If you love to ski or snowboard, there is nothing better than heli-skiing. It’s that simple. No lift lines, or lifts for that matter – forget cold chairlift rides, with the helicopter you can go from the ground to the top in a couple of minutes, while experiencing the kind of views people pay hundreds of dollars for on sightseeing flights.
But the real appeal is powder, and lots of it – in most cases you ski unbroken powder on every single run, the kind of epic conditions you might be lucky to catch once a year – if you take vacations to top powder spots like Utah or Steamboat, CO. After all, the typical heli-ski area dwarfs even the biggest ski resort, yet puts only the smallest fraction of skiers on all that terrain. A big dump that can get skied off in one day at Snowbird can last weeks in a heli-ski concession. To put this in perspective, Chugach Powder Guides in Alaska has three helicopters than can carry a max of five skiers each, and 750,000 acres of terrain. On a busy day at Vail, the nation’s largest ski resort, there are about four skiers per acre: on a busy day at Chugach there are about 12,000 acres per skier. And Chugach is the rule, not the exception.
So there it is: minimal hassle, long runs, great terrain and tons of powder skiing. It doesn’t get much better.
If you are already a heli-skier you can probably stop reading now. You know all the great reasons to love it, and if you are planning a heli-ski vacation, you might be considering a weeklong package at a remote heli-lodge, most likely with industry leader Canadian Mountain Holidays, who operates 11 great lodges all over northwestern Canada, or maybe Valdez Heli in Alaska.
But if you are a heli-novice, I suggest starting closer to home.
Last winter, I wrote about cat-skiing for first timers in this column. Cat-skiing, or Sno-cat skiing, is often called “poor man’s heli” because it offers similar terrain and the same kind of powder experience, albeit with longer rides up and shorter rides down, but at a more affordable price point (heli-skiing runs about $1100 a day, more with lodging). If you have never gone cat-skiing, you might want to read my article and consider trying it before heli because it is a natural progression, a good stepping stone, and many first-time heli-skiers are intimidated.
But if you are a strong skier who can ski any black terrain at a major resort, you can skip right to heli. You don’t have to be able to jump off cliffs or bash bumps or be in a Warren Miller movie, you just need sound fundamentals and to be in control of your skis. Powder skiing experience is actually more important than sheer skill – it helps to have been in some deep, dry stuff before. These days you don’t have to be an expert – even advanced intermediate skiers can try heli-skiing, since the skis have gotten so much more user-friendly, but if you are in this group I strongly suggest trying a day on the sno-cat first.
Anyway, back to heli. The barrier to entry for the pure heli-vacation has always been the remote location and high prices, and if you haven’t done it, the notion of forking over many thousands of dollars and a week of vacation to head far from civilization to try something you have never done can be off putting. I get that. There is also a dark side to heli-skiing and it is called Mother Nature. Helicopters are fickle, as are avalanche conditions, and if the weather is bad, you don’t fly and often you don’t ski. I know someone who went on a high-end weeklong trip and got in exactly one run – in five days. That’s a lot of Scrabble. You might get a refund, but you can’t get your week (or airfare) back.
That’s why I am a big fan of the resort-based or shorter term heli-operations, which give you a lot more accessibility and flexibility. For instance, this year I am going heli-skiing for a day with Chugach Powder Guides out of Alyeska, Alaska. Aleyska happens to be the major destination ski resort in Alaska, so I get all the amenities of a “normal” ski vacation – nice hotel, a ski town, après, a choice of dining, etc., plus the day of heli-skiing. And if the weather is bad? Instead of not skiing, I just take the lifts like I would anyway and reschedule for the next day. There is no down side. Alyeska also happens to be just 27-miles outside the major hub of Anchorage, making it easier to get to than some ski resorts in the Lower 48!
I did a similar thing with High Mountain Heli-skiing in Jackson Hole, WY. One day of fantastic heli-skiing in the Snake River Range on a perfect weather day, cherry picked from a week of skiing at my favorite resort, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I also did a day of cat-skiing at nearby Grand Targhee. Who says you can’t have it all?
In both these cases the whole thing is hassle free – you either get picked up at your hotel and are driven to a nearby heli-office, or fly right from the resort base. Other major ski resorts with on-site day heli operations include Telluride, CO; Sun Valley, ID; and Snowbird and The Canyons, UT.
There is one other notable option, which I also wrote about here in detail last winter: Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing just outside of Elko, NV. Ruby is a one-off, as Nevada is not exactly famous for its powder, but it has a unique location in the little-known and snow laden Rubies. It is quite accessible as full-blown lodge-based heli operations go, a 4-5 hour drive from Reno, Vegas or Salt Lake City, or you can do what I did and fly Delta (the only carrier) directly into Elko, where they happily pick you up and return you to the small airport. RMH operates in similar fashion to the remote Canadian and Alaskan lodges with a couple of key differences. First, they offer more affordable 3-day packages that are easier to commit to, especially for first timers, and they are just a few minute drive outside of town. It’s a small town, but there’s casino gaming and dining. I never left but others did. Secondly, they have couple of sno-cats so the worst case scenario in bad weather is you go cat skiing, which is already awesome (a few of the more remote lodge-based destination operators also have sno-cats for this reason).
With the advent of rockered shaped skis, technology has never been better and out of bounds skiing has never been more accessible – or more fun. Make this the winter to try heli, and to make your initiation easy, consider a resort-based operator like Chugach or High Mountain Heli, or a lodge-based operator closer to home, like Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing.
On a side note, I recently set the Guinness World Record for Most Trails Skied in 8 Hours, a record I did as part of a story I wrote for Outside Magazine that is now up for grabs and begging to be broken. To find out more about how you can break this skiing world record and attain fame and glory this winter, read my story.
Pray for snow!