It’s sweltering in the valley bottom, but the wind cuts like diamonds up high, where a tin roof glimmers off the pointed peak of Revelstoke, British Columbia’s Mount Cartier. The fire lookout is 100 years old, but still sits unnaturally perched in rock above the surrounding peaks, and the bright green estuary of the Columbia Valley flats 7,000 feet below. From the scrappy gravel landing pad on the ridge, a cornice still guards the back of the sheer mountain, leftover from wintertime. There are no roads to get here, just an unrelenting, 10-mile trail you turn around and go right back down. It drops off the peak in broad switchbacks tracing a massive slide path—which some springs produces size-four avalanches (big enough to bury a train)—then transitions from high-consequence bench-cut to brain-rattling roots for the last seven miles.
“It’s just sick,” says Matt Yaki, co-owner of Wandering Wheels, a company that offers guided heli-biking on Mount Cartier—one of only two guided heli-biking experiences available in all of B.C. “It’s entirely singletrack, it’s entirely technical, and there’s nowhere that you can just relax and turn your mind off. There aren’t that many trails outside of maybe the Alps and the Himalayas where you have that kind of wide-open, steep sidehill and that exposure.”
But with half-a-dozen commercial operators and the public now fighting over using helicopters to ride this trail, Cartier is more than just one of the longest and rowdiest descents in North America. It’s also a cautionary tale about the conflicts that arise from overly permissive land-use policies and an absent government. Beyond the question of who should profit from public land, is now the problem of who should profit from public infrastructure.
A Hundred Years to Here
The Cartier trail was originally built in 1921 to access a fire lookout that served to guard the valuable stock of old-growth timber below it from lightning strikes and wildfire. It was abandoned in the 1930s, but in 1975, at the behest of some passionate local hikers, the provincial government restored both it and the lookout. This was about the same time a group of wingnut teenagers started riding modified beach cruisers down old fire roads on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California.
Fast forward to the 1990s and the sport of mountain biking was encroaching on every piece of trail ever scratched onto a mountainside. By this time, a small but hardy number of Revelstoke riders began pushing their bikes to the top of Mount Cartier, too. Meanwhile, the heli-ski industry had also found Revelstoke. This left a raft of helicopters sitting idle all summer, and meant if you could pinch together the coin for a charter, you could get your bike to the top of Cartier without having to endure a six-hour hike-a-bike.
For the next 20 years, heli biking became a niche way to ride downhill in places like Whistler, Pemberton, and Golden, B.C. But it was clunky and expensive. By 2015, though, Revelstoke had boomed into the self-proclaimed heli-skiing capital of the world, with four companies gorging on an ever-fattening winter market. Knowing that locals had been surreptitiously heli biking on Cartier for two decades already, Selkirk Tangiers Helicopter Skiing (STHS) had a vision to bring heli-biking mainstream now.
STHS fabricated a rack to sling bikes from a long line without damaging them, and partnered with Wandering Wheels to help deliver the guided portion of the business. Quickly, Cartier emerged as the premiere heli-biking experience in North America.
Then, in 2017, Aero Design released a helicopter bike rack that made heli biking even easier, nixing the need to sling bikes at all. Helicopter companies across the province bought the racks, excited for the opportunity to shuttle mountain bikers. (In B.C., helicopters can drop anybody on public land without any responsibility for them, and Revelstoke has five epic alpine rides with heli-accessible trailheads.) For guided outfits like STHS, who’d gone through rigorous permitting processes, this presented a serious gap in the province’s Land Use Operational Policy for Adventure Tourism. The independent heli companies weren’t bound to the same rules because, so long as they didn’t advertise specific trails, they weren’t deemed to be guiding.
And that’s when it all hit the fan.
In The Ring
“It’s a shit show,” Erik Suchovs says pointedly. The longstanding operations manager for STHS has been flying around Revelstoke since 1978. He tells me that by 2015, STHS had put together an extensive proposal to build a heli-accessed network of trails behind Mount Cartier, and absorb the Cartier trail into that. But when the heli bike rack came out and Arrow and Glacier Helicopters started doing unguided drops on what STHS viewed as its territory, STHS pulled out.
“It became a free-for-all up there,” Suchovs explains. “We did all this work to have exclusive use in a tenure [also called a license of occupation, or a lease], and then all of a sudden we don’t have that sort of exclusive use. It would be like if you as a kid had a sandbox, and the neighbor is allowed to come and play in your sandbox, and until you prove why another kid shouldn’t come in that sandbox, it’s his to use.”
