Image: Helicopter and skiers
Joe Royer/  /  Ruby Mountains
A helicopter drops off a group of skiers for a sunny day on Nevada's Ruby Mountains.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/14/2010 10:21:20 AM ET 2010-12-14T15:21:20

It’s silent. There’s an extraordinary sense of open space, and looking around, you see nothing but snow-covered mountains for miles. You’re 12,000 feet high, standing on one of the tallest, most vertical mountaintops in sight, and you’re about to ski down this thing.

“There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not excited to get back in that helicopter, back on that mountain and do the same thing all over again” said Joe Royer, president of the Heli Ski US Association and owner of Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing. “I want to involve more people that have passed on it because they didn’t think they had the ability to heli-ski. That’s our market right now.”

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In heli-skiing, helicopters replace ski lifts, making the bounds of height and location virtually limitless.

This season, well-known heli-ski operators like Canadian Mountain Holidays and EpicQuest in Alaska, usually known for attracting extreme skiers, are gearing marketing efforts toward intermediate skiers. But is this experience really for everyone?

Vote: Would you try heli-skiing?

What to expect
In 2009-10, there were about 7 million skiers and 6.2 million snowboarders in the United States, according to the National Ski Areas Association. In contrast, there were about 95,000 heli-skiers in Canada and the United States during that same season, Royer said.

A heli-skiing trip can last a day or be a multiple-night stay. Some heli-ski operators provide lodging in a small city at the foot of the mountains, while others are amidst the mountains, reachable only by helicopter.

Participants are given a tutorial on safety, specifically covering natural opposition such as tree wells and avalanches. Each skier is provided with a safety kit composed of a shovel, avalanche probe and transceiver, all precautionary items in case of snowy mishaps.

Once skiers arrive at the ski destination, the helicopters land and the skiers exit the aircraft. Contrary to ski film depictions, skiers do not jump out of the aircraft. The helicopter is merely a means of transportation.

All heli-skiers are accompanied by a guide who is highly skilled in rescue, assessing terrain and skier skill level.

“From a comfort and ski ability standpoint, it’s all about grouping skiers,” said Chris Owens, EpicQuest's vice president of operations. “We run small helicopters with four skiers and a guide in each. Small groups make it pretty easy to get good matches.” For companies like EpicQuest, small groups of skiers are matched based on ability and experience.

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Listen to the guide
The difference between heli-skiing and resort skiing is the terrain and the environment. Heli-skiing provides open terrain, away from the busy resort slopes. As far as avalanches are concerned, statistics for top heli-ski operator, Canadian Mountain Holidays, shows surprisingly low occurrence. “For 46 years and over 8 million runs with guests, there have been 10 fatal avalanches,” according to the company's data.

But for any operator, 10 avalanches is 10 too many. To avoid accidents, skiers must heed the most important piece of advice: Listen to your guide.

Advanced heli-skier John Creason of Seattle recalled an injury. “Two years ago, I got hurt. When I look back, I feel it was my fault. I was in the resort mindset, skiing way too fast with poor visibility.”

Powder snow is thick and very deep, Creason said, and without speed, it can be very difficult to push through. If he had listened more closely to his guide, he feels the injury could have been avoided. “It was my fault ... I wasn’t there to hear the guide, and I was going way too fast for those conditions.”

But has the experience deterred him from returning? No. He's already booked a heli-skiing trip for the upcoming ski season.

Blue-square skiers
Many intermediate skiers, who often have only a few weeks a year to get on the slopes, find it difficult to further hone their skills. Even with 15 years experience, a skier may remain stagnantly intermediate.

“I wouldn’t encourage intermediate skiers to go,” said Aaron Brill, co-owner of Silverton Mountain, Colo. “There are people who do, but I’m not one of them.”

However, his reasoning is not what one might expect. “It’s not necessarily a safety thing. You will enjoy the mountains, you will enjoy the view, but an intermediate skier would probably be wasting their money.”

Two-time intermediate heli-skier Kris Bowers of Orange County, Calif., disagrees. “It is absolutely worth the money,” she said. “I know this sounds over the top, but it really is the trip of a lifetime.”

Bowers did not feel unsafe or uncomfortable with the guides present to steer her in the right direction. “The false thought I had was, is it unsafe? But I felt totally safe. The guide would check it all out. I was afraid I would be put in tough situations, but everything I was doing was very intermediate and [things] I would never experience at a resort.”

Plan financially and physically
You’re paying for an experience, not simply a vacation. Most well-known lodges include all meals, accommodations, full transportation from airport to lodge, ski guides, helicopter maintenance and personnel, skis and all other necessary equipment. Ruby Mountains in Nevada offers a 3-day ski package for $4,250.

It is expensive. But heli-skiing is not a trip you take on a whim. There is planning both financially and physically.

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“The high altitude can cause fatigue, dehydration and weakness, especially for older skiers,” said Dr. Thomas Vangsness, a sport medicine physician. And as this is an expensive sport, many skiers are older. “Even great skiers hurt themselves. It’s ungroomed nature and hidden problems that cause higher risk.”

This is not a leisure run down a beginner's trail. It is a full-body, physically demanding sport that requires participants to be healthy and in shape to enjoy.

The experience
Before planning your trip, do the necessary research. The Heli Ski US Association is dedicated to “establishing (the highest) operations, guide and safety guidelines for Helicopter Skiing in the United States.”

Consider cost, location and reputability. Ddo your research, get in shape and save up your money. “You just have to bite the bullet and go,” said Chris Anthony, a Warren Miller athlete and author of ”Dream Season: Worldwide Guide to Heli & Cat Skiing/Boarding.” “It’s something you should cross off your bucket list.”

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