Overall - The trip went quite well in most respects. The quality of the skiing was excellent, the group was good, and everyone had a good time. However, from an organizers point of view it is not a trip I'll try to repeat. The good points and bad points are discussed briefly below. There are a couple of note included from an e-mail received in 2004 noting a few improvements and changes since our trip, most notably on helicopter conflicts.
Unlike other trips there is no point in listing accomplishments or outlining the week since each day was mostly the same and consisted of yo-yo skiing named areas in the trees. The skiing was great, there just weren't any particular objectives worth mentioning with the possible exception of Blanket Peak which a group of us did manage to ascend. Poor visibility precluded doing much above treeline. One advantage of Blanket Glacier is it's large amount of treed terrain, and given the typical March low alpine visibility we were glad to have so many options of this nature.
Trip organization inherently involves a great deal of financial commitment and stress. The main reason I got into organizing yearly trips was to go to unique places difficult to reach in any other way, areas offering a level of adventure beyond merely good skiing. So this is my personal bias which can be kept in mind when considering my comments. Some of my comments will have less relevance to people who are planning to go as part of a group or able to book through the chalet directly and who are not in the position of holding a reservation on the whole chalet and organizing a group.
The Good - Excellent snow and plenty of terrain summarize the good points. This was a very dry year everywhere but even so the snowpack was more than adequate, and over the course of the week a total of about 1 metre of new snow fell. The chalet was comfortable and had everything we needed. And Al Schaffer, the owner and caretaker for the week, was a great guy to have on hand. He even provides nightly entertainment, if you're into that. The good points were enough to encourage some of the group to go ahead and book the chalet for a week the next winter. (And they have continued returning for several years.)
The Bad - Aside from the high heli-skiing use the area received the bad points are mostly from the point of view of organizing the group, and perhaps partly from the fact that this diverged quite a bit from the type of trip I really prefer to organize, as mentioned above.
2004, Update concerning the heli-skiing conflicts - The following is from an e-mail received from the chalet - "The major change involves a new working arrangement with CMH heli -skiing with whom we have now reached an agreement whereby they will not longer fly over our chalet or pick up skiers near our buildings. We have also agreed to communicate with each other to avoid conflicts with daily skiing areas."
[This paragraph was written following the trip in 2001, note the new information above.] Heli-skiing use of the area by CMH is very high and is very much under-represented in the marketing materials. We were told that they use the area at times but that the level of conflict is minimal. This was not our experience, and it wasn't the experience of others I've spoken with. They were flying and skiing the area every day and helicopters were a frequent sight and sound. At times they went right overhead at a low level. We still had plenty of untracked snow to ski, but I don't see the point of flying into the wilderness for a week only to be constantly buzzed by helicopters. (Not only do I have numerous chances to ski good snow most winters, but I rarely encounter helicopters when I do.) It's unfortunate if this reality reflects poorly on the Chalet and it is certainly a problem the owners would like to resolve - preferably with some amount of no-flying zone. However, people planning a visit here should be fully aware of the level if helicopter traffic that is possible. (Just for the record, I am not really anti-heliski or anti-helicopter in general. Certainly not to the extent many backcountry skiers seem to be. I just found the level of use in this area to be especially high. I view this not as a heli-skiing problem but as a land-use management problem.)
The commitment for 14 people was the largest I have made yet. Over the several years I have done this I've never had much luck getting advance sign-ups before mid to late fall. When the deadline came I still had only 8, which Al and his wife Marion resolved by signing up 6 more themselves directly. Three of whom were guided by Al. I had mentioned for several months that I would be interested in sharing the chalet or adding small groups or individuals to our group but I got no leads on this. With an Alpine Club hut like Fairy Meadows this is a big advantage - the club will refer interested people to each other to help you out. I had no problem with Al bringing six people to make up for our smaller group given that I was unable to fill the chalet, but it seemed awkward that they very suddenly had six people after not referring anyone to me. I would have preferred to just know from the beginning that it was possible to have less than 14 people. Also, due to some overlapping communications we ended up with 10 after they had added six, so we exceeded the normal chalet use level by two people. But this didn't create any significant problems - there was adequate space.
Finally there were some rather annoying and frustrating organizational mis-communications. [See the note below for an update on this.] One was that when I first booked the chalet I was told the group before us wanted to leave a day early and we would have an extra day at no extra cost. I used this as a selling point in my efforts to encourage others to go. It was only a couple weeks before the trip when I asked about this that I found out it was no longer true. Fortunately nobody was too bothered by this. The second had to do with the helicopter and weight restrictions. I was given a strict per-person weight limit, both in printed material and over the phone. Which was to include our food. This turned out to be a bit tight and people left things behind, most notably beer. However, at the landing zone the other six people had several times what we had (on a per-person basis). They had not been informed of any weight limitation whatsoever. And in the end the last flight went in with no baggage at all, only four people. So flight capacity appears not to have been a real issue after all. On most other trips I have flown with Alpine Helicopter out of Golden. I have not had this type of problem since Fairy Meadows in 1999, when they still used Canadian Helicopter. And even then we were at least given a total flying capacity and left to account for body weights, food and gear ourselves. How the per-person baggage figure we got on this trip was arrived at is unclear.
2004, Update concerning the various communication and confusion issues - An e-mail from the chalet stated: "Re: your comments on poor communication, heli - weights, etc. - hopefully we are communicating this info in a clearer fashion than was done with your groups visit. By improving the way we communicate our business to first time visitors to our chalet - hopefully they will not experience the same frustrations as you did." (Note once again that at least some confusion was the result of us not being a full group. For a single group which fills the chalet there would be less issues for confusion to occur on.)
For many people any annoyances may be minor and well worth the very high quality of skiing, even with the helicopter traffic (whatever its current level is). Several of the participants from this trip continue to return each year and thoroughly enjoy the operation and the area.
For those seeking solitude and/or adventures more mountaineering in nature this is not the best place to go, although you will most likely end up with a week of good skiing.
In the end this trip diverged quite a bit from the type of trip I really prefer to organize. It put me too much in the role of a travel agent who was booking a ski vacation. While I pay for my own expenses on these trips I don't profit, and the trip organization involves a great deal of financial commitment and stress. I have numerous opportunities to ski in good conditions almost every winter and don't need to organize a large group just for this purpose. (Although I won't argue with anyone who says you can never have too much good skiing in a season!).