The Freshest Powder of Your Life
Posted by Rollinglobe Crew on January 24, 2012
The world’s toughest terrain? You’ve been there, done that.
… the drop at Corbet's Couloir in Jackson Hole: scary for a second (if that).
… chest-high powder on Blackcomb Glacier: doesn’t even slow you down.
… dodging trees through the Black Hole at Smugglers’ Notch: reminds you of a busy day at the grocery store.
Needless to say, you’ve tamed the most treacherous, lift-accessible terrain on the planet, and these days you’re looking for a new challenge. It’s time for an upgrade, and the answer is heli-skiing.
Picture screaming past sun-kissed mountains in a soaring chopper. Inside, a collection of the wildest adrenaline junkies you’ve ever met. Outside, countless runs of untouched powder waiting to be discovered. It gives new meaning to the term "first tracks."
Once an exorbitant luxury for only the most experienced skiers in remote pockets around the world, heli-skiing has never been more accessible.
So whether you’re looking for a week-long powder dream on the edge of the Arctic Circle or just a single day to spice up your standard run on the slopes of lift lines and groomed cruisers, we’ve got you covered.
If you’re going to jump tips-first into the adventure of heli-skiing, it should be into some fine British Columbia powder. Known as the birthplace of the sport, British Columbia brings together the perfect combination of steep mountain ranges pushed up against the edge of the Pacific and the precise weather conditions needed to produce an insane amount of snow. If Zeus were a heli-skier, Mount Olympus would be tucked away somewhere in BC. The province, with its widely varied terrain, offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of heli-skiing options based largely on location.
Squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and Coast Mountain range, Coastal BC consistently sees some of the highest snowfall in North America, and with a moderate temperature regulated by the relatively warmer ocean water, it’s some of the wettest around. Translation: heavy snowfall ALL the time.
In addition to insane snowfall on a regular basis, coastal BC houses some of the sickest terrain on the planet. A typical heli run starts atop a massive glacier, the hint of blue barely evident from slightly salient water. After plowing through powder plains the size of several football fields, you reach the infamous tree line of Pac-Northwest pines. The glades not only provide dizzying obstacle courses but weather protection should there be a heavy snowfall during your descent (likely to be the case).
A western BC heli experience is particularly good for rookies looking to test out their skills without the commitment or challenge of a week-long jaunt. The base of several operators offering single-day options (check out Whistler Heliskiing and Powder Mountain Helisking) are within an hour or so of the world-renowned Whistler Blackcomb resort, itself just two hours north of Vancouver.
Just a couple miles west of the Pacific Coast, it’s a whole new world. After a thorough towel-wringing over the Coast Mountains, all that’s left once you get to the inner mountain ranges of Inner BC is super light powder.
The central BC valley, surrounded by the Selkirk, Purcell, Monashee, and Rocky Mountain ranges, offers an even wider variety of terrain strewn across some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. More remote than coastal BC, the après-ski choices of inner BC may be limited, but the heli-skiing options certainly are not... think of the remoteness as a filter for real enthusiasts. Touted as one of the best heli-skiing locations in the world, Revelstoke, BC, should be at the top of almost every list.
Northern BC & Alaska
Colder weather, higher altitudes, and thinner air... the further north you go, the lighter the powder and more mountainous the terrain. Northern BC and, even more so, Alaskan heli-skiing are known for their ‘steep-n-deep’ experiences. The vicious combination of brutal weather, super steep chutes, and increased avalanche risk have helped solidify Northern BC and Alaska as the home of extreme heli-skiing. If you’re game, Valdez Heli Ski Guides is the place to go for a gut check. Slightly further south you’ll find the same light powder but a friendlier terrain. Last Frontier Heliskiing offers two locations for Northern BC heli-skiing, Ripley Creek Lodge and Bell 2 Lodge.
Since its inception four decades ago, heli-skiing has gained immense popularity among the leisure crowd making a steady migration south. Today, operators across the continental United States are amplifying traditional resort-based skiing to whole new levels... literally. While these new outposts make it possible to enjoy heli-skiing in the middle of a normal ski trip, the experiences are anything but. Telluride Helitrax, based in Telluride, Colo., boasts over 25 years in operation and heli tours at the highest altitudes in North America, with multi- and single-day tours starting at $300.
Like all good things, heli-skiing has become an international phenomenon. While heli-skiing might have been born in British Columbia and popularized across North America, historians trace its roots back to Europe via the godfather himself, Hans Gmoser, a native Austrian. Despite this fact, many Europeans are less than enthusiastic about the sport. The French, for instance, have outlawed heli-skiing in the French Alps due to their less-than-optimal green footprint. Never fear, our favorite neutral mountain men, the Swiss, wholly support the heli movement.
Outdoor Interlaken, the top tour operator in the extreme sports capital of Europe that is Interlaken, Switzerland, runs heli tours throughout the Jungfrau and Swiss Alps. SwisSKIsafari has made a name for themselves providing some of the wildest ski trips throughout the European continent with their specialty: custom-made itineraries.
Before takeoff – or booking for that matter – here’s a quick survey of the ground rules:
Safety first, always. Going where no one has gone before is bound to be dangerous, especially during avalanche season. Make sure that the heli-skiing outfit you choose is certified by either the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) or ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides). Don’t worry, all of the operators in this guide are certified by one or both of these associations.
Skiing or riding a couple thousand vertical feet a day isn’t for the weak. Once you’ve reached the drop-off point, there’s no hot cocoa ’til you reach the base, so make sure your skills AND endurance are up for the challenge. Almost all heli-skiing treks require an intermediate skill set, while some only accept those with advanced skill sets. What does this mean for you? A very rough rule of thumb goes something like this:
Expert: you can ski/ride every type of run with ease in any condition.
Advanced: you can ski/ride Blues and Blacks with ease and Double Blacks in the right condition.
Intermediate: you can ski/ride Blues with ease, Blacks in the right condition, Double Blacks in the perfect condition.
Pricing & Packages
Heli-skiing packages are priced in one of two ways: either a fixed amount of vertical feet skied per day (with additional runs at a cost) or unlimited vertical for the entire trip. There’s quite a debate about the benefits of each pricing structure, and while unlimited vertical may sound great, many counter that it’s not all that necessary or such a ‘deal.’
When making the decision for yourself, be sure to consider the ability of your group to ski all out from sunrise till sunset for multiple days in a row. You’ll also want to consider your options should the chopper be grounded for bad weather. Most operators offer Cat Skiing (with a snowcat) should the helicopter be grounded due to weather.
Typical packages range from a single day of heli-skiing (mostly offered near large resorts) to seven-day excursions in remote locales that include nightly accommodations and all meals. Be sure to check each individual package for what’s included.
And when you’re hitting that fresh powder, don’t forget who sent you.