We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
Imagine soaring above a vast expanse of jagged, snow-covered peaks under a clear, blue sky as the whooshing noise of helicopter blades drowns out all other sounds. Your excitement, mixed with a little apprehension, mounts as the chopper touches down in a pristine, sparkling field of snow. Within minutes, you're carving turns through untouched powder. You and a few companions follow your guide and meet the chopper at the end of the longest and most exhilarating run of your life. This is what heli-skiing is all about — and here’s where you can cross the adrenaline-pumping sport off your bucket list.
What Is It?
Unlike inbound skiing, which is skiing within a resort’s boundaries on well-marked runs, heli-skiing is a style of backcountry skiing (skiing on natural, ungroomed, and unmarked terrain). In heli-skiing, experienced guides accompany skiers and snowboarders in order to monitor weather conditions and safely choose a path that will not trigger avalanches.
Well-trained helicopter pilots know how to fly in mountainous terrain, which is necessary for heli-skiing. Don’t worry about having to leap to the ground though; the helicopters typically land on previously used landing zones long enough for passengers to disembark safely. Weather plays a huge role in deciding when it’s safe to fly. The sky must be clear with moderate winds. Reputable operators will postpone if conditions aren’t safe.
Not Just for the Experts
You might think that heli-skiing is only for professionals or those in search of daredevil adventures. However, it’s quite accessible for most skiers and riders who can afford it (this adventure is not for the faint of heart — or wallet)! Those extreme scenes you see in ads and movies feature professionals, but operators will take less experienced skiers and snowboarders to mellower terrain. If you’re in good health, can comfortably ski or snowboard challenging intermediate terrain, aren’t afraid of heights (or helicopter rides), and can handle powder, you can probably heli-ski. Your guide will assess everyone’s ability before you leave the ground and try to group skiers and snowboarders into similar ability groups for each trip up.
Where to Heli-Ski
Heli-skiing is gaining popularity, so most major ski regions offer multiple opportunities suitable for adults and even older kids. You have two options for a heli-skiing adventure — you can make day trips from ski resort towns or stay at a remote lodge and heli-ski several days in a row. Accommodations range from basic to luxurious — including even luxury yachts. Due to the helicopter’s size, the average group includes about 8 to 10 skiers. However, if you’ve got the coin, you can find deluxe options that limit group size or offer private trips.
Single Versus Multi-Day Trips
If cost or limited vacation time is of concern, your best bet is to plan a day trip, especially if you can heli-ski from a ski resort town you’re already visiting. Consider a remote lodge if you'd prefer to spend a few days or even a week or more immersed in a winter wonderland. Keep in mind that sometimes stormy or windy weather persists for several days, grounding the choppers. It’s not unheard of to plan for a 10-day trip and end up hitting the slopes only a couple of times. Grounding tends to happen more often in coastal Alaska and British Columbia than at inland destinations. One way to mediate getting stuck indoors is to choose a heli-skiing operation that offers backup options such as snowcat trips or that is close to a traditional ski resort.
Average Vertical Feet
Be sure to check how many average vertical feet you’ll likely get in on a single day, and how the pricing works — Alaskan and Canadian remote trips can cover a leg-melting 15,000 to 30,000 vertical feet in a day! Some offer “unlimited vertical feet,” whereas others charge you for each flight. Check the details on unlimited trips, because if there is only one chopper and a lot of participants, or if the runs are exceptionally long, you might not get in as many vertical feet as you had hoped. Many operators offer refunds and will reimburse you if something other than your aching body prevents you from reaching the promised vertical feet minimum.
Best Time to Go
When you can heli-ski also plays a part in choosing where to heli-ski. If you wish to travel in January, Japan is your best bet. Canada’s season runs from January through March. The early season favors more protected tree glades, while later in the season promises more open alpine runs and better weather. March tends to be the best time to ski in the Alps since the weather warms up, and the avalanche risk has lessened. If you have your heart set on Alaska, go in April when the longer days bring warmer weather and fewer storms. May is an optimum time to heli-ski in Iceland, Finland, Greenland, and Sweden, because you’ll get almost endless daylight. And when the snow is melting in the Northern Hemisphere, head south to New Zealand, Argentina, or Chile.
