Maybe you have seen it, though didn’t know what it is called. You know, a helicopter drops person off on top of snow covered mountain, so they can snowboard or snow ski all the way down having a blast.
This is heliboarding and heliskiing.
What is heliskiing and heliboarding?
Helicopter skiing or heli-skiing is a type of backcountry skiing / free-riding which involves a helicopter to access remote areas and slopes of virgin powder snow.
First, heli-skiing is an activity of downhill skiing / snowboarding which takes place in untouched snow, on remote mountainsides, away from the groomed slopes of a ski resort. What separates heli-skiing from other types of freeriding and backcountry skiing is that skiers and snowboarders are flown by helicopter to the top of these remote slopes. Using a helicopter allows the skier or snowboarder to quickly reach stunning heights and spectacular slopes otherwise difficult to access. Heli-skiing is a truly unique experience: it combines the magical sensation of getting a bird’s-eye view of the mountain world, and the thrill of gliding through powder snow, down pristine slopes may-be never skied before. Therefore, heli-skiing has become a popular thrill-seeking adventure, attracting more skiers and snowboarders every year, from first-timers to expert free-riders.
The terms “heli-skiing” and “heli-boarding” stem from a combination of the words “helicopter” and “skiing / snowboarding”. Heli-skiing emerged as a particular type of sportive holiday in Canada in the mid-1960s. Following the glory years of mountaineering during which the major European and Asian peaks were being conquered, mountain sports experienced a prosperous period; thousands of climbers skiers and would then set out to Canada in search of new adventures in the majestic Canadian Rockies. In 1965, Hans Gmoser -an Austrian mountain guide and immigrant to Canada who had started a guiding company in the Rockies- began using helicopters to transport skiers high into remote mountains, in order to provide them with a unique ski experience.
Skiers board the helicopter and are carried to a landing zone on the mountain. Skis, snowboards and poles are generally carried in an exterior basket loaded and unloaded by a guide. Snow conditions on the mountains vary considerably over the course of the winter as the snow is subjected to sun, wind, temperature variation, and new snowfalls. Snow conditions change almost every day. Risks include those of backcountry skiing, such as avalanches and tree wells, plus those of helicopter flight. Risks are mitigated by using experienced pilots and certified guides, avalanche transceivers, avalanche air-bags, and radios.
Is it safe?
Heli Skiing/boarding Safety and Risks Heli skiing/boarding is not without risks considering that it’s undertaken in the uncontrolled backcountry. Avalanche risk is one of the primary safety concerns. Only a minority of operations use blasting to minimize the avalanche risk, while others primarily use slope avoidance techniques.
Best Places in the World to go Heli-skiing/Boarding
- Alaska — Chugach Range
Why: The authentic Alaska experience, and the setting for so many extreme ski movies. Big mountains, big lines, steep and deep.
The Chugach Mountains surrounding Valdez receive an annual average of nearly 700 inches (17.7 meters) of snow. Being near the coast means the snow is moist and therefore more stable on steep slopes.
Valdez Heli-Ski Guides specialize in big mountains and small groups, with four guests per ship accessing Alaska’s famed spines, couloirs and iconic terrain. Its benchmark Eurocopter A-Star B2 helicopter delivers passengers atop leg-jellying runs averaging 3,000 to 5,000 vertical feet (914 to 1,524 meters).
Afterward, the Tsaina Lodge offers gourmet dining with views over Washington Glacier. Three-day packages start at $4,744, seven days start at $11,076.
Who: Big-name extreme skier Dean Cummings’ H20 Guides are also based in Valdez, while Chugach Powder Guides operate out of Girdwood in the western Chugach.
- Alaska – Tordrillo
Why: Epic terrain, Denali views, stable weather, wilderness lodge.
From Anchorage, a short float-plane hop to Judd Lake reaches Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a luxury retreat featuring two separate wilderness lodges, co-owned by 1994 Olympic downhill skiing champion Tommy Moe.
