Sea to Sky… On High
Custom-Designed Winter Heli-tours
By David Burke
Photo Joern Rohde
For many who have just landed on the Pemberton Ice Cap for the first time, the most telling reaction is their silence. “When we all get out of the helicopter, and it’s [still] running, and then the aircraft takes off and leaves, that’s when people get an appreciation of just how massive the ice field is,” said Doug Washer, founder and president of Head-Line Mountain Holidays, which features excursions to the ice cap in its lineup of helicopter-assisted, Whistler-based tours. “They’ll start to look around, and as (the helicopter) disappears into the distance, the sheer size of the ice cap just dawns on people. That’s the first kind of feeling that overcomes them. And the guide will just take a couple of minutes to let them take it in, and some people will just let out a ‘yahoo!’ There’s always that moment of pause and appreciation.”
Head-Line, founded in 2006, is one of a small group of companies specializing in wintertime flightseeing in and around the Sea to Sky Corridor. Among the company’s tours, many of which include the chance to ride snowmobiles, snowbikes (half-track motorcycles), a snowcat or “monster-track” ATVs from the helicopter landing zone, is one that visits a crystal blue ice cave.
While all of Head-Line’s guided tours start with a standard itinerary, they are often customized to suit clients’ desires and budgets. When conditions are right, the company can even fly a small group of hockey enthusiasts up to an alpine lake for a high-altitude game of shinny hockey, Washer said.
“There are some super high alpine lakes that are right on the edge of some very large ice fields, and when we get that warmer (spring) weather and then it re-freezes, that’s the time when we can do something like that,” he said.
Photo Joern Rohde
Similarly, the keyword for many of No Limits Heli-Adventures’ tours is “custom-designed.” While the Ice Cave Experience, Volcano and Ice Adventure and heli-fishing excursions are among the company’s most popular, all of their tours can be tailored to suit guests’ innermost desires, said Kim Gregoire, No Limits operations manager. A high-altitude dining experience is an integral part of most tours, she said.
“We partner with Bearfoot Bistro with meals that run from your basic picnic to quite lavish offerings,” Gregoire said.
Said Washer, “People sometimes ask, ‘What we can do for lunch? Can we do canapés and champagne? As the season moves on and the days are longer, then we start considering doing more luncheon upgrades.”
Photo Joern Rohde
Both Washer and Gregoire said their companies were trending more toward “private” customized tours given COVID-19 restrictions for this winter. Gregoire said virtually all of No Limits’ early bookings were for guests reserving only those within their “core bubble.” Masks must be worn by all those who board No Limits’ three- and five-passenger aircraft.
The health and safety of guests is top-of-mind for No Limits, Gregoire said.
“We have enhanced cleaning, facemasks are required on all our flights, and we have pre-screening and temperatures are taken to ensure everyone’s safety,” she said.
“We own our own fleet, so we’re in a position to offer whatever the customer desires, and we can work around any budget.”
Gregoire said professional assessments of the ice caves’ and ice cap’s safety are done to ensure that guests come away with an unforgettable experience of the natural grandeur, parts of which are fleeting.
“I think those are the most valuable experiences… they’re unique because they (the ice caves) aren’t going to be around forever,” she said.
Head-Line works exclusively with Blackcomb Helicopters using aircraft that can accommodate up to five guests, a guide and a pilot. Washer said that if small, separate groups of guests wish to do the same itinerary on the same day, they will be asked if they’re comfortable flying with others — with everyone masked up for the ride and all the necessary cleaning and pre-screening protocols in place, of course.
After that initial sensation of awe, Washer said, “The next real ‘aha’ moment is when they enter an ice cave or look into an ice feature. That’s another moment where they realize how different this might be from what they expected.”