What is heli-skiing? Most of the snow adventurers who head towards the peaks every winter are often curious about this one of the most prestigious mountain activities. It is not a strictly new modality since its practice began in the 60s, but lately, it is all the rage. As the name indicates, heli-skiing means transporting skiers to otherwise inaccessible peaks by helicopter for skiing down the virgin slopes! It is an experience to live as it involves a helicopter and virgin spaces that are almost infinite and far from marked areas! Undoubtedly, the experience is completely different from what skiers enjoy on the conventional slopes of the ski stations.
This article will discuss everything you need to know about heli-skiing; the pre-requisites, the equipment you need and the tips and techniques for heli-skiing! So, if you’re planning to step into this extreme sport this winter, this article is for you!
What is Heli-Skiing?
Heli-skiing is simply off-piste skiing on terrain only accessible by helicopter. It offers a perfect combination between a helicopter ride and a vertiginous ski descent. Snowsport enthusiasts have the opportunity to ski in places otherwise unattainable, without anyone around them on steeper slopes and without having to queue.
This extreme sport is intended for lovers of wild skiing. So you board a helicopter, alone or in a group, and it drops you off at the top of a mountain. From there, it’s up to you whether to descend on ungroomed snow no one has yet made their mark or not. For heli-skiing, you are always accompanied by a mountain guide to allow you to ski in complete safety, and you set off on incredible powder after a short approach walk. The pleasure of skiing is enhanced by the privilege of being on a deserted slope, in virgin snow and embellished with breathtaking landscapes.
The flight over the virgin peaks is in itself an exceptional moment. Many inviolate faces are revealed an infinite playing field. But, the best is yet to come, after depositing on ridges opening onto incredible drops, on slopes of virgin snow on which you can print your track. In small groups, the descent looks like a walk, with the adrenaline of great skiing in addition. In short, it is both sporty and friendly. The descents, often long and sometimes steep, are generally interspersed with breaks to admire the panorama or enjoy a picnic. Heli-skiing is an exceptional activity that, however, requires a good level of the ski.
Heli-skiing is a very well organized activity but extreme because far from marked trails, it must be practiced with a high mountain guide, who knows these areas, their exposure, and masters each piece of land, from the place of drop-off to the point of arrival of the descent. Its practice is prohibited in some countries, but it is nevertheless possible to live the experience of heli-skiing in Switzerland or Italy, countries which allow this activity, from border stations.
Finally, like all prestigious activities, heli-skiing is a hobby that comes at a relatively high price! It costs a lot for a day of drop-offs. But be sure, the game is worth the effort, and you will not soon forget your outing and the exceptional day you spent!
Who is Heli-skiing for?
As is the case with all other adventure sports, heli skiing requires great skill and practice. Since it involves riding down unmarked and often more rugged terrain, the risks involved are high and it is best if newbie skiers sit out.
Having said that, one doesn’t need to be an Olympic-level skier to jump out of the helicopter and slide down the mountain either. What is necessary is having sufficient flexibility, strength, stamina to get the best out of the activity. Without them, even experienced skiers will be unable to control their skis against the great wind pressure.
Additionally, one must have at least a mild understanding of their gear, as well as skiing in general. Of course, it is unlikely that a beginner would want to give heli skiing a shot right from the get-go. And even if they do, it is even more unlikely that the tour operators would allow them to. But basic know-how of the equipment works is necessary. Experts say practicing how to balance and move around on skis is a good place to start. You should also learn how to take turns with the ski poles.
Also of utmost importance is knowing which kind of posture to adopt where. Adjusting your body while skiing is crucial unless you want to trip and hurt yourself. Remember: the skis slide downhill atomically but controlling the slide is where your talents will come in handy.
All in all, suffice it to say that heli skiing is not for beginners or the faint-hearted.
What does a day of heli-skiing look like?
Granted, every tour operator runs things their own way. But by and large, here is what you can expect from a day up in the air.
● An early start with a safety briefing
Don’t be surprised if your guide asks you to wake up at 6 am. They want you to get as much sunlight in as possible and since night falls so early during winter, it is best to start off early in the morning.
Upon breakfast, you will be given an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe. The guides will do a beacon check and demonstrate how each of these tools can be used in case of an emergency. Many operators also provide a crash course on helicopter safety, aka how to get in and out of the machine.
● Site-seeing with warm-ups
Once you’re off, keep your phone ready. The views of the backcountry will be well worth the cost of your trip. Some pilots like to fly guests around to they can take in the scenic beauty before the actual skiing begins.
Your first stop is likely to be easier terrain to allow for a quick warm-up. This is also a clandestine way for guides to gauge one’s proficiency at skiing. They reserve the right to cancel your ride should they not be satisfied.
