Each year, tens of thousands of people climb out of helicopters onto mountaintops in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and Chile to heli-ski.
After retrieving their skiing or snowboarding equipment and preparing themselves, skiers descend through thousands of feet of pristine snow. At the bottom of the run, they re-board a helicopter and do it again.
While heli-skiing is not an extreme sport, it is not for the novice or faint-hearted skier. Substantial skiing experience at the intermediate level is the minimum required by heli-ski operators. Heli-skiing involves moving through deep, light, untracked powder that has fallen on an uncompacted base.
In most areas, the heli-ski season runs between December and March or April. In Alaska, the season goes from February to May. The number of daily runs depends on the ski area, weather conditions, and other factors. Some heli-ski operators do up to six runs per day.
Each heli-skier has his or her favorite location. According to John Rabel of Seattle, the best heli-skiing is experienced in the Okanogan National Forest in north central Washington.
“After 35 years of heli-skiing, I find my fondest memories are from the North Cascades. East slope snow, very consistent weather, and terrain with a wonderful intimacy," said Rabel. "Couple this with small groups, and the skiing experience becomes the best there is.”
North Cascade Helicopter Skiing, which has been in business since 1988, has a permit for 300,000 acres in the Okanogan National Forest. Ski runs in the area start at altitudes of 7,500 to 9,000 feet and offer 1,500 to 4,000 vertical-foot drops.
U.S. and Canadian heli-ski operators
According to the industry’s association, HeliSki US, there are eight heli-ski operators in the country: two in Alaska and one each in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. North of the border, there are 17 heli-ski operators in British Columbia.
The mandate of Heli Ski US includes establishing “the highest quality guide [and] safety and operations guidelines,” being “an educational resource for operators, government, and public and private agencies,” and “promoting the sport of Helicopter Skiing in the United States.”
The standard heli-ski group is comprised of four skiers and a guide. A small group allows the guide to tailor the terrain to each skier’s needs more easily than with larger groups. Guides are advanced skiers who are familiar with the local area and certified in emergency first aid and avalanche safety. Federal Aviation Administration regulations govern the operation and maintenance of helicopters and pilot training and experience requirements.
Helicopters used for heli-skiing range from the six-seat Eurocopter A-Star B3 (one seat is occupied by the pilot) to the Bell 212, which accommodates 11 skiers plus a guide. Skis, poles, and snowboards are carried in a metal basket installed on the side of the aircraft.
Risks and waivers
Because of the nature of the sport and environment in which heli-skiing occurs, there are risks such as fall injuries and avalanches. Before boarding a helicopter, customers sign a waiver releasing the heli-ski operator from responsibility.
Nearly 20 years ago, seven experienced skiers, including a veteran guide, were killed in an avalanche near Blue River, B.C. Prior to commencing heli-skiing operations, the area had been tested for avalanches and the snow was judged to be very stable, aside from some isolated pockets. The cause of the avalanche was not determined.
Heli-ski operators do their best to ensure the safety of their customers by providing detailed safety briefings and equipping each skier with an avalanche transceiver, which emits a radio signal that helps rescuers locate someone buried under snow. Operators also issue helmets to protect skiers from a head injury in the event they fall while descending a snow-covered mountainside, some of which are steep.
Heli-skiing packages, which vary from one to seven days, start at about $1,100 and increase to as much as $9,500 for a week. Bookings can be done online or over the phone. Operators also rent ski and snowboard equipment for an extra charge.
After an invigorating day of heli-skiing, customers relax at a lodge. Some are fairly basic but others are four-star, serving the best food and drink. Heli-skiing operators know that their clients want an experience that is not only thrilling, but enjoyable in every way.