Epic runs, endless powder turns, fantastic scenery. Now it’s your turn to take a chopper and drop into remote backcountry far from the madding crowds.
Words and pictures by Dan Milner
Heli-skiing is no longer the sole preserve of the rich and famous, the sponsored athlete and the photographer (a man’s gotta do…!). All good riders want access to these epic adventures and hence it is now more cost-effective than ever to have a slice of the heli-ski pie. Make no mistake, heli-skiing is never going to be as cheap as a week riding the lifts in Bulgaria, but it can reward you with some of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have on snow. Ranging from single day – and even single drop packages – to whole weeks with a dedicated helicopter, the deals are there for the taking. It’s just a question of where. Heli-skiing is a generic term that includes snowboarding, in case you’re worried!
Mountain range: Caucasus
Lowdown: Krasnaya Poliana is an exceptional big mountain heli-haven with an affordable price tag, and it’s not that far from home. Monster-sized choppers drop you as high as 3200 metres, so snow is plentiful and reliable. There’s great tree skiing if the weather is bad and a terrific little ski resort if the heli can’t fly at all.
Numbers: Two guides per 10 clients. Six-day heli packages with Vertikalny-Mir start at £1640, which includes B&B accommodation, and rise to £2340, which includes full board and additional heli drops. Prices include guide fees.
Vibe: Warm and friendly locals with lots to offer including vodka shots. It’s getting busier each year but it still retains the Russian feel. Expect interesting food, saunas and cultural diversity.
How to get there: Fly to Sochi via Moscow from £280 return.
Mountain range: Central Harris Mountains, Southern Alps
Lowdown: Heli-skiing in our summer months (July-Sept) is a far better alternative than slushy European glaciers. Elevations are between 1400 and 2200 metres.
Numbers: Single-day packages for two drops with Southern Lakes Heliski start at NZ$540 (£189) rising to NZ$880 (£309) for six drops, including guides’ fees and gourmet lunch on the mountain.
Vibe: The heli option is best taken as a day’s adventure, something to try in between days spent at the local resort. Incredible glaciers and spiky peaks set you deep in the heart of Lord Of The Rings country. When the heli can’t fly, ride at the Wanaka resorts of Treble Cone, Snowpark or Cardrona or head to Queenstown and Coronet peak. Alternatively go white water rafting or jetboating.
How to get there: Fly to Christchurch, NZ (from £550 return) and then drive to Wanaka or Queenstown.
Mountain range: Chilcats
Lowdown: Alaska – a.k.a AK – is where film crews and pro riders put heli-skiing on the map. The Chilcats are coastal so riding is low altitude (up to 2000 metres) and you’ll get 800-1200 metres vertical for a single descent. Expect six heli drops in one day.
Numbers: Alaska heliskiing runs single-day heli trips for uS$540 (£284), which includes six drops and one guide to four or five guests. Extra drops can be bought for $70 (£36) each. The company’s Ski Bum package includes two days’ heli and two days’ skiplane, plus eight days’ accommodation for $2300 (£1200) per person.
Vibe: Alaska has a real frontier feel; expect glaciers, rusty pick-up trucks and lots of Carhartt clothing. When the heli can’t fly, go sea kayaking, watch the bald eagles, or ride at eagles Crest, a local ski resort.
How to get there: Flights go from Juneau to Skagway up to five times daily. Getting to Juneau via either Seattle or Vancouver costs approximately $600 (£316).
Mountain range: Alps
Lowdown: Heliskiing with no jet-lag. McNab Snowboarding offers flexible single drop to multi-day packages in the Val Veny valley near Courmayeur. Helis drop as high as 3500 metres on both glacial and non-glacial terrain with slopes to suit intermediate to advanced riders.
Numbers: Choose single-day excursions, which include two heli drops from 130 euros (£87), and pay 70 euros (£46) per additional drop. Weekend trips start at 505 euros (£338) and include accommodation. Guide fees are an extra 300 euros (£200) per day between a group of four.
Vibe: Based out of the Val Veny valley there’s a real high-mountain feel and riders access some of the faces of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. Courmayeur is a cool little town with a good resort for non-heli days.
How to get there: Head to Courmayeur, Italy, via the Mont Blanc Tunnel from Chamonix (via Geneva airport) or fly to Turin or Milan.
Mountain range: Coastal mountains, West Greenland
Lowdown: Top-end on pricing but a destination and experience you’ll never forget. Stormy weather in Greenland generally clears quicker than most mountain ranges so you’ll probably have less down days to deal with. The mountains are coastal (the interior of Greenland is one vast flat ice shelf) and top out at 1700 metres, but the snow descends to the sea, so runs average 800-1200 metres vertical.
Numbers: Elemental Adventure has packages starting at £5500, which includes seven nights’ full-board, 10 hours’ heli flying time per group, guide fees (one guide per four clients) and taxes.
Vibe: A real adventure but with the comforts of a four-star hotel. If the heli doesn’t fly, go sea kayaking or even whale watching. The town of Maniitsoq is located on an island and has a fascinating Inuit culture that combines with a frontier feel.
How to get there: Fly to Maniitsoq, via Copenhagen, Denmark. Flights from £400 return.
So how good do you have to be?
To go home stoked from your heli-ski experience, you need to be a competent rider, able to stay in control at all times. You don’t have to drop 40-foot cliffs, but you do need to ride down 25-35 degree faces and come to a stop where and when the guide tells you. Be particularly obedient on glacial terrain. All heli operators supply a guide, sometimes two with a group. You may think they have the most enviable job in the world, but that’s only when things are going right. To keep it that way, their word is final. You don’t need any particular backcountry experience to heli-ski, but an off-piste course will be helpful (try mcnabsnowboarding.com in Chamonix). Safety training is often given at the start of the session and safety equipment is usually provided.
… and how insured?
The guide’s role is to take you where it’s safe and where you can have the most fun. Even on safe snow, things can go wrong however. Equipment can break and injuries can occur. It’s worth checking that your winter insurance covers not only off-piste skiing/snowboarding but specifically heli-skiing (or heli-boarding). All heli-ski companies will get you to sign a waiver in the eventuality of something going very wrong. It doesn’t mean they are irresponsible or badly prepared; it’s just the way they do it. So get insured.