● Sun, fun and runs
This is where the fun starts. The pilot will drop you off at the mountain top. Once you have descended from the helicopter, feel free to start skiing. Just make sure to coordinate with your guide before you set off. This process will be repeated throughout the day. Bear in mind that most operators have a capped number of runs or vertical feet you can complete in each trip backcountry so use them wisely.
● Return to the lodge
If you are tired or have exhausted your daily run limit, you can head back to your lodge for some exquisite wining and dining. Many heli ski resorts across America offer additional facilities like spas, hot tubs, bars or reading nooks as well. Alternatively, you can get into bed and recharge for another day out on the slopes.
The Origins of Heli-skiing
Heliskiing was originally invented in Canada, and its credit is awarded to Hans Gmoser, an Austrian mountain guide, who initiated this practice in British Columbia in 1965. Mountaineers and filmmakers decided to use planes to transport their clients to the mountains. This activity quickly gained popularity and spread to resorts around the world. At first, the stations used biplanes and old helicopters, but nowadays, modern helicopters are used worldwide!
Prerequisites for Heli-skiing
Certain prerequisites are essential to do heliskiing. As you will ski on virgin and steep terrain, it is necessary to have a very good base in skiing. There is no question of being afraid once at the top of the track or finding yourself stuck in the middle of the descent, in deep powder. Thus, the person who wishes to indulge in this extreme leisure sport must prove an excellent level of skiing.
A skier must be comfortable on red and black runs and behave with discernment in the face of all types of obstacles. Your guide will guide you to tackle more difficult terrain, but it is up to you to take up the challenge.
Regular sports training throughout the year is also very important because powder snow requires muscular effort and good endurance. After all, the track is very long. Thus, it is important to be in very good physical condition to do heli-skiing without unpleasant health surprises. Focus on some endurance exercises to build up stamina for such an effort.
In addition, the practice of this activity involves the wearing of appropriate safety equipment. These include, among others, the Airbag backpack, the probe, the shovel, or even an avalanche victim search device.
Where to Go Heli-skiing?
Heli-skiing is possible in many countries and prohibited in others. Only Austria, Italy, and Switzerland still allow it. It is also possible to experience this amazing sport in Gulmarg, India. The most famous country is Canada, particularly its western part, in the Canadian Rockies. It is also possible to do heli-skiing in Switzerland or Italy under certain conditions.
Best heli-skiing spots in the US
With ample snow and a variety of terrains, Alaska is widely regarded as the hub of heli skiing in America. Black Ops Valdez and Chugach Powder Guides are two the most sought-after operators here. However, there are some great operators in some of the lower states as well. These include:
- Telluride Helitrax and Silverton Heli in Colorado
- Ruby Mountain Heliin Nevada
- Powderbirdsand Diamond Peaks in Utah
- North Cascade Heli Skiing in Washington
- High Mountain Heliin Wyoming
- Reach isolated places by helicopter, which are difficult to access by other means. The other means of transport in the mountains are the cable transport found in ski resorts such as chairlifts and cable cars: snowmobiles or snow scooters, caterpillars such as snow groomers. And finally skiing, especially ski touring.
- The helicopter can move very quickly. We travel by helicopter in a few minutes, which can be covered by ski in several hours.
- Heli-skiing takes advantage of the two advantages seen previously. Thus, expert skiers appreciate heli-skiing because it allows them to ski virgin and powder snow in places no one else has skied during the winter and reach areas protected from the crowds and favorable to skiing, the ski freeride.
Equipment You Need for Heli-skiing
Clothing for Heli-skiing
In the high mountains, the conditions and the temperature are generally very harsh during the winter. Remember that you will be skiing at a higher altitude than you know in the resort. Consider dressing warmer. Your clothing should be not only waterproof but also very warm. The onion technique is always the most suitable for skiing: underwear, a technical T-shirt, a fleece jacket and a waterproof parka. You will then have the option of removing a layer if you are too hot.
Some of the best thermal underwear sets are Rocky Men’s Thermal Underwear Two Piece Set, Men’s Thermal Underwear Set with Ultra-Soft Lightweight Fleece, Long John Set and HEROBIKER Men’s Thermal Underwear Set with Fleece Lining. Some good ski jacket options include Waterproof Ski Jacket Men Snowboard Windbreaker, Wildhorn Dover Premium Men’s USA Engineered Ski Jacket with Waterproof and Windproof Insulation and JINSHI Men’s Ski Jacket, Fleece, Waterproof, Windbreaker.