Alaska is often considered the holy grail for heli-skiing, and for good reason — some areas average 700 inches of snow every year, and you can cover an incredible amount of vertical feet in a day. The Chugach Mountain Range near Anchorage and Valdez is home to multiple operators offering single and multi-day trips. You’ll find several more heli-skiing options on the thin strip of Alaska that runs along the Canadian Pacific Coast.
As the birthplace of heli-skiing, British Columbia is a snow enthusiast’s dream come true. Due to British Columbia’s location on the Pacific Coast, the Canadian province receives massive amounts of wetter snow, just like Alaska. Popular coastal areas include Bella Coola and Whistler. If you’re seeking the dry, light, fluffy stuff, you’ll feel like you’ve reached nirvana if you head inland near Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which averages 40 to 60 feet of annual powder! Head farther east to Banff in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta for more legendary heli-skiing.
Colorado and Idaho
If Alaska and Canada are out of reach, you can find heli-skiing operators near Telluride, Colorado, and Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint, Idaho. Both offer day trips from nearby ski resort towns. If you’re vacationing in Vail or Aspen, the Telluride operator will pick you up in a fixed-wing aircraft and bring you to Telluride for the day.
Snow-laden storms make their way south from frigid Siberia and bury Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in boatloads of snow. Although Hokkaido is home to multiple ski resorts, the area has surprisingly few heli-skiing operators, but that doesn’t mean you should mark it off your list.
Scandinavians love heli-skiing, and multiple operators are scattered across Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Iceland and Greenland also up the ante with runs ending at the seashore. The remote, adrenaline-pumping experience is unparalleled. The icing on the cake is viewing the northern lights during late winter and the midnight sun during May and June. Any of these northern European heli-skiing destinations are well worth a visit.
The Alps stretch across Switzerland, Italy, France, and Austria, and you can find operators in every country except France, where the sport is banned. Most heli-skiing trips originate near ski resorts and typically offer only one or two drops per day. Landing zones are fairly restricted as well, so zooming down pristine, untouched snow is less likely. Unlike at the North American remote lodges where you need to plan ahead, you can usually book an Alps heli-skiing trip a day or two in advance. Spain, Greece, and Turkey also offer remote multi-day heli-skiing experiences that may be more like what you’d find in Alaska and Canada — and are less busy than the Alps.
Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, nestled between Europe and Asia, are home to a surprising number of heli-skiing operators. Russia has an enormous number of snow-capped mountains begging to be explored. Siberia/Lake Baikal, Kamchatka, Arkhyz, and Sochi (home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games) are the top heli-skiing destinations on the continent. If you’re a daredevil and heli-skiing the Himalayas is on your bucket list, you can also go on a heli-skiing trip to India or Nepal.
Kiwis are known for being outdoorsy and adventurous, so it should come as no surprise that New Zealand offers multiple heli-skiing opportunities, primarily on the South Island. The snow is not dry and powdery, so you won’t need a snorkel to breathe as you do in Canada or Alaska, but you’ll have access to similarly immense amounts of undisturbed terrain. A trip to this outstandingly beautiful country is on many bucket lists, so when the snow has melted in the Northern Hemisphere, you can check off two things with a heli-skiing trip. The season for heli-skiing lasts from July to September. Expect some cloudy, non-flying days.
Chile and Argentina
When winter hits in the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina, snow starts falling hard. The season here lasts from June through October, and the days are typically sunny. In Chile, you can stay in a mountain lodge, on a luxury yacht with a private chopper, or in Santiago and launch from the top of one of the city’s skyscrapers. For more serious shredding, head to Patagonia in Argentina for mind-blowing, multi-day trips. Bring some friends and book a private chopper to explore the undisturbed terrain in the Uco Valley. At the end of the day, enjoy sipping a glass of local wine.