Heliskiing

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Introduction

What's it all about

Heliskiing is essentially backcountry skiing using a helicopter as a fast ski lift to get to remote mountain locations in order to ski untouched slopes of fresh powder snow usually in spectacular settings. This can be a one off lift or you can ski down to the valley and get picked up and do it again.

Why do it?

It is probably the ultimate skiing experience. You get easy access to fresh powder skiing and do it all day without the pressure of battling hordes for fresh tracks or having to spend hours hiking/skinning uphill to get to it. You can also ski as many runs as your legs, credit card and daylight allows. All done in spectacular settings away from the crowds. Plus the helicopter flights on there own are pretty amazing. Any serious skier should take the opportunity for a day of heliskiing if they can. But be warned - it can be quite addictive.

Terminology

For simplicity this article will use the terms 'heliskiing' and 'skiing' as that was what it was when it started. Of course these days it applies equally to snow boarders. So Heliskiing should be read to mean Heli-skiing/Heli-boarding and skiing as skiing/boarding/riding.

Brief history

Heliskiing started off in the mid 1960's in Canada when an Austrian Hans Gmoser saw the potential of vast areas of mountains in British Columbia that were difficult to access by normal means and started building the first of his lodges and formed Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). Not long after another Austrian Mike Wiegele set up his base in Blue River.

In the 1970's more Canadian operations started as well as a few in the USA. Around the mid to late 1970's a couple of operations saw the same potential in the New Zealand Southern alps with an operation near Mt Cook run by Alpine Guides and Wanaka local Paul Scaife started up Harris Mountains Heliski.

The 1980's saw more operators start up in these countries. Meanwhile there were people researching possibilities further afield.

The 1990's saw a significant expansion to more distant locales. Firstly in the Himalaya. In the early 1990's French steep skiing legend Sylvain Saudan started up an operation in Kashmir and around the same time Australia Roddy McKenzie started up his operation based in Manali in the far more politically stable Indian state of Himachal.

Another operation was started in the Caucasus mountains in southern Russia.

Some years later some ex Vietnam heli pilot had the idea of dropping people onto remote and very steep peaks in the Chugach range of Alaska and letting them fend for themselves. It was only in the later 1990's that these developed into proper commercial operations.

The expansion continued in the 2000's with various other parts of Russia and the ex Soviet republics opening up. Most significantly was the spectacular and extremely remote region of Kamchatka - land of fire and ice with many active volcanoes overlooking the ocean. Then the coastal regions of Greenland overlooking amazing fjords and travelling along the coast. Meanwhile Canadian operations continued to expand up the northern BC coast, and several more Alaskan operations started up. Turkey is now also on the radar.

Getting started

If you have never heliskied before and wondering how best to try it, the best option is to try book a day when conditions are reasonably good. The easiest place to do this especially for Australians is in New Zealand. There are several operations offering daily options for most ability levels so is very accessible. They are also more affordable (relatively) and easier to book onto at fairly short notice, whereas some weekly packages elsewhere must be booked well in advance. Another good option would be to try a cat-skiing operation in North America which a similar sort of thing at a slightly slower pace but somewhat cheaper. Otherwise perhaps a heli-lift in Europe.

How does it work

The way a heliski day works can vary quite a bit depending on the location eg. In Europe it is completely different in that it is usually just a single lift rather than several. Also daily heliskiing will be somewhat different to weekly packages. Below are a few typical examples.

Daily packages

Most heliski operations in New Zealand work in this format as well as a few in North America.

Registering

Typically in this scenario you stay in a town near where the heliski operation is based. You would have booked in the days beforehand. This process will include completing a registration form, signing a waiver accepting the inherent risks involved and a questionnaire indicating your powder skiing ability. This will be used to work assign people to groups of roughly equivalent abilities.

