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'Copter provides the lifts, B.C. runs provide the powdery awesomeness

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Single file, we carefully tread along the metre-wide outcropping that is Ripper Ridge.

On one side, a sheer cliff dropping a kilometre into the fog. On the other, a wide, natural half-pipe of unmarred powder snow two kilometres long in the brilliant sunshine.

But before we can ski that momentous pow, we have to safely arrive in clumsy boots to the wider knob of the ridge where we can put on the skis and poles we're dragging.

This is the kind of jaw-dropping scene that can only be played out with Kingfisher Heliskiing, British Columbia's newest helicopter skiing operation covering 900 square kilometres of untouched terrain in the central Monashee Mountains just east of Vernon.

Our group is just five skiers and snowboarders and a guide.

The agile Bell 407 'copter dropped us off 50 metres back on the narrowest plateau it could handle. It's all in the name of giving us the most awesome, most exclusive ski experience possible.

"Small-group heliskiing is where it's at," Kingfisher co-owner and guide Tim Shenkariuk tells us.

"The difference is this $2-million machine," he continues while pointing over his shoulder to the Plexiglas bubble we've just been flown here in. "It lets us explore the big stuff."

Big stuff, indeed.

The cruise down Ripper Ridge is epic, with wide, languid turns through virgin fluff.

We meet in a snowy meadow at the bottom, big grins on our faces, and chat about the grandeur while we shed our skis and wait for pilot Brad Fandrich to arrive.

When we hear the distinctive whup-whup-whup of the Bell's rotor blades, we huddle together while Brad lands right beside us and we get a free exfoliation from the blizzard the blades kick up.

Tim loads our skis and poles into the 'copter's side basket while we pile in, red-faced and happy.

There will be seven more unforgettable runs that day, with only a break for lunch in a sunny clearing.

Linnea's Lake is wide-open mountainside, and Icing on the Cake is also a clear slope, created by a forest fire 50 years ago, where we can simply enjoy the unadulterated snow, silence and scenery. Giggity Pokery is a massive weathered rock.

O Face and Wasted Deep are two forested runs where I decide I don't like tree-skiing. The snow is too deep and fluffy and the pines too close together for my intermediate skiing ability.

In fact, I rename Wasted Deep "Never Again" after I have trouble on a particularly steep section.

However, Bucket List, our favourite, we do twice. It's a gloriously expansive chute created by an avalanche a century ago, where it's possible to make wide turns and think about how lucky we are.

During the short 'copter rides to and from these runs, I get acquainted with the group.

Snowboarding couple Ben Towler, an arborist, and Leah Learmonth, a chef, from Kelowna, B.C., are avid and fearless.

Tim Firnstahl is a 70-year-old restaurateur (Vons 1,000 Spirits and Sharp's Roasthouse) from Seattle who's heliskiied so much he decided to write a book, C Heliing: The World's Best Skiing.

"British Columbia has the best in the world, and these guys at Kingfisher are great," he said.

Firnstahl's son-in-law, Garrett Claridge, a Cisco account manager, also declares B.C. the best.

Kingfisher says if you can ski intermediate runs at a regular ski resort, you can heliski.

The difference is the 'copter transportation, the untouched powder, the remote terrain and feeling of utter exclusivity.

Of course, this luxury doesn't come cheap.

A day of heliskiing C, an average of eight runs, each covering about 500 metres of vertical drop over 1.5 to two kilometres, is $1,200, with pickup points at Silver Star Mountain Resort near Vernon and Cherryville, east of Vernon.

Kingfisher has three- and four-day accommodations, food and heliskiing packages out of the Gold Panner Lodge in Cherryville, starting at $4,200 per person.

It also offers the most expensive and exclusive packages in the industry, with one-week accommodation, spa, dining, wine-touring and heliskiing with a private 'copter for $60,000 for four couples and $120,000 for eight couples at spectacular Sparking Hill Resort just outside Vernon.

Kingfisher has sold two of the $60,000 packages this year and is negotiating two of the $120,000 doozies.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 E3

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