Not counting our guide (and the pilot of course) there are four of us in the Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil helicopter as it lands high in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
We are the only heli-skiers in Africa. Less than half an hour ago we were still at our delightfully atmospheric hotel, the Kasbah Agounsane, bathed in mid-March sunshine, surrounded by olive groves, with some hotel guests already soaking up the sun around the generous swimming pool.
It’s the third year of operations for Heliski Marrakech, the brainchild of Hervé Favre, who set up the renowned Evolution 2 ski and all-year adventure organisation almost 30 years ago. Today the organisation has ski schools in pretty much every major French resort – at peak times employing some 800 staff.
It should have been the fourth year, but last winter the snow was a bit of a let down and Favre decided it would be unproductive, both for his clients and his heli-skiing operation to try to run a winter season in Morocco.
The heli-skiing operation, just half an hour or so from Marrakech, runs from mid-February to mid-April. By mid-March, spring is well advanced in the High Atlas, and the snow, if a touch firm on our first run, soon settles into spring conditions, making turns nice, smooth and easy. As usual, when confronted with spring conditions, Hervé, like all experienced off-piste mountain guides, is constantly “scoping” the long, wide couloirs we’re waltzing (and initially juddering) down to decide which side has the best snow. The African heat can quickly change the conditions as the sun reaches its zenith, although higher up the winds can be quite chilly, echoing among the peaks like the sound of a stray jet fighter.
Yet there’s no one up here but us. The only major ski resort (Oukaimeden) is miles away. So if anything happens up here, at altitudes approaching 4,000m, being rescued would certainly not be as smooth as it might be in the Alps. And if for any reason – the sudden arrival of thick mist or fog for example – our pilot is unable to land back at the hotel, and has to divert, our walking shoes are in the helicopter in case we have to try to walk back to base.
Unlike most heli-ski operations, this one in Morocco is not a frenetic ski-all day programme. The normal pattern is to start skiing at around 10am, complete three or four runs of around 1,000 metres each, and then take a late-ish lunch on the terrace back at the hotel. “The feeling is laid back”, as Neil Diamond once almost said. Our genial pilot, Pascal Graff, underscores this by telling us not to scramble out of the helicopter in too big a rush once he’s landed. “We’re not commandoes” he reminds us. To which I felt like adding: “And in spite of the whump, whump, whump of the rotor blades, this isn’t Vietnam!”
Just as you would expect from a warm-up run in a traditional French ski resort, Favre always starts his Moroccan ski mornings with a mellow run to make sure skiers are comfortable skiing off-piste. But even the more ambitious descents rarely trigger the fear factor. The Atlas Mountains, like the Alps, Rockies or Andes are certainly dramatic and awe-inspiring, but Hervé and Pascal know exactly where to find exhilarating skiing without scaring their clients!
Three days (two days’ heli-skiing, with a guide and equipment and two nights’ accommodation, meals included) at the Hotel Kasbah Agounsane on full board costs from 1€150 per person.
Visit the Evolution 2 website for more information on heli-skiing in Morocco.