You stand alone at the top of a snowy ridge, staring down at a skier’s dream: an expanse of untracked powder, set out below the tips of your fat skis. Pushing off, you glide effortlessly on the snow, turning perfect figure eight's amid the silence of the untrammeled wilderness. You stop at a plateau, meet up with your group, and hear the thuck-thuck-thuck of the helicopter coming in to shuttle you to another expanse of fresh powder.
If you’ve been thinking of chucking the chair and losing the lift lines, on skis or snowboard, now’s the time. Heli-skiing may have been around for more than 40 years, but the experience of hitting the powder lottery — practically by yourself — is more popular than ever.
“Heli-skiing offers a combination of snow and space that makes for a mind-blowing experience,” said Marty von Neudegg, Chief Marketing Officer of Canadian Mountain Holidays, the first company to jump on this sport in 1965.
And while that may sound like marketing-speak, the figures back him up: Even the smallest of CMH’s 12 areas is 1,000 square miles, many times larger than Vail, yet less than 40 people will be skiing there on a given day.
A growing quest for this solitude has fueled a demand for more heli-skiing outlets. And companies have responded, making whirlybirding to ski the white stuff a white-hot business. “In Alaska and British Columbia, the number of heli-ski companies has more than doubled in the past five years,” said industry expert Gart Skinner. “But no one has lost market share.” In fact, he believes that heli-skiing (and cat-skiing — taking a Snowcat into the backcountry) has become popular enough to support a new magazine, “The Heliski | Catski Journal,” which he’s launching in 2007.
Another reason for the surge in chopper popularity, said Skinner, is fat skis, which make skiing in deep powder much less work than in the past. And it can be work. Because it’s untracked snow, we’re talking powder. Real powder. Deep powder. Forget your edges — learning how to stay above the snow is key. Fortunately, the massively wide boards like Line’s “Prophet 130s” and K2’s “Seth Pistols” operate practically like waterskis.
In fact, for many, skiing deep powder is the most challenging part of the sport. Heli-skiing may conjure up images of steep drops from craggy cornices, but most terrain is usually tame enough for a strong intermediate skier. You’ll often be above treeline and won’t have to dodge any evergreen obstacles. And steeps? Unless you go in search of them, they’re not that common, due to the danger of avalanches.
Still, not everyone is a fan. Though Skinner says he can’t imagine a sport with a lesser environmental impact, some disagree. “We just don’t know what the effect of heli-skiing is on wildlife and drinking water,” said Lisa Schmidt, executive director of Save Our Canyons, an organization devoted to protecting the Wasatch area outside Salt Lake City. “And the Forest Service simply hasn’t studied the issue carefully enough.” To get them to do so, Schmidt’s organization took the Forest Service to court. The environmentalists lost (they’re appealing) — the courts felt enough regulations were in place.
In fact, regulations abound, especially in the U.S., making it difficult to start a heli-skiing operation in this country. There’s only one in Colorado, and the sport doesn’t exist in Vermont. But a few years ago, Canada relaxed their regulations and now has the highest concentration of heli-ski operators in the world. According to von Neudegg of CMH, British Columbia had 16 heli-ski operators in 1999. In 2007 there are 43.
Options abound outside the Rockies as well. SwissSKISafari, for example, can take you on a three-country heli-ski tour of Switzerland, Italy, and France in just a week, staying in luxurious hotels along the way. The Chugach Mountains in Alaska offer some of the steepest heli-ski terrain on the planet. Even Russia has entered the game, using military helicopters to take its nouveau riche schussers to new heights.
Don't miss these Travel stories
Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors
With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.
- Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
- Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
- MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
- Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year
- Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors
Still, the way you tackle this adventure can differ from place to place — even the exclusive world of heli-skiing has its velvet ropes. In Austria, the only place to go is the exclusive enclaves of Lech and Zurs, in the Arlberg, where Wucher Helicopters offers a pay-per-run option.
The more common choice, though, is a multi-day package deal, with a guaranteed number of runs and/or vertical feet included in the price. Telluride's Helitrax offers a three-day option with 18 runs and 12,000 to 14,000 vertical feet included.
More exclusive is the remote lodge-based heliski trip. Canadian Mountain Holidays operates 12 luxury lodges in 12 different areas (all complete with chef, pastry chef and two masseuses), and three- to 10-day trips with guaranteed vertical of almost 15,000 feet per day. And if you really don’t want any strangers along, just rent out the lodge and the helicopter for yourself (and 30 friends) for the week.
Slideshow: Around the World At the upper end of the heli-ski circuit is staying on a heli-equipped yacht. One of the most thrilling options is to fly from the decks of the m/v Absinthe, a 201-foot megayacht, from the sunny waters off the coast of British Columbia up into the mountains. In a fast 15 minutes, you can be laying down tracks. And if the weather gets bad, just return to the lower-altitude sports of waterskiing, kayaking and hot tubbing with a glass of Dom Perignon. Sound expensive? It is — chartering the yacht for 12 people is $36,000 a day.
So save your pennies, cue the Warren Miller video, kick back and check out these amazing heli-ski adventures.