Tommy’s taxis fly people into 1.2 million acres of heli heaven in the shadow of North America’s highest peak, Denali (Mount McKinley), at 20,310 feet.
The heavily glaciated Alaska Range is on a grand scale and offers endless terrain options to keep skiers challenged, with runs that top out at 7,500 feet and more stable weather than other Alaskan spots.
Who: Tordrillo Mountain Lodge offers seven days heli-skiing with five hours flying from $14,000.
- British Columbia — Bella Coola
Why: Fluffy snow, spiritual setting, heli holy land.
This place is home to the First Nation community of Nuxalk people in the Coast Range of British Columbia, and is a gateway to nirvana for skiers and boarders.
Bella Coola Heli Sports has access to a blade-busting 2.64 million acres of prime Pacific powder — light and dry in the mellower east, more stable for steep skiing in the west. That’s 325 times the size of Whistler-Blackcomb, 90 times the size of France’s vast 3 Vallees and, heck, bigger than the Swiss Alps.
And with only 36 guests between three luxury lodges — Tweedsmuir Park Lodge features in TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Small Hotels (Canada) — you’ll never owe anyone a beer by crossing their tracks.
There’s so much terrain — 73,333 acres per person — powder 11s, not powder 8s, are the order of the day. Or in the summer there’s heli-fishing.
Who: Bella Coola Heli Sports’ Classic Vertical package offers seven nights and eight possible ski days — guests can heli-ski straight from the airport on arrival and departure days — with 100,000 vertical feet of skiing — from $9,970, including return flights from Vancouver to Bella Coola.
- British Columbia – Revelstoke
Why: The epicenter of BC backcountry.
What happens when moist Pacific air meets cold, dry air from the Rockies? “Revy” cops the mother lode, that’s what — 40 to 60 feet a year of powder so light and fluffy it could be used to stuff a comforter.
If that isn’t enough, there’s Bighorn Lodge. This ultra-luxe alpine-style chalet for 16 overlooking the Columbia River at the foot of Revelstoke Mountain Resort has its own helipad out front.
Guests can choose from one of three heli operators — Canadian Mountain Holidays, Selkirk-Tangiers, Eagle Pass — and soar up to the Selkirk and Monashee mountain ranges.
They’ll need pockets as deep as the snow, but floating down open bowls gulping in white champagne, or whooping and hollering through old growth forests with just three pals and a guide is priceless.
Who: Bighorn costs about $94,000 for the lodge in a high-season week, excluding heli-skiing. Six days private use of B2 A-Star helicopter is about $53,000 (skiing in 1-3 groups of up to 4 guests per group).
- British Columbia – Mica
Why: Powder of the finest kind + a tree-skier’s paradise far from the crowds = Mica magic.
Two hours north of Revelstoke, Mica Heli Sports mines a 500-square-mile claim at the convergence of the Rocky, Selkirk and Accessible only by chopper, Mica Lodge is an elegant stay located high above the Columbia River, with access to 11 valleys with a variety of terrain, from steep alpine lines in Tsar Creek to the forests of Molson and Kinbasket Valleys.
Memories of runs called things like Pillow Talk, Mr. Wiggles, Melt Down, High Sweetness and Saddle Soar will sustain skiers for at least a couple of months back at their desks.
Canadian Mountain Holidays, which pioneered BC heli-skiing when Austrian expat Hans Gmoser set up the outfit in 1965, operate their Monashees base a short hop away.
Who: Mica Heli Sports, from about $10,000 for seven days; CMH Monashees.
- Switzerland – Zermatt
Why: Big descents amid alpine giants, majestic Matterhorn views, rich mountain culture. Heli-skiing in Europe is a slightly different game, more limited by where you can drop than by snow conditions.
Air Zermatt lifts passengers above the roofs of the picturesque old town for a quick buzz of the Matterhorn before settling the skids near the summit of western Europe’s second highest mountain, the Monte Rosa (15,200 feet).
