Originally published in Volume 32, Issue 4 of SNOWBOARDER Magazine
words by Blair Habenicht
photos by Tim Zimmerman
If you are looking to get it as good as you can possibly get it, there needs to be a helicopter in the equation. Like adding bacon to anything, a helicopter makes everything better. Ask the dude with one on the back of his yacht. Ask Travis Rice. Ask the pro snowboarder living in a trailer with his wife and daughter, saving all their budget every winter for a few days of heli time—that’s me. You want to get it? Want to feel adrenaline like you imagine people feel in movies when they get out of a helicopter on top of the most insane-looking mountain you could ever imagine? Then get in a helicopter and go heliboarding. It is the most mind-blowing and efficient way to access the world’s best mountains. And if you want to fly no matter the weather, do not go to Alaska. You could sit for weeks waiting for sun in Alaska. You need to go somewhere with good alpine if the sun does pop and lots of tree riding if it doesn’t. You need to go to Canada.
Drive east from Whistler to the interior of British Columbia and you will be surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. It’s a beautiful drive. Whistler has some heli options, and the resort itself is world-class, but it is a major resort. Crowded. On most days it is operating at what feels like maximum capacity and your time would be better spent snowmobiling. I have never bought a snowmobile, purely on the rational that I could either have a snowmobile all year long or go heliboarding for a week, maybe two. I’d rather spend a week or two riding lines from a helicopter than have a snowmobile accessible to me all season. I debate this decision every winter. Snowmobiles can get you close, if not right to the top of runs that a helicopter would not hesitate to land on. But a helicopter will get you to the top of mountains a snowmobile could never summit and you are back to the bootpack. If I’m going to hike a mountain, I’ll just start at the bottom with my split board and save my money for the bird.
Once on the shore of Kootaney Lake in Nelson, British Columbia, mountains surround you. There is a great little resort up the road, Whitewater, and multiple catboarding operations that use the town as a staging area, most notably Retallack and Baldface.
Go a little farther up the lake and you end up in the village of Kaslo, a small notch in the shore, the Purcell Mountains to the east and the Sellkirks to the west. A butcher shop and a Mexican restaurant stand out against the few other businesses and eateries in the couple blocks that make up the downtown, with the Stellar Heli office sitting in the middle of the very walkable strip.
Austen Sweetin, Robin Van Gyn, and Travis Rice are out flying when I arrive at the Sentinel Lodge, a few kilometers outside Kaslo. I make myself comfortable with the coffee table book selection. Literature by and about psychonauts like Terrance McKenna and Timothy Leary command the space, surrounded by titles to help one identify editable plants, learn the benefits of meditation, and find parts of themselves they may not have imagined needed finding. Kaslo, Nelson, and the surrounding valleys were hotbeds for draft dodgers during the Vietnam war and counterculture-seekers alike, looking to smoke BC bud, make art, and do other hippy shit in the woods. And those people grew up. The Sentinel is the fully realized trip of owners Gillian and Richard. Kaslo is their Shangri-La and they have packaged it on the lake with cedar sauna and hot tub, rooms with views, exceptional culinary offerings, and a maloca-inspired, timber-framed roundhouse for whatever you see fit. Malocas were traditionally used by indigenous people of the Amazon for communal purposes. While we were out flying one afternoon, there was a midday dance party of about thirty locals who twirled and leapt and in general, let hair fly. Malocas were also used for ayahuasca ceremonies by the Amazonians, and although not advertised on the Sentinel website, after talking with Gillian and Richard, it seemed that if you would like to take part in such a ceremony, it could be added to the package.
Stellar Heli owner and lead guide, Jason Remple grew up in this village, learning to ski at Whitewater, the closest ski area. Shortly after graduating high school, he took a job dishwashing at a nearby catskiing lodge and was introduced to the life of the guide. And he wanted it. He worked his way into a tail guiding position, then into lead guide, and eventually became the operations manager of the entire thing. But he kept looking up.
“When you are skiing at a catskiing operation, working at one, you are always looking outside the boundaries of where you can go with the cat,” says Remple, with the tone of a man who has stepped into the unknown a time or two. “You are looking at all these peaks that are just out of your reach, so eventually I decided I would make the effort to apply for this ski tenure in Kaslo I’d been looking at my whole life, and I got it in 2005. It started out real bare-bones style, out of the back of my pickup. I’d call the heli company, tell them where to pick up the clients and I on the road, load up our gear, and go. It was very basic. Just the essentials, straight off the tailgate of my truck.”
Stellar now has a hangar to house the three helis they keep in rotation during the season. Travis, Austen, and Robin are here, again. This was the main location for Austen’s most recent signature film, High Octane. Travis is shooting a commercial, of sorts. Austen and Robin are filming for Travis’s commercial and also for Austen’s new short film, Rooster Tail, likely to be released around the same time this article will find itself in publication. With 80,000 acres of tenure, and according to Remple, a few more thousand of new terrain in the works for this season, Stellar has every conceivable topography a snowboarder could dream up. Says Austen, “Stellar holds the most pillows per capita in the world.”
Travis has probably spent more time in a helicopter than any snowboarder on the planet, ever. He has the budget to go anywhere in the world and he keeps coming back to Stellar.
“I have been lucky enough to ride around with the Stellar team in the diverse terrain they operate in for years,” says Travis. “My favorite part about riding here is that there are basically all styles of terrain and riding that is accesible right out of Kaslo, which is a seriously cool little town. I always leave with a smile.”
Personally, I don’t have the budget to go anywhere in the world. Like I said above, I make sacrifices in my life, like living in a trailer with my family, so I can save money to fly around in helicopters. The fact that I found a woman that lets me do this still blows my mind. We are building a little shack this fall; writing this is my break from working on it. Little is the key word—have to save money for a few days in the heli this winter.
If you have ever wanted to go heliboarding, then figure it out. Live in a sheet room. Work six tens all summer long. Find a partner who understands you. Live in a trailer. Don’t buy a snowmobile. Don’t buy anything. And go heliboarding. It will be worth whatever you did to get in that helicopter.