Except STHS never owned the sandbox. It’s more like if that sandbox was in a public park. The province—effectively the people of B.C.—leased the Cartier trail to STHS under non-exclusive terms. One of the caveats of such leases is in fact that you not interfere with the public’s use of those lands. Suchovs argues that this allows for unfair competition in the case of heli biking. Guided operators have to put together extensive management plans, consult with First Nations, show proof of insurance, plus have safety and emergency response plans. Independent helicopter companies offering the public a simple shuttle service to alpine trailheads have no such obligations.
Retallack, which offers the only other guided heli-bike experience in B.C. a couple hours south of Revelstoke, has run head on into the issue STHS foresaw. It’s a cat- and heli-ski operation in the wintertime, but also has a network of truck- and heli-accessed DH trails in the summertime. While it’s far enough away from an airport that no independent helicopters are poaching its trails, its tenure is covered in old mining roads, and people shuttle them in their own trucks all the time—which is perfectly legal. This stings because Retallack built and maintains those trails, just as STHS had proposed to do. In B.C., there’s no protection for commercial mountain biking on public land.
Profiteer or Steward?
“A lot of people didn’t really get it,” says Ted Morton, owner and director of both the BC and Canadian Enduro Series, and the recipient of piles of hate mail for running a race on the Cartier trail in 2017. Based out of Kamloops, B.C., two-and-a-half hours away, Morton got a commercial license in 2017 so he could hold one stage of a three-day enduro race with helicopters. But it wasn’t about profit—he never made any. Morton saw his one-off race as a way to raise funds to repair an already blown-out trail; one that was his favorite in B.C., and no one was taking care of.
“If we go back and look at the history of land use in the province, pretty much all of our recreation sites have been developed for some sort of commercial use,” he explains. “Even a provincial park, it’s going to have a piece of it that’s going to be commercial, because they’ve got to make a dollar to keep the park facilities running.”
This is how Morton sees Cartier, not so much from a rights perspective, but a responsibility one. He views it as a facility that needs upkeep. It’s not a naturally occurring amenity—left to nature, the wilderness would claim it back quickly, and has in the past.
“I think the public is benefiting [from commercial operations] because they’re getting more recreation sites and they’re getting better managed sites,” he posits. “But I think the deeper question is, in profiting from public, volunteer-maintained sites, are commercial operators adequately supporting their development and maintenance, and relieving the capacity issues of these volunteer organizations? And I would say the answer right now is no.”
That’s why Morton decided to step in. By 2017, STHS wasn’t maintaining the trail anymore because it had stopped using it. Rec Sites and Trails BC, the branch of the provincial government otherwise responsible, likewise didn’t have the bandwidth to do it—along with the thousands of other sanctioned trails in its fold. Instead, that branch enters into partnership agreements with third-party organizations, like cycling clubs. But no one wanted the Cartier job, it was too big. Morton’s proposal was then to take up that mantle and become the trail manager, in exchange for a license to hold a race to raise funds. And he got it.
To broker a peace agreement between the other operators, Morton then instituted a management regime that brought them all together. He asked that the independent helicopter companies and other operators (including a bike guiding company in nearby Golden and a running race) implement a per-user surcharge toward trail maintenance, and agree not to drop mountain bikers on any other alpine trails in Revelstoke. The idea was to concentrate a capped number of riders (900 each summer) on an already high-use trail rather than spread them out across the alpine. All parties signed on to Morton’s terms—though it was voluntary.
“He was my neighbor,” Yaki says about Suchovs. The two used to work together and be friendly, but then had a slow-motion falling out over Mount Cartier when Yaki applied to get his own license, and STHS blocked him (a privilege the company enjoys on a technicality from being associated with the nearby ski resort).
“We fought [Wandering Wheels’ application] strongly,” Suchovs confirms. “We opposed it because, how do you control it? How do I know that he’s not going to land there with a helicopter at 10 o’clock on a given day, and then he gets delayed and I’m trying to land there at the same time? It just wouldn’t work.”
When I ask Suchovs why that would be a problem given STHS hasn’t used the trail since 2017, the year Yaki applied, Suchovs cites environmental concerns about heli biking in general, but also says STHS might want to return to the trail and its plan someday: two answers that are hard to square.
Yaki, for his part, believes STHS blocked him because he’s the sole license applicant that represents any serious long-term competition. Since that time, Wandering Wheels has continued to do a small number of drops on Cartier under an incidental-use allowance, but Yaki remains frustrated.
On the question of who should have the commercial rights to the trail, Suchovs says it’s simple: whoever gets there first, which his company did. He also thinks the public shouldn’t be allowed to go heli biking unguided at all. Yaki, on the other hand, feels plenty of people are competent enough to self-guide. He is however troubled that there’s no vetting process. He’d like to see some standards in place to make sure riders are capable enough before flying. But he says nobody—not even his own company—should have exclusive commercial rights to any public trail.
