“
Direct link to CMH rep Julie’s website to book or ask questions
View the trailer for our documentary film The Noble Spirit