Heli-Skiing: A Skier’s Trip of a Lifetime—Is It Extreme or Safe?

BY Harding Bush TIMEJanuary 19, 2022 PRINT

Tired of long lift lines, crowded trails, and mediocre snow conditions? Perhaps heli-skiing is for you. Helicopter skiing offers the experienced skier exclusive access to the terrain beyond the ski lifts with steeper, longer runs with often pristine powder snow conditions. The requirements for heli-skiing include the helicopter, the pilot and guides, advanced skiing ability, a bit of bravery, money, and emergency rescue service protection.

Heli-skiing is off-trail, downhill skiing, or snowboarding without using a ski lift. It started in the 1950s when helicopters were first used by skiers to visit isolated areas in Alaska and Europe. Since then, heli-skiing has become widely available.

Heli-ski operators started, and still operate, in very remote parts of Alaska’s vast mountain ranges,” said Zach Graham, an avid backcountry and frequent heli-skier. “More recently, heli-ski spots in Colorado and Utah have opened, allowing more skiers access to the sport.”

Some consider heli-skiing as an “extreme” sport. Is it? Stu Richards, an avid skier living in Vermont, has heli-skied since the 1980s. He doesn’t consider the sport extreme. “You have to be an experienced powder skier for heli-skiing, but you don’t have to be an expert skier. The helicopter must be dependable, your guide must have sound judgment, you have to make certain you’re skiing terrain that matches your skill level, and you must be prepared for the potential of natural disasters like an avalanche and sudden, dangerous weather changes.”

Frequent heli-skier Richard Jorgensen says heli-skiing is not the extreme sport people may think. “It can be quite safe and accessible depending on what tour operator and guide you go with, and the skill level of skiers who are in your group. The heli-skiing risk factors are the same as they have been for the last 5-to-10 years.”

Graham agrees. “There is more heli-skiing opportunity and accessibility, but the terrain still requires a high level of skiing ability. Having an experienced guide with a reputable operator who can assess your ability and match it to the terrain you ski is a must,” he said.

Heli-skiing requires an enhanced level of safety awareness compared to resort skiing. You need to know your skiing abilities and then adhere to the direction of the guides and helicopter crew. There are hazards in the backcountry that aren’t typical at a groomed resort with ski patrol and lift-service.

Skiing ungroomed terrain can be challenging because all deep snow is not light and fluffy powder. Take extra time to discuss avalanche safety equipment like beacons, probes, airbags and risk mitigation.

While helicopter skiing, you need to think more like a mountaineer than a skier.

Is heli-skiing available only to the “wealthy” or has it become more affordable?

“Skiing is an expensive sport, and heli-skiing isn’t cheap,” Richards said. But there are many more options today to manage the cost. You can heli-ski at remote lodges for a week or more for tens of thousands of dollars, and you can also heli-ski one run at a time for a couple of hundred dollars per run.

If you can resort ski for a week, then you can probably heli-ski for a day,” he added.

Silverton Mountain is the only heli-operator in the continental U.S. offering single heli-ski runs for $184 per person per drop. That won’t include your lodging, or anything else. Traditional heli-skiing packages, like those with Canadian Mountain Holidays in British Columbia, Canada, will cost about $1,300+ per day and include room and meals, non-alcoholic beverages, certified guides, and helicopter pilots.

Graham confirms that heli-skiing remains one of the most expensive ways to access backcountry ski terrain, but he notes alternatives, such as Cat- skiing.

“With Cat-Skiing – skiers and snowboarders ride in a multi-person cab on a snowcat machine and are taken to remote, pristine mountain areas to ski and ride – the cost is greatly reduced and bridges the gap between resort lift ticket costs and heli-skiing expenses,” Graham said.

But Graham admits heli-skiing is unparalleled, and the cost covers essential requirements. “The experience is unmatched. You’re paying for helicopter time, the pre-arrival avalanche mitigation work, and accommodations. It’s a bucket list item for most avid skiers,” he said.

Jorgenson says the cost to heli-ski is climbing. “It’s getting more expensive, just like everything else in the world.” But he believes heli-skiing may be more popular since the pandemic because it satisfies people’s desire for outdoor activities while physically distancing from strangers. “There may be more pent-up desire. Most places are pretty booked up if they are open,” he said.

Graham concurs but believes the allure for heli-skiing had been growing before the pandemic. “Skiers exploring the backcountry have been increasing for a while.”

Retail ski brands are seeing unprecedented demand for gear that allows for these backcountry adventures, with most of them selling out of these products for the past two consecutive years,” he added.

Heli-skiing is banned in France, Austria, and Germany. It is otherwise available worldwide, including Italy, Switzerland, the Spanish Pyrenees, the Bugaboo, Selkirk, and Monashee ranges of Canada, Chile, Argentina, the U.S., New Zealand, and even India and Kashmir, Russia, Georgia, and far-flung corners of the former USSR. Some of the top heli-ski areas include Powder Mountain in Utah, the Tordrillo Mountains in Alaska, and The Bugaboos in the Purcell Mountains of Canada.

Harding Bush
Harding Bush, Global Rescue security operations manager, is a former Navy SEAL with extensive expertise in mountain and cold weather operations. He is a graduate of