Getting ready

Early in the morning on the day itself either you will contact the heliski office or they will contact you to let you know if they are flying or not. The reasons for not flying can various. Usually (hopefully) it will due to the fact it is snowing heavily, but it can also be a case of high winds, thick cloud cover, poor visibility or high avalanche hazard. In this case you have the option of rolling over to the following day if you are still in town. Sometimes they may also go on hold as there may be some cloud cover but they expect it to clear later. If it is go then the necessary transport arrangements are made. This can be having them pick you up or you meeting them at their office and travelling with them or following them in your own vehicle to the staging area. The staging area will usually be one of a number of locations outside of town handy to the anticipated skiing location. In some cases you may request or be lucky enough to get a heli-taxi to the staging area.

At the staging area

You then assemble at the designated staging area along with everyone else that will be sharing the helicopter. There may be other staging areas in the vicinity using a different machine. When the helicopter arrives it will shutdown and one of the guides will give a safety briefing on the helicopter, getting on and off, the safe areas to be around it etc. You will then be assigned your groups and specific guide for the day. Normally there will be about 2-4 groups sharing the machine. Your guide will then hand out avalanche transceivers (if you don't have your own) and give a briefing on its use as well as a practice search. You then bundle your skis/boards up. When it is your groups turn to go you crouch down in the landing zone, the helicopter will land, the guide will open the door for you to get in and will load the skis in the basket attached to the skid. Once everyone is in with seatbelts (regular airline type) fastened you’re off and away!

First run

Getting underway for the first run of the day can take some time especially if there are 4 groups. It takes longer to fly from the staging area in valley up to the first run. The lead guide will also spend some time scoping the conditions on the likely first run, establishing the landing zone and checking stability. The guide will then explain the ground rules, which will include his various hand signals eg. when to ski, which side to ski, indicate danger or stop immediately. It will also include advice about where not to go, when to stop, not skiing past the guide and likely hazards. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO PAY ATTENTION TO THIS. The guide should then also verify that everyone’s avalanche transceiver is transmitting. Finally it is time to ski! The guide will always ski off first and will usually instruct that the first section be skied one at a time. The guide will point out the lines that should be avoided and a safe zone to ski down to. The guide will normally signal when it is ok for the next person to go. The group then skis to the guide one at a time. Then depending on the terrain this pattern may be repeated or if it id low angle and quite safe the group can ski together. The group continues down in this fashion looking for good lines and snow until the snow runs out or is not worth skiing or the terrain dictates eg. it bluffs out. Meanwhile the guide will be thinking about various pickup zones. There will be several established locations, but essentially they will be looking for something that is reasonably flat and in good view for the pilot. Sometimes the guide may have to dig the pad out a bit. The group then bundle up their skis and the guide will radio the pilot for a pickup. As mentioned earlier there may be a bit of a wait on the first run as the heli may still be ferrying people into the area. When the helicopter arrives you may then fly back up to the next run. This may possibly be the same landing as before and you'll ski a different line particularly if the first run was very good or it could be a different run entirely.

The day continues

How the day continues then depends on the type of group. If it is a lower ability group who are only planning on doing 3 or 4 runs you will continued at a relaxed pace and having plenty of time to take photos / video and enjoy the experience without being rushed. However if it is an advanced group wanting to ski 7-10 runs or more the pace will pick up somewhat while still of course adhering to the safety aspect. At some point the groups will get together for lunch. Usually this will be part way down a run or on a high valley floor preferably in the sun and out of the wind and a pleasant setting. In some cases this is basically a brown bag lunch, but in others it can be a gourmet alpine buffet as pioneered by Paul Scaife in NZ in the 1980's. At this point with all the groups together the guides will discuss the logistics for the rest of the day and there is usually an opportunity to adjust groups, allowing people to perhaps move to a faster or slower group if there are others to swap with. Additionally groups can if they are feeling good, decide whether they want to do extra runs to what they had originally booked for.

End of the day

The day continues in this fashion until either the group skis their nominated number of runs and is happy, until the legs give out skiing extra runs or before it gets dark. There is some rule that says everyone should be off the mountain at least one hour before sunset. This is to allow time for recovery in daylight in case of any problems late in the day. At this point the groups are flown back to the staging area, from where you head back to town usually the way you came. Settle your account, and then talk about the great day over a couple of beers.

