Heli Skiing | A Beginner’s Guide, And Why It’s Not Just For the Rich
"If you can afford the price of a four-day lift pass in Les Arcs you can also afford to go heliskiing…"
Words by Alf Alderson | Photos by Last Frontier Heliskiing
I’m standing on the summit of 3040-metre Pizzo Zembranka on the border of Italy’s Stelvio National Park with four other skiers and a guide. I got here by helicopter in order to deal with the little matter of a 2090-metre descent down wide open, humanity-free powder fields…
And to do so I had to shell out just 180 euros to Heli Guides. Ok, that’s for one run only (and the helicopter flight, obviously), but it’s quite some descent through seemingly endless untracked powder, and when we’re finished everyone agrees it was worth every cent. Which goes to show that if you can afford the price of a four-day lift pass in Les Arcs you can also afford to go heliskiing.
And the skiing is only half the fun. Flying through the mountains in a small helicopter is one of the most exciting things most of us will ever do in life; indeed, I’d go so far as to say you can even get quite emotional about it, a friend of mine told me she was almost in tears through the elation she felt on her first heliski flight.
There’s a palpable sense of excitement and energy from the moment you scuttle into the helicopter, scrabbling around to fasten the seatbelt as the rotor blades ‘whup, whup’ into life, the slow, elegant vertical take-off, and then the soaring, plunging, careening skim across the mountains to the drop-off point. It makes you wonder if being a heliski pilot isn’t a better job than being a heliski guide (incidentally, they’re never referred to as ‘choppers’. Don’t ask me why, a heliski guide told me).
"A friend of mine told me she was almost in tears through the elation she felt on her first heliski flight."
So, you’ve got the total thrill of a helicopter ride to start with, but the fun is only just beginning. Take a look around you for a start. Snow covered mountains are always a wonderful sight, but seen from a helicopter they look even more dramatic. In all likelihood a lot of the terrain you’ll be whizzing above will never have been skied or trodden by humans, and the heli can get to within metres of spectacular crags, crevassed glaciers and remote peaks in a way that no other machine can.
Like everyone else you’ll probably have your phone or camera out, in an attempt to capture all this grandeur for posterity, but what you’ll record will never truly echo the real thing, so remember to take some time to simply stare out of the window and enjoy the view as you fly in and out of the mountains.
As well as getting to see mountains you’d never otherwise clap eyes on, heliskiing also introduces you to people you’d probably never otherwise meet. It attracts, shall we say, ‘characters’. From high flying captains of industry, surgeons and lawyers to ski bums who have saved for several seasons to afford their trip, almost everyone has a story to tell over lunch or dinner, such as the guy I met who’d invented a major phone manufacturer’s texting system and had the good sense to cut a deal on the sales of it. He retired at the age of 31…
"It attracts, shall we say, ‘characters’. From high flying captains of industry, surgeons and lawyers to ski bums who have saved for several seasons to afford their trip, almost everyone has a story to tell…"
And that’s before we get on to the guides and pilots. I once flew with a pilot in Idaho who was a Vietnam vet and had more tall tales than Donald Trump. And much better hair. But the guides are the people with the best stories. Take time to chat with whoever is leading you down the run(s) of your life over lunch or dinner, or while waiting for the heli to pick you up – you won’t be bored.
Spilling out of the heli at the drop-off point and cowering in the blizzard of snow thrown up from the rotors will have you feeling like an all-action hero, and even waiting for the machine to come and pick you up after each run is a thrill, with the reverberation of the blades cutting through the bright alpine air announcing from miles away that the fun is just about to start all over again.
If you’re rightly concerned about the effect all this racket has on the local wildlife, be assured that most heliski operations do their best to minimise their impact by not overusing ski areas.
And after the heli has dropped you off and high-tailed it to some distant rendezvous point, and once you and your fellow riders have stopped jabbering with excitement, quieten down for a moment and listen.
Other than, perhaps, the gentle soughing of the alpine breeze or the ‘caw’ of an alpine chough.
You rarely get this intense silence in a ski resort, where people, ski lifts and the general brouhaha of day-to-day life create a non-stop cacophony of sound. But out here in the wilderness it’s good for your soul to take time to listen to the roaring in your ears that is the sound of real silence.
So, the moment of truth has finally arrived and it’s time to break out those big, fat skis. It’s actually best to leave your own skis at home; not only will it save a tiny bit on costs, but few of us are likely to have the kind of super-wide planks that are best suited to heliskiing. And your heliski operator will provide planks that have been test ridden and proven to work on their terrain.
These boys take the worry out of skiing deep, fluffy powder, through which you’ll float with ease and grace, hopefully. Indeed, a decent day of heliskiing may give you 10 to 12,000 feet of vertical from, say, six drops. But on a great day, and in the right (i.e. BIG) mountains you may be able to convert that figure from feet to metres.
Since most of that riding will probably be in featherlight powder your legs will know all about it by the end of the day, so it’s worth getting in some serious training before you go – after all, this little trip isn’t going to be cheap so you may as well make the most of it. Maybe put a few dollars aside for a massage after the skiing too, your quads will thank you for it. And then relax in your luxury accommodation…
Because it goes without saying that the lodging on a heliski trip will be a few steps up from the budget package deal chalet you shared with four mates in the Alps last season.
It’s not uncommon to end up with your own individual ski chalet complete with bed the size of a tennis court, duvet as thick as the snowpack you’ve just been skiing and huge wood burning stove, fluffy robes and fancy bathroom as standard. In fact the only thing missing is a butler, and I dare say even that convenience can be supplied if your wallet is thick enough…
Then there’s the haute-cuisine restaurant with Michelin chef, the superbly stocked bar, the outdoor hot tub, the sauna, the massage room, the gym (does anyone ever really use a gym on a heliski trip?!), the games room and the entertainment room etc., etc.
The only trouble is, when are you going to have time to use it all? Because you’ll be either resting or skiing – which I almost forgot about. Yes, the skiing – that’s what this expensive indulgence is all about, after all.
So, think about your best ever day in resort – chances are it was bright and sunny, the snow was light and fluffy – and it was tracked out by lunchtime.
Heliskiing allows you to repeat that kind of magic, unforgettable skiing all day long, day after day; it’s the best bet you’ll ever have of scoring perfect, untracked conditions and massive vert, not to mention doing so in a wild, untamed environment the likes of which no ski resort can ever match. Add to that the absolute thrill of flying in and out of the wilderness in a helicopter and this is the ultimate adventure park.
And these days you don’t even need to be an expert skier to enjoy the experience as most heliski operators offer ‘intermediate’ introductory deals where your guide will lead you down more gently angled slopes and provide tips on how to make the most of those super-wide skis.
But like everything else on earth that is hard to obtain and impossible to manufacture, it has a high price tag. Score it at its best though and you’ll doubtless think the excessive cost was worth it.
The trouble is mere words cannot hope to describe what heliskiing is all about, so check out this video instead…then book your trip.