Mica Heli Beginnings

Words by:
Mica Heli

Into the Rocky Mountain
Wilds We Go

Many years ago, the story goes, a tenure came available in a remote zone of the Rockies. None of the big operations applied for it. With its small landing zones, rocky terrain, and legions of trees, it wouldn’t accomodate the large-group heliskiing in vogue at the time. Plus, it was nearly impossible to get to, way off the grid in the middle of Crown land and clear across Kinbasket Lake. There wasn’t even a spot to build a lodge. And it was in the Rockies, so it wouldn’t get good snow, the lake would create too much fog for flying, and who would apply for such a dud of a spot, anyway?

Pete Tashman along with Susan and Dan McDonald of Island Lake Lodge Catskiing, it turned out. In 2000, for the cost of the $250 application fee, they landed a region in which to start a whole new operation. That was the beginning of Mica doing things that no one else was. Which is another way to attract the label “crazy”.

We prefer “visionary”.

Helicopter pilot Matt Callaghan flew the pair up to scout a lodge location. There was only one, really: a clearcut knoll 2,500 feet above the lake and the fog. They dragged wall tents up an old logging road that summer to build a rustic log cabin with materials ferried across the lake, which they generously dubbed a “chalet”.

That chalet was rustic. It dripped titanic icicles, which the staff used to make cocktails. If one were so inclined, one could ski straight through the building on the snow that blew through it. It was small enough that dinner could be announced by yelling up the stairs, which squirrels occasionally walked up along with people—perhaps escaping the pine martens that frequently broke into the cold room and ambled away with chicken breasts and bacon. The smell of well-used ski boots drying in the boot room occasionally wafted into the dining room.

None of those first guests seemed to care. This new operation was, after all, the wild west. It was all part of the adventure. And the skiing was just so damn good.

Those inaugural Mica visitors experienced an entirely new way to ski thanks to McDonald’s vision. With small helicopters to play to the terrain, and small groups, pilots and guides could be more agile and creative with zones and getting into them. Guests could claim first descents on nearly every run as valleys and subranges were explored. And it turned out that this tenure that everyone had scoffed at actually received Selkirk and Monashee-like dumps of snow with the champagne quality of the Rockies. It was, those first insiders soon realized, some of the best skiing in the some of the best terrain in the province. Maybe in the world.

 

To get the word out, McDonald hired Darryn Shewchuck as Mica’s first employee, to direct marketing. Shewchuck took a unique approach: he called every magazine and every film crew to come shoot. Mica hosted Powder, Freeskier, Warren Miller, Teton Gravity Research, Matchstick Productions, with skiers like Jeremy Jones, Will Burks, Johnny Law, and Mike Douglas. The images of deep, dry powder all but obscuring cameras was ridiculous, as was the terrain; where much of large-group heliskiing at that time trended to FGP, or “flat glacier pow” as the slang went, athletes at Mica were skiing steep trees and dropping impossible pillow lines. When Douglas said on camera, after skiing a fall of pillows called Mister Wiggles now so iconic that current guests ask to be flown over it, “This is the best heliski trip of my life,” Mica was definitively on the map.

Mica didn’t stop there with breaking the mold. With the lodge above the fog, the operation had zero down days in its first five years. Lodges across the lake and down the valley, grounded in low clouds, would hear Mica’s helis flying. And when Mica did experience its first down days, it became one of the first to offer cat-skiing behind the lodge.

And the staff. In those early days, the little staff contained multitudes. The maintenance guy helped push the helicopter out of the hangar and then did dishes. The lodge manager bartended. And at the end of the night, everyone argued over who had to drag the tub filled with snow that the keg lived in back to the cold room, and snuggle blankets over the wine bottles to keep them from freezing.  

Eventually our new, modern lodge replaced the chalet. Wifi made its way to the remote knoll. Our partnership with Matt Callaghan and Arrow Helicopters stretched into the longest-running pilot and heliski partnership on record. Our staff grew (although they still contain multitudes). But the powder has remained the same.

And no one calls us crazy anymore.