Not one for the timid, heli-skiing is one of the more extreme forms of skiing. Accessing pristine slopes away from the masses using the chairlifts, you can experience stunning long descents, higher altitudes and challenging natural runs. Not only that, but a thrilling helicopter ride with panoramic views of the mountains will mean you’ll never want to travel up the mountains any other way.
The history and geography
Increasing in popularity since its birth in the 1960s, the last fifty years have seen operators establish themselves across Europe, North America, New Zealand and more. The most popular destination is Canada, specifically British Columbia, which hosts over 90% of all heli-skiing enthusiasts. In some destinations, heli-skiing provides access to runs in excess of 3,000 metres. In North America and Canada, you can stay in a ‘backcountry lodge’ rather than in a traditional ski resort, giving you quick access to the most remote of ski runs, but you’ll be far away from the resorts and have to make your own après-ski. The terrain tends to be a good combination of above timberline skiing and alpine runs, whereas in Europe it tends to be more alpine and glacier sites combined with resort runs. In Europe all operations are resort based so you can take advantage of the amenities as you would on a standard skiing break.
Heli-skiing features heavily in ski films, even starring award-winning athletes such as Seth Morrison, Mark Abma and Glen Plake; all of them being professional extreme skiers. It tends to show the ‘sexier’ side of extreme skiing, it’s not the type of sport that makes you gasp and worry that someone is about to land on their head at the side of a half pipe, but instead portrays a graceful depiction of untouched stunning mountain scenery. Offering highs, in more ways than one, that are unachievable with a standard skiing holiday, it’s a great tick in the box for the winter sports enthusiast. But you won’t just do it once, you’ll want to go back again and again.
To have a crack at heli-skiing yourself, you’ll need to join an organised tour – it’s not a sport where you just hire a helicopter and stop where you fancy. A guide will always go first, evaluating snow conditions, checking for avalanche risks and advising the most enjoyable and safest routes down the mountain. As well as British Columbia, you can also try heli-skiing closer to home in European destinations such as Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.
Given the length of the runs and the challenging terrain, you’ll need the fitness levels of a pro – somewhat above the fitness levels of someone who’s embarking on a week’s skiing holiday. It’s draining and you’ll need to eat like a squirrel all day. Crawling across the snow with your skis and poles to get back in to the helicopter will sap you every time if your fitness isn’t up to scratch – in some locations you may get back in to the helicopter for repeat runs up to 10 or 12 times each day.
You’ll also need a fairly sound technique – heli-skiing isn’t for beginners. You’ll need confidence and ability in spades.
A major factor to consider, heli-skiing costs a lot more than your average lift pass at one of the top European resorts. Helicopters are well known as the most expensive way to travel so it’s no surprise that involving one in your ski plans makes for a costly trip.
In France it’s illegal to be dropped by helicopter to ski or snowboard, however there are a few places in Europe that you can give it a go. Given the relatively small number of resorts that offer heli-skiing though, it’s more expensive and quite different in style to heli-skiing offerings in Canada. It’s also more exclusive – join the club of heli-skiers in Europe and you’re one of the elite few experiencing euphoria from fresh powder that the majority won’t have the privilege of sharing.