Weekly packages

Generally operations in Canada, Alaska, India, Kamchatka, Greenland etc run on roughly a weekly basis or at least 3 days. However, this is changing and operations such as Great Canadian Heli-Skiing are now offering trips of any duration (2,3,4,5,6 days etc) and that can start on any day of the week.

Registering

You usually need to book for these well in advance. In some popular Canadian operations for example it is common for people to book their trips a year in advance. Registration, payment and signing of waivers usually needs to be done before arrival.

Getting there

Typically you will be staying in a lodge or hotel in a fairly remote location together with the other guests and the guides. Sometimes this will even mean flying in by helicopter. Quite often they will stage from directly outside the lodge or hotel, particularly in Canada. Quite often there will be familiarisation and safety briefing session on the evening of arrival. This will also be the time to organise rental of fat skis which they usually provide.

First day

On the morning of the first day you will be assigned to your groups and guide. Some operations keep the same groups and guides for the week, others will rotate daily and post this info on a noticeboard. Then there will be further briefing sessions on the helicopter and on the avalanche transceivers including a good practice session. Any other safety gear eg. Shovel packs, airbags etc are also issued and explained. This all takes a little while but is very important. The good thing is that this only needs to be done on the first day.

Assuming the weather allows it, it is then time to board the helicopter and go skiing. Once on the top of the first run the guide will explain the skiing protocols, hand signals etc as described for the daily heliskiing and the routine is then fairly similar.

Subsequent days

Having done all the safety briefings on the first day for the rest of the week weather permitting you can get prepare to go skiing soon after breakfast and get some serious vertical in. Later in the week you will need to consider how much you want to do. The package may either be for a certain amount of vertical skied (typical in Canada) or else based on the amount of helicopter flying time (typical for charters or in Russia). If going beyond this you need to pay extra.

Heli lifts

This is the way it generally operates in Europe as heliskiing there is highly restricted. Where it is allowed, the operators are limited to a number of landing zones and it is usually a one off lift. They will drop groups off at these locations. From there they will ski down to the valley and make their own way out via regular transport.

Helicopters

A variety of helicopters are used for heliskiing.

Bell 212’s are the ones most commonly used in Canada. They are configured for 12 passengers which generally means 10 clients plus a lead and tail guide.

Also widely used are Eurocopter AS350’s, which generally known as A-Stars in North America and Squirrels elsewhere. These are generally configured for 5 passengers, so 4 clients plus guide, though sometimes an extra 6 will fly in the more powerful twin engine B2’s. These are more versatile than the 212’s being better suited for smaller ridge top landings. They are commonly used in North America for private charters and almost exclusively in New Zealand.

For high altitude operations in the Himalaya the old Aerospatiale Lama’s are still a good choice where other models struggle with that altitude. These are configured for 4 passengers – 3 clients, 1 guide. Small machines with a clear bubble, you certainly get good all-round views. Bell 407’s are now also used for these altitudes.

Also occasionally still used in New Zealand are Hughes 500D’s. These also take 4 passengers.

In Russia and the ex Soviet Republics the huge ex-military transport MI-8’s are the ones used. These take around 20 or more passengers. For skiing some of the seats are taken out to accommodate skis so they generally operate with about 15 including 2-4 guides. These are big noisy beasts, certainly not suited for ridge top landings, but work well in Kamchatka with the big verticals. They can also carry a spare fuel tank in the back which they can drop off and reload later, so saving on distance to refuel.

Safety

[To be added]

Guides

[To be added]

Where to go

Canada

Canada was where it all started and will still be the biggest market. There are numerous operations almost entirely based in the vast wilderness areas of British Columbia with a few in Alberta. The original ones where mostly interior with the famous names of the Bugaboos, Cariboos and Monashees. In more recent years there have been a number that have started up along the north west coast, some even operating from a boat able to move up and down the coast. Canada does enjoy the advantage of excellent tree skiing which allows them to operate even in relatively poor conditions. On fine days they fly to the higher peaks and glaciers for long runs. On cloudy days they can land just above tree line and ski the trees. It is also close to the USA which is a big market. As a result several of the big operations book out quite early.

