Ski resorts are wonderful places, but what if you could have a whole mountain all to yourself? No parking chaos or lift lines. Just pure, unadulterated powder begging you to introduce your blades to its untrodden surface. If all that sounds too good to be true, then perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the glorious practice of heli-skiing: riding a chopper up to the top of totally pristine, non-commercial mountain slopes and letting ‘er rip all the way back down. Pretty fantastic, right? Well, before you book your trip this winter, there are some heli-sking basics of which you should be aware, and we’ve compiled them all into a feature so useful you may want to bring it along for your first helicopter ride.
Here is your heli-skiing starter guide.
Origin and Overview
Heli-skiing got its first real foothold in the extreme sports zeitgeist during the mid 1950s when pilot and guid, Hans Gmoser, began flying airplanes full of skiing adventurers to remote Canadian glaciers. There, as HowStuffWorks reports, he provided to them a rare opportunity to shred during the summer months. It wasn’t long before guides switched to using more easily maneuverable helicopters, and not long after that before heli-skiing lodges began popping up on some of the most incredible (and, until then, inaccessible) mountain faces around the world.
From this proliferation came two different forms of heli-sking: “Canadian” and “European.” Canadian style is exactly the same as traditional downhill skiing. No special gear is required. European style, on the other hand, blends skiing with mountaineering, requiring practioners to use ropes and ice axes as they traverse harsh terrain after disembarking from their helicopter escort. European style skiers celebrate more of a cross-country element and are often focused more on laterally exploring (or climbing in some cases) than on flying down mountain slopes.
Sorry to disappoint all you daredevils, but most heli-ski guides will not allow their clients to jump out the side of their hovering crafts onto slopes ten or twenty feet below. These sorts of stunts are reserved for the movies and best-of-the-best heli-skiing pros. Though traditional heli-skiing (or heli-boarding, if you prefer to snowboard) isn’t as dangerous as it’s made out to be in the media, it’s certainly not a sport for beginners. Slopes only accessible by helicopter are isolated precisely because no one’s taken the time to build an easily accessible ski resort around their bases, and that’s usually because of steep grades and dangerous terrain fit more for the advanced set. Successful first-time heli-skiiers are most often those Adrenalists with a vast amount of experience skiing various types of trails, from the powdery to the very icy. While heli-ski guides will certainly steer skiers toward the kind of skiing they prefer, it’s wise to be ready for anything.
Photo Credit: Alex Grechman – flickr.com
Equipment needs will vary depending upon which style of heli-sking you choose to pursue. If you’re looking for the physical challenge of European style outings, be sure to carry ski touring equipment like ice axes, ropes, harnesses, carabiners and the like, along with skis and bindings specially designed to handle the vastly different terrain one may encounter while ski mountaineering. If you’re looking for a ski resort alternative and are still interested in downhilling, wider parabolic skis will generally do the trick. In case of avalanches, all heliskiiers should carry with them a backpack containing an avalanche probe and beacon, a snow shovel, a two-way radio and a safety harness and locking carabiner. Always remember to ask your guide what other equipment you may need to buy or rent before embarking on a trip. Requirements vary widely depending on destination. Don’t assume you already have what you need.
Photo Credit: dirkgroeger – flickr.com
Now that we’ve whet your heli-skiing appetite, you’re probably wondering how you book your first trip. If you live in North America and want to save on plane fare (probably a good idea as heli-ski excursions can get pretty pricey), Outside Magazine lists the top 10 heli-ski destinations (many of which are Canadian, which is not surprising considering it’s the sport’s birth place). Helicat Canada, the official Canadian heliskiing association, is also a fantastic resource for planning a Canadian adventure. If you’re looking to venture to Europe, check out HelicopterSkiing.org or ArcticHeliSkiing.com.