Surrounded by other 13,000-foot giants such as the Lyskamm and Breithorn, the vast Gorner Glacier stretches out below 8,200 feet of slopes — via a pit stop at the glimmering aluminum Monte Rosa hut at 9,458 feet.
Other favorite drops are on the Alphubel, the Aeschhorn in the shadow of the mighty Weisshorn or the Testa Grigia on the border with Italy.
Or the chopper can be used as an aerial elevator up the big slogs of the famous Haute Route from Zermatt-Chamonix, saving legs for the many stunning descents.
Who: Air Zermatt charges $404 per person for a drop on Monte Rosa, including the guide’s fee. James Orr Heliski offers trips out of the unspoiled Italian village of Alagna, accessing nearly 30 drop sites on the Italian and Swiss sides of Monte Rosa.
- Japan – Hokkaido
Like floating through cold smoke, skiing in Japan is a revelation on and off the hill. It might be called the Land of the Rising Sun, but in winter Siberian storms dump industrial quantities of snow — the northern island of Hokkaido receives up to 60 feet of snow annually.
A helicopter just increases the options — skiing on dormant volcanoes and through perfectly spaced birch trees in powder so deep that a snorkel would come in handy. Niseko resort is big into night skiing. Or visitors can relax in an onsen (hot springs) and contemplate life, powder and sushi.
Who: Hokkaido Backcountry Club runs daily six-run trips to the 3,631 foot Shiribetsu-Dake volcano starting from $1445.
- India — Himachal Pradesh
Why: Heli fun on a Himalayan scale, with a vibrant valley for downtime. An hour’s flight north of Delhi lies the hill station of Manali, known as the Valley of the Gods. Then it’s up to 16,400 feet for lung-bursting descents among Himalayan giants.
The Himachal Pradesh region has everything on the heli hit list, from skiing steep summits to racing down ridges, and plunging into birch, oak and cedar forests. The action will, literally, take any skier’s breath away, if the vast views of nearby 21,325 foot peaks haven’t already. Off the hill, the exotic Kullu Valley and its stimulating culture excite the senses as much as the skiing.
Who: Elemental Adventure’s Himalayan Odyssey package offers six days’ heli-skiing including transfers from Delhi and 100,000 vertical feet from $7,607.
- New Zealand — Southern Alps
Why: For northern hemisphere dwellers seeking an endless winter, and southerners with a sense of adventure.
Southern Lakes Heli-Ski operates out of Queenstown and Wanaka from July to September, with access to 3,200 square miles across 11 different mountain ranges, including the Clark Glacier. Most terrain lies between 3,937 and 8,480 feet, with a typical run from 1,968 to 3,280 feet vertical.
Single-day trips are more the norm in New Zealand but there is something for everyone — from four-run intro trips to the full luxury lodge experience, staying at the Minaret Station wilderness retreat.
Who: Southern Lakes Heli-Ski’s four-run classic trip costs $760, with extra runs at $80. A three-day unlimited private package starts at $10,500.
- Russia – Kamchatka
Why: Untamed, raw, wild and like nowhere you’ve skied before.
Burning thigh muscles might not be the only thing on fire in this remote wilderness. The vast Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea is home to 200 volcanoes — 29 of which are active. But geomorphology isn’t why people come here.
It’s to ride big Russian choppers up smoking summits and hurtle down volcanic faces, couloirs, open bowls and tree runs until they end up on the beach. The capital, Petropavlovsk, is the base, but the UNESCO World Heritage back-country is the playground. With a highest landing zone at 11,388 feet, some descents can nudge 9,840 feet.
Who: EA Heli-skiing offers a seven-night Fire and Ice package with eight hours of flying time for $7,735.
Heli skiers/boarders are hard-core, super fit, thrill seekers. Before their first trip they all had loads of powder and back country experience. And for initiation you have to jump out of a helicopter. Is this sounds like you, give a try and be safe!
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