USA (Mainland)

There are several smaller operations about, but in general are more restricted in area, with more ski resorts and restrictions on permit areas as well as greater liability issues.

Alaska

Foe serious steep and deep Alaska is certainly the place. It has provided plenty of amazing footage for ski films since the mid 1990s. When it is on it provides consistently steep, long runs. The early days were pretty wild but it is now well regulated. The downside is the weather can be a problem and unlike Canada there isn’t much in the way of tree skiing. So waiting several days for the weather to clear enough to fly is a common scenario. The best time to go is probably in April when the weather does improve somewhat and the days are longer as well. Most of the operations fly in various parts of the Chucagh range. Initially these were based in Valdez, but have expanded west to Girdwood and east to Haines and Cordova.

New Zealand

Like Canada, there is a vast amount of terrain in the South Island with very little other access to provide plenty of great heli-ski terrain. Again though the lack of trees does put a limit on flying days. Also being a narrow island the weather can be somewhat unpredictable and wind is more often an issue. The lack of a big population base means there is less demand for places. As a result the operations there are much more geared for daily trips and this provides plenty of flexibilty. This makes it an ideal choice when looking to get started. A day can be booked at fairly short notice and individuals travelling in a group can elect to heliski while others might head to a resort. The main centres are Methven, Mt. Cook, Wanaka and Queenstown.

Europe

Heliskiing is banned in much of Europe. It is allowed in some countries eg. Switzerland and Italy on a restricted basis. There are particular places where they are allowed to land. The European Alps are well covered by networks of towns and ski lifts and also huts in the backcountry so there is far less scope in any case.

India & Nepal

The Himalaya is a massive range, so there is certainly scope there. The problems it does have include accessibility, political instability, lack of infrastructure, Indian bureaucracy. The scale of the Himalaya is something huge and quite spectacular. The altitude is certainly an issue as you are regularly flying over 4000m and even the high valleys can be over 3000m. There are long runs and some nice glade skiing. The relatively low latitude means it can warm up quite quickly in March and the sun can be quite intense in the with the higher altitudes. The seasons tend to be mainly compressed into January through to March. The base for the most successful operation is in Manali in Himachal Pradesh which is at least politically stable and Manali is a well known Indian resort town so has plenty of accommodation and is relatively accessible. The operation there did close after a reasonably good run of over 15 years and has just tentatively started again in 2009.

Russia and ex Soviet republics

There was an operation established in the Caucasus mountains in the early 1990’s in conjunction with a ski resort in Gaudari. More recently in that region Krasnaya Polyana has received quite a bit of exposure. The really big development has been the opening up of areas that were completely closed to the rest of the world and most Russians until around 1990. The most significant of these is the Far East Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. This has arguably the most spectacular terrain in the world. Dozens of active volcanos, many overlooking the Pacific Ocean with amazing long runs (several of 2000 vertical metres or more). It is a very sparsely populated peninsula with just one major city Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and just one main road, so to get anywhere generally requires a helicopter. Operations are run with a combination of Russian and international guides. There are also apparently operations in some of the ex Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Krygyzstan & Tajikistan also using Russian MI-8 helicopters but little is known of their reliability. They also operate in quite high altitudes of over 4000m whereas the peaks in Kamchatka are more in the 2500-3500m range.

Greenland

There are also some quite spectacular operations along both the west and east coasts of Greenland amongst the fjords also with some very long runs almost down to the ocean. They also make use of boats to move up and down the coast to access different areas. They are however probably the most expensive operations around though – so it is a big commitment.

Australia

Heliskiing is not permitted in the Australian mountains, although occasionally the Army feels the need to do some winter "training".

Other

There are other smaller operations in South America usually based out of ski resorts eg. Valle Nevado in Chile and Las Lenas in Argentina. There is apparently now also heliskiing in the Kackar mountains in Turkey.

Resources

Directories of Operators: