Admit it—if you’re an avid skier you’ve looked enviously at those pictures of a small group of skiers coming down a creamy, untracked field of powder, with a helicopter hovering in the background. I will readily confess that I am one of those dreamers, and I’ve been fortunate enough to try heli-skiing a few times.
But what is the experience really like?
Do you need to be an expert skier? (Actually, a strong intermediate who is comfortable in powder can usually handle it.)
Is it worth the thousand or more dollars a day that you have to spend (don’t forget, it’s also common practice to tip your guide another $100 or so)?
Well, the answer is it’s just as you imagine it, and yet… it’s not.
Sometimes it can be the most glorious skiing ever, and sometimes it can be downright terrifying. Based on my experiences with three different heli-skiing operations: near Whistler in British Columbia, in Driggs, Idaho, just over the mountain from Jackson Hole and in Telluride, Colorado, here’s what I can share with you about my experiences.
Starting the Day
Safety first: Because avalanche risk is one of the primary safety concerns, you will start your day with a lesson in avalanche safety. Unless you have your own gear, you’ll be issued an avalanche beacon and a backpack with an avalanche probe and a shovel. Your guide will then take you outside and show you how to operate the beacon and how to dig someone out who has been caught in an avalanche. It’s all very sobering because you came to have a good time and suddenly you realize the potential dangers.
Getting to the bird: Depending on your departure point, you’ll be shuttled or walk to the helicopter. The last time I went heli-skiing at Whistler, I was surprised that the guide drove the van about ten miles in his ski boots. That’s a trick I haven’t mastered.
Getting in and out of the bird: Once at the helipad, you will be instructed on how to get in and out of the bird. The getting out part is particularly important. The guide unloads the skiis and backpacks and the group crouches around the gear until the helicopter takes off. It’s noisy and unpleasant with snow swirling around, but once the copter lifts off, it’s suddenly very quiet. You look around and you’re in a mountain paradise.
All aboard: When you board the helicopter, you have to buckle up, of course. It’s trickier than it sounds. The tight space is made even tighter by a bunch of people swaddled in ski clothes who are struggling to find the right seat belt. The flight to the departure point is generally awesome.
The Big Moment (But It’s not Always Perfect)
After you land, the guide will often dig a pit to assess the avalanche danger It was disconcerting after we unloaded for the first run when I was flying with the Driggs, Idaho outfit to hear the guide look up from the pit he had just dug and say that it didn’t look good.
The snow was unstable, and we needed to get off that face quickly. Of course the helicopter was long gone, and we had to ski down. Needless to say, we weren’t caught in an avalanche, but the weather had been warm and the snow was wet sludge; I could barely turn. So much for that powder dream!
After one run, I was ready to go home. I have to hand it to the guide, though. After that terrible first run, he found us some steep north-facing couloirs, which still had soft powder. The only slight problem was that to reach those couloirs, the helicopter had to perch on one ski atop a narrow ridge that we had to traverse. We had a very small space to get our gear on. If we moved too far to the left, we risked falling off a three thousand foot cliff.
Other Heli-Skiing Reality Checks
You will usually not be the only group on the mountain. In order to be profitable, the helicopter will often ferry three groups in rotation. You may ski the same route as the other groups, but in my experience, you will only occasionally cross their tracks.
The rotating groups also means that the helicopter may not be waiting for you at the end of the run because it’s busy ferrying another group. That’s probably a good thing, because it gives your legs a chance to rest. No matter how much time you spend doing squats at the gym, nothing prepares your quads for endless turns, even in the lightest of powder.
So is it worth it?
Absolutely! There’s no experience in-bounds at a ski area that comes close. Despite the few downsides like the avalanche-prone snow I mentioned, you’re skiing in the middle of a winter wonderland with beautiful untracked powder unfolding below you. It’s something every avid skier should try at least once in life.
I’m recovering from a broken leg, so there’s no heli-skiing in my immediate future, but as soon as I’m better, you’ll find me signing up at the nearest heli-skiing operation.