While avid heliskiers daydream in their offices about their next alpine adventure, many more skiers are trapped into simply dreaming about their next day on the slopes -- without the excitement of jumping into a roaring helicopter and landing in extensive backcountry powder. Misconceptions about heliskiing are common, and as a professional heliskiing guide in Canada and owner of Eagle Pass Heliskiing, I will attempt to paint an accurate picture of this amazing sport.
Helicopter skiing began in the Bugaboo mountains of British Columbia, Canada in 1966. An Austrian immigrant named Hans Gmoser pioneered the concept, and since then helicopter skiing has grown into a major industry in B.C. and around the world. Despite its popularity, many people associate it with having to jump out of a helicopter, or be a millionaire, or be an expert skier. But to put it simply, heliskiing is nothing more than using the helicopter as a ski lift -- one that, given reasonable flying weather, can go almost anywhere. The unbelievable terrain and untracked snow you can access by helicopter is unmatched anywhere else in the ski world.
As long as one goes with a reputable company, heliskiing is quite safe, controlled, and accessible to intermediate skiers and better. Although it is not inexpensive, many companies offer trips of one to three days, which cuts down on price... and allows most skiers to give it a try. Just beware, once those skis set foot on untouched, crystal-white snow, there's no going back -- it is HIGHLY addictive!
A Typical Day
Most operators start out the day with a stretching session and a hearty breakfast. After suiting up, the first group departs the lodge and flies directly to the top of the first run. While group one is descending the first run, the helicopter brings the other groups out to the same run. Most companies operate with three to four groups per helicopter, although this rarely leads to any waiting as the helicopter can fly faster than we can ski.
At the bottom of the run, the heli will pick up the first group and proceed to the next run. A typical operation will ski somewhere between five and 10 runs per day, depending on the package and strength of the group. Lunch is in the field, and there are usually a number of chances to go back to the lodge early.
Many times snacks and drinks are provided upon your return, and then later a much-needed dinner is served. Some companies also have a therapist on staff, and if you choose to, you can end your day with a massage to keep those muscles loose for your upcoming days of intense skiing action.
With the advent of new technology and wider skis, heliskiing is now accessible to intermediate skiers as well as experts. If you are a strong intermediate, able to negotiate the ski terrain or snow conditions within a regular ski resort, and able to ski most of the day without becoming exhausted, then you are ready for heliskiing -- even if you've never skied powder before. Just by trying out the new wide skis and taking a few practice runs, you'll soon be ready to hit that powder with confidence. But if that's not enough, there are many companies that offer instructional introductory weeks. Whatever your ability, a pre-trip training program is highly recommended, and you should try to ski as many days as possible at your local area prior to the trip. Taking these steps will only make your trip more fulfilling.
For most potential heliskiers, safety is the number one concern. Heliski companies operate in wild, unruly backcountry, but in a very controlled manner. Guides should be masters of the various ski runs, pilots must be proficient with the landings, and all pickup zones should be prepared in advance. The company should also have an ongoing snow study and safety plan in place.
Before you book your trip, there are a few questions regarding safety you should ask:
- Are the guides professionally certified, and by what certifying body?
- Does the company have a comprehensive risk management program in place?
- Are guests required to attend a safety briefing and avalanche rescue practice with avalanche transceiver training?
Here is the number one way to stay safe while heliskiing: Follow the Guide! Listen to their instructions carefully, and if they are not clear, make sure you ask for clarification. Remember what side of the guides' track you started out on and keep fresh tracks in sight at all times. If you are standing on a run with no tracks in sight, you are not where you should be. The best thing to do in that situation is stay put. In my experience, almost all dangerous situations result from guests getting separated from the group. Many first-time heliskiers have not made the connection that they are not at a ski resort anymore and really they are in totally wild country.
Yet there are more than 1,000 people heliskiing each day in British Columbia with very few serious accidents. (To be honest, I am far more concerned about my safety while skiing at regular ski resorts!) If you ask the right questions and follow the company's procedures -- i.e. Follow the Guide! -- heliskiing will be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that's both safe and very, very thrilling.
Things to Know Before You Go
Before you begin your quest for powder, look for group rates at your destination. Skiing in large groups of nine to 11 can be a little cheaper, but skiing in smaller groups of four to five makes following the guide easier. In any case, skiing with a complete group makes it much easier to adjust the pace to accommodate the slower skiers.
Investigate prices for transportation to the lodge, meals, accommodation, and vertical footage. Check on refund rates for unused vertical footage and the rates for extra skiing that go beyond the company's guarantee.
I have seen rain in January and deep powder in April. But in general, skiing from December to mid-February is best for deep powder, while March and April will bring longer skiing days on alpine and glaciated terrain. For periods of poor weather, it's essential to choose a company with easily accessible lodging and satisfying skiing close by. On "down days." when the helicopter cannot fly because of dangerous conditions, make sure there are other activities besides skiing in the area. In the interior of British Columbia there is usually about one "down day" per week; in above-the-tree line alpine skiing, there could be considerably more.
Photos: Adam SteinOne Word... POWDER
Have you ever looked back at your season at a ski resort and remembered that one day where you got to the powder before it was all skied out? Can you imagine skiing snow deeper and fresher than that, all day long, for your whole ski vacation? While heliski companies cannot guarantee perfect powder conditions, on most days, conditions can range from below the boot top to over the head. It's simply amazing either way. In my experience, at least eight out of 10 days are spent skiing untracked snow.
Depending on where you go, you can expect mainly alpine skiing, mainly tree skiing, or a mix of both. The Monashees and Selkirks of the British Columbia interior rule in this respect, with a combination of reliable snow, perfectly-spaced trees, and huge glacier runs.
So, is helicopter skiing for you? There's only one way to find out. If you are a strong intermediate skier or better and you crave miles of fresh powder, magnificent vistas, and one grand adventure, then this is the sport for you. This is one adventure you won't want to miss. As I mentioned, once you start... it's hard to stop!