Helicopter Skiing: The Ultimate Chairlift
The first time you go heliskiing can be a little intimidating. Chances are you’ve never been close to a helicopter before, and now one’s landing inches from your nose, beating you silly with rotor wash. Moments later, you’re zooming up and over airy ridges and touching down in the middle of nowhere.
Out you go into the rotor wash again, but this time, you huddle like a Gore-Tex-clad commando while guides unload the skis. A thumbs-up from the pilot and the whirlybird rears into the sky, leaving you virtually alone among spectacular scenery, with nothing but gravity tugging at your ski tips. The silence that follows is always shocking.
While some 55 million people skied at an American resort last year, only about 100,000 of them used a helicopter as the ultimate chairlift. They spent up to a week slicing through 100,000 or more vertical feet of untracked, pristine snow—the equivalent of 24 top-to-bottom runs at Jackson Hole. They relaxed next to river-rock fireplaces with top-shelf cocktails, eased their sore quads in saunas, and discussed over king-crab legs what were likely some of the best runs of their lives.
But only a fraction of these lucky adventurers were truly fantastic skiers. The biggest misconception about heliskiing is that you must be an extreme X Games type to do it. With dozens of operators in the United States and Canada that offer trips for just about any ability level, the only truly difficult part is figuring out where to go and with whom. We can help with that. Trying to contain your glee at the end of each run? Now that’s intimidating.
How it works
Just about every heliskiing company offers packages based on the number of days and the vertical feet of skiing you can expect to log during that time. A seven-day trip—say, Saturday to Saturday—typically comes with 100,000 vertical feet of skiing, which breaks down to about eight long runs a day. Expect to pay about $100 for every 1,000 vertical feet you opt to do over that limit. You’ll get a refund or a discount on your next trip for unused vertical, should storms ground the helicopter. The trend these days is for outfitters to offer shorter two- and three-day packages that are much cheaper than dropping $7,000 or more for a week. Some ski resorts, like Vail and Sun Valley, team up with helicopter companies to offer just a day of heliskiing. Three helicopter runs based out of Whistler can cost as little as $612.
Where to go
You know what they say about picking good real estate? In heliskiing, it’s British Columbia, British Columbia, British Columbia. When the Swiss want heliskiing, even they come to Western Canada, where more than 30 heliskiing companies operate in an area 11 times the size of Austria. Here the snow falls in dozens of feet, yet the weather is frequently stable enough to make flying possible.
Places that ski the B.C. interior, like companies out of Golden or Nelson, generally enjoy lighter, fluffier snow. Coastal areas, like Bella Coola, tend to offer steeper skiing on snow that’s heavier, but less likely to avalanche. Not far behind B.C. sits Alaska, where steep, toothy peaks and yawning glaciers make for some of the most spectacular ski scenery high above the tree line. In the lower 48, companies run trips out of Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Colorado. In Europe, most heliski trips are daylong outings tacked onto a vacation at one of the resorts. Check out usheliskiing.com for operators in the U.S. and helicatcanada.com for more on skiing the Great White North.
When to go
Generally, March and April are the best months for first-timers, thanks to longer days and milder temperatures. Most heliski operators don’t begin flights until at least January to ensure a solid snow base. Going in January or February can mean a higher chance of storms and down days in the lodge, but going then also greatly increases your chances of finding the deepest powder you’ve ever skied.
Types of packages
Blasting through bottomless powder is dreamy—and exhausting. Companies like Telluride Helitrax (helitrax.net) and Canadian Mountain Holidays (canadianmountainholidays.com) offer packages that couple first-time powder skiers with powder-instructor guides who can show you how to save your energy making turns.
Other companies, like Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing (wiegele.com) and Valdez Heli Camps (valdezhelicamps.com), combine helicopter skiing with cat skiing—a method of backcountry skiing that uses tank-like grooming machines retrofitted with seats and heat to comfortably whisk you around the mountains.
For the best mix of skiing and après fun, head to Europe. SwisSkiSafari (swisskisafari.com) offers one of the most luxurious and unusual takes on heliskiing, marrying backcountry adventure with Old Country magnificence. You’ll spend mornings heliskiing big lines off 12,000-foot peaks near the Matterhorn, and afternoons flying to resorts like Saas Fe and Zermatt to ski the slopes, eat fondue and wander ancient streets.