The Court of Public Opinion
“I can guarantee you every single one of those people who looks up and sees that helicopter, they curse my name,” Yaki says about a grumbly group of locals who’ve been extremely loud in opposing heli biking. “They think that every helicopter that goes up there is me and my company, when it’s not. My numbers are a fraction of the total numbers, we’re talking 5 to 10 percent.”
In addition to his guiding work, Yaki is one of the most active volunteers with the Revelstoke Cycling Association. As such, he’s a very public figure, and a punching bag for those opposed to heli biking. Local residents continue to complain they now see “literally thousands of helicopters” flying up to Cartier in the summertime, and it’s now impossible to hike. Under Morton’s partnership agreement, though, we can see it was actually under 120 flights for the whole summer in 2019.
Though both Yaki and Morton do also get nasty letters from local mountain bikers who claim the trail’s getting blown out, in Yaki’s opinion, most have come around to realizing that’s not the case.
“I think the people that use that trail on their own, unguided—whether it’s heli access or foot access, especially if they’re long-term locals—I have no doubt they see the work that goes into the trail and they clearly see how much better of a ride it is now, compared to five, six, seven years ago.”
Yaki would know, he rides Cartier more than anyone, and he’s likely done more work on it over the last decade than anyone, too. But that doesn’t count for much with some of the public. Putting aside trail degradation, there are still those who oppose the carbon emissions of helicopters, and those who just plain don’t like mountain bikers.
Picking Up The Tab
For Morton, being a mediator for all the kids in the sandbox eventually became too thankless and exhausting. So in 2020, when his partnership agreement with the province expired, he walked away. That meant no one was there to collect fees from commercial operators (which had totalled $15,594.24 in 2019). Nor to oversee the other tenets of the agreement—like only dropping bikes on Cartier.
Arrow Helicopters, for its part, currently advertises: “The alpine mountain bike trails around Revelstoke are unsurpassed—why not let the helicopter help you access some truly unforgettable terrain?” When I spoke to owner Matthew Callaghan on the phone, he told me he was happy to drop heli-bikers wherever they want, on any trail, anywhere. Glacier Helicopters declined to comment for this story, but advertises fixed-rate $200 heli drops for mountain bikers on its website.
Though Morton cites a good relationship with these two companies and says they were great to work with while he was at the helm, he believes doing anything commercial with the trail and not giving back to it is like walking into a gym, hosting a class, and then leaving without paying. And that’s what’s happening now that his management regime is gone. Those reverberations have worked their way across the province, too, where Whistler-based Blackcomb Helicopters—a company that helped develop the heli bike rack—also ran into grief on Barbour and Rainbow Mountains. In a new move, the province slapped a non-motorized zoning on Rainbow, and an “application only” designation on Barbour, meaning it could never be heli-accessed again without a proper license.
It’s a lever that might foretell the future of heli biking in B.C., and spell doom for independent heli companies’ ability to do drops. But Blackcomb Helicopters wants to do things the “right way” anyhow, base manager Andy Meeker tells me. The company has always intended to pursue licensed guiding, and has been working on a tenure application to build its own trails for years. It in fact built the alpine trail on Barbour to begin with. Nonetheless, in consultation with the public and First Nations, the company decided to take Barbour out of its application, abandon its own trail, and leave such controversial sites alone.
“We’re not picking existing trail systems with existing users interfacing on them,” Meeker explains. “The tenured route was a natural direction because of how we’ve experienced other industries. Right now, there’s a lot of opportunity to create a lot of standards and best practices that don’t exist [in heli biking].”
Whose Right Is It Anyway?
“I don’t think there is really a difference between commercial recreation and public recreation,” Morton argues. “All recreation is public, there’s no difference if someone’s paying for it.”
Someone, in fact, has to pay, he says. No recreational amenity is actually free, it’s either maintained by volunteer hours or directly out of pocket. For Morton, the idea of entitlement is at the core of this fight. Mountain biking, in any capacity, isn’t a right, it’s a privilege we get to enjoy by behaving ourselves on the land base.
As to who’s getting rich in the margins, the answer is nobody. Guided heli biking in B.C. is worth less than $1 million a year. In comparison, in 2019, B.C.’s heli-ski industry was worth $164 million. Given the province’s resource sector brings in $15.1 billion in GDP, why should government, or anybody, even bother fighting over heli biking at all—let alone one trail?
For those still duking it out in the ring, a ride as unique as Cartier is simply worth the tussle. And for Yaki, it’s not about money at all. “With Cartier it’s all or nothing. It’s a six-hour hike, or it’s a helicopter ride.”
From Spring 2021