Don’t forget a covering hat, warm waterproof gloves, waterproof pants and good socks in good ski or snowboard boots. If you are heli-skiing in the dead of winter, a boot warmer may be a good solution. Among the best options are Spyder Active Sports BA Gore-TEX Men’s Ski Gloves, Burton Insulated Warm Waterproof Winter Profile Gloves Touchscreen Compatible and Flamino Winter Ski Gloves, Made with 3M Thinsulate Insulation.
Ski and Safety Equipment
Remember always to take the ski equipment you are used to for heli-skiing. There is no point in starting with the equipment you have not yet tested or with equipment that has not been revised. Your edges must imperatively be sharp enough to be able to hang on the powder and your bindings tight to avoid loosening.
When practicing heli-skiing, safety is a key consideration. You must therefore equip yourself accordingly by obtaining the appropriate equipment: probe, radio, shovel, Airbag backpack, harness, carabiner, first aid box, survival blanket, among others. The harness, for example, is climbing equipment that allows you to attach yourself. The carabiner is a metal ring with a simplified opening system. Belaying maneuvers are essential for it.
Other Essential Accessories for Heli-skiing
Many other accessories are of great use to the practitioner of heliskiing. This is particularly the case for masks or sunglasses, sunscreen, or even a camera to take beautiful shots and thus celebrate those wonderful moments at the top of the peaks.
Packages are often offered to people who practice this recreational sport. Different formulas are available, and everyone should find what suits them in terms of value for money. The prices remain relatively high as compared to other skiing.
Some of the best ski goggles are Zeal Optics Portal XL – Frameless Ski and Snowboard Goggles for Men and Women, Supertrip Ski Goggles for Snow, 100% Anti-Fog, UV Protection, Snowboarding, Skiing, and Juli ski goggles, for snow sports, winter, with BNC anti-fog lens.
Some Tips and Techniques
Skiing in powder is a fantastic experience, but you have to remember that any stop could be final. A skier must therefore maintain a certain speed to stay above the snowpack and not get stuck in the depths of the snow. It becomes almost impossible to get out of the powder snow to the surface to resume the descent. Always look far ahead to anticipate possible obstacles and stalls in the mountain. You can vary your turns and jumps, so you never slow down.
Heli-skiing, a Controversial Sport
The world’s heli-skiing paradise is in Canada, whose mountains account for 90% of the market for this extreme sport. However, the leading European power is Switzerland, specifically the canton of Valais, although environmentalists have pressured the Swiss government to ban it due to the helicopter’s noise impact on the environment. Many other countries on the Old Continent impose severe restrictions on its practice.
Every year, thousands of spectators flock to the screening rooms to attend mountain film festivals and get carried away in the world of skiing, snowboarding or mountaineering. The actors of these films embark on more dangerous adventures to share with the spectators, the steep slopes and the powder snow via their images. In search of ever stronger sensations, skiers are dropped off by helicopter on the highest mountain peaks. Their descent is then also filmed from a helicopter. The phenomenon of heli-skiing also leads many to ask themselves whether they have to do only off-piste skiing or illegal skiing. One can also wonder if the flight over the Alpine massif for shooting a film is not in contradiction with the law in force.
The practice of heli-skiing is often considered very controversial because of the damage to the environment and a certain mountain ethic. Environmental and economic interests and the interests of individuals are in opposition to this sport. Environmentalists are entirely against using helicopters for leisure as it contributes to the noise pollution caused by helicopter flights.
Our Final Thoughts!
We hope the information above has answered the question, what is heli-skiing? Besides having the right ski and safety equipment, clothing, and other essentials discussed above, this extreme sport should only be practiced by expert skiers. This leisure activity is suitable for thrill-seekers who wish to descend virgin slopes (without traces) and be caught at the bottom of the valley. Do not forget to share this information with your skier friends, and let us know if it worked for you!
If that is not enough to convince you, perhaps a chat with any ski buff might help. Heli skiing, as we mentioned earlier, is considered the highest form of alpine skiing, meant for professional skiers and VIPs looking to get some respite from their hectic lifestyles in the crisp, thin mountain air.
At the same time, the sport isn’t meant for everyone. The tough terrains can be detrimental if one is unprepared. Not to mention, a single trip can put a serious dent in your pockets and there is always the risk of running into bad weather. Experts recommend pondering over what it is that you wish to achieve through the ski trip. Heli skiing is ideal for those looking to polish their skills and has the financial capacity for it. But if you are merely seeking a break from routine life, there are plenty of other, cheap skiing locations across the US to choose from.
But irrespective of where you go, or what type of skiing you are indulging in, make sure you familiarize yourself with your ski gear and brush up on common skiing techniques to ensure a safe and sound skiing experience. Without the right preparation, you could end up with a severe injury, or even lose your life.