If you’re a committed skier, heliskiing is probably on your bucket list. I’m fortunate enough to have been able to tick that one off, but there’s a problem with putting that tick in that box – once you’ve done it, you can’t just walk away with a smug and self-satisfied grin (although you probably will) – the chances are you’ll have caught the heliski bug and will want to do it again; and again; and again.
For make no mistake, there are few things any skier will ever do that have the raw excitement and sheer adrenaline rush as heliskiing.
Heliskiing is not just about enormous, untouched powder fields glittering in the sunshine and inviting you to make your mark upon them; that in itself would be enough to satisfy most of us, but when you throw in incredible landscapes that may vary from peaks so wild and remote they don’t have a name to steaming volcanoes and incredible panoramas across vast mountains and cold, blue oceans this is an experience you’ll never forget.
And I haven’t even mentioned the helicopter yet. I used to travel in helicopters regularly in a previous life when I worked as an oil field geologist, but comparing the great lumbering beasts that carried us out to offshore rigs to the nimble Bell and Airbus helicopters which are most commonly used in the heliski industry is like comparing an Eddie Stobart truck to a Formula 1 racing car.
You’ll feel a sense of nervous anticipation as you head out from your ski lodge to board the ‘heli’; this rapidly increases when the pilot completes all the checks and switches on the rotors, which barely seem to have the energy to move at first but a minute later will be whumping through the air and have you feeling like you’re playing the lead role in an action movie as you wait to board.
Scramble aboard, and the adrenaline buzz rises yet higher as you lift off and scoot away into the mountains, seemingly brushing tree tops and ridge lines in a ride like no other. 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.
Snow covered mountains are always a wonderful sight, but seen from a helicopter they look even more dramatic. It’s quite likely that in some of the more exotic heliskiing locations, much 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.
The excitement notches up another level when you land a few minutes later, tumbling out of the helicopter into a whirl of snow which increases to a blizzard as the craft soars away in an elegant vertical take-off, and then skims away to your pick-up point (incidentally, they’re never referred to as ‘choppers’; they’re ‘helis’. Don’t ask me why, a Canadian heliski guide told me that, and what a heliski guide says, goes).
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…
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 whilst waiting for the heli to pick you up – you won’t be bored.
So, 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 mountain 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.
But now the moment of truth has finally arrived and its time put those big, fat skis to use. 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 super-wide planks that are best suited to heliskiing, and your heliski operator will provide top quality powder skis that have been test ridden and work on their terrain.
They 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 should easily give you 15 to 20,000 feet of vertical. 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…that’s 15 or so runs of pure powder fun.
Since most of that riding will probably be in featherlight powder, it’s a lot easier on the legs (and the technique) than the heavier chopped up powder more often found in most ski resorts after a snowfall. However, keep in mind that your ultra-fast ‘ski lift’ will be whisking you up the top of various different mountain tops around ten times a day so it’s well worth getting the legs in shape before you go.
It goes without saying that the average heliski lodge 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 in the wilderness 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 even that convenience can be supplied if your wallet is thick enough…
Then there’s the haute-cuisine dining with Michelin-star chef, the superbly stocked bar, the outdoor hot tub, the sauna, the massage room, the gym, the games room and the entertainment room etc., etc.
The only trouble is, when are you gonna have time to use it all? Because you’ll be either resting after skiing or, of course, skiing – that’s what this 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 really 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 wide skis.
But like everything else on Earth that is hard to obtain and impossible to manufacture, it has a high price tag (although compared to an all bells and whistles resort ski trip, perhaps not as expensive as you might think). So, you need to be sure that what you sign up for is suited to your needs. I asked James Morland, director of EA Heliskiing (Elemental Adventure) for a few tips on where to go to find some of the very best heliskiing.
His company is one of the best and longest-established in the business, with over twenty-years-experience of putting skiers, helicopters and mountains together in remote and inaccessible locations around the world.
“I’ve been lucky enough to spend a bit of time guiding in Iceland over the past ten-years or so and it’s definitely one of my favourite places to heliski. Nothing compares to landing on a peak high above the ocean and skiing right down to the beach below. There is terrain there to suit a wide range of abilities from strong intermediate right up to the pros looking to ski something genuinely gnarly. And as it’s only a short flight from most European cities so it’s easily feasible to go for a long weekend,“ says James.
On the other side of the world – literally twelve time zones away in eastern Russia– is a heliski destination that’s kind of Iceland on steroids – Kamchatka, the most volcanic region on Earth. I skied here with James some years ago and the place blew my mind. Over to James… ”In twenty-five years of searching the world for the most incredible ski experiences nothing we have yet found comes close to the ‘other worldly’ experience of Kamchatka,” he enthuses.
“There are no words to adequately describe the contrasts, the unfathomable size of the landscape and the raw power of Nature that are part and parcel of Kamchatkan skiing. Skiing to a Pacific Ocean beach from the summit of smoking volcanos or down to pristine hot springs at sunset, barbecuing on rivers of molten lava, racing 650 kg Kamchatkan brown bears down the mountain – to have just one of these experiences in a lifetime would be special – to have them multiple times on a daily basis is sensory overload.
“You need a certain level of commitment to ski here, though – the journey out is long, the runs are long – up to 2,700-metres of vertical – and the nights out can be long too!”
EA Heliskiing continues to search for new adventures, with the latest being on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia’s Khamar-Daban mountain range.
“With the peak season falling in November and December it fills a nice little hole for us when we wouldn’t normally have people travelling, and in terms of being close to guaranteeing the most perfect powder imaginable, it doesn’t get any better. The lake, which supplies the moisture for the region’s snowfalls, doesn’t freeze properly until January so until then there is plenty of moisture available to keep the snow factory open…and the quality of the snow really is something exceptional”.
Before I let James head off on yet another ‘research trip’ (it would be easy to hate this guy…) I asked him – given the fact that we all know heliskiing isn’t cheap – what he’d recommend for something a bit more on the luxury side, if money really was no object.
“The ultimate lodge-based luxury heliski trip has to be our ‘Platinum Experience’,” (We’ll give you the price at the end – make sure you’re sitting down.)
“You’re based in a five-star lakeside log cabin with every conceivable comfort, and your own private helicopter is parked outside ready to whisk up off into 830,000-acres of pristine, powder-choked Canadian wilderness with just a few friends.
“Amongst the features of a seven-day stay at Spirit Bear Lodge are unlimited vertical footage (many operators charge extra if you go over a set amount of ‘vert’); two private mountain guides, a pilot, a private chef and massage therapist and a concierge dedicated exclusively to your group. And, of course, the accommodation is ultra-high end, from the luxurious bedrooms to the private Jacuzzi, sauna and massage room.”
Sounds great hey? So how about the cost? Well, if you can corral together another nine mates who feel like splashing out in style it comes to £13,228.71 per person for seven days (based on exchange rates at the time of writing – I guess we can forget about the 71p though). And that doesn’t include flights to Vancouver.
But then we all know heliskiing ain’t cheap; but it is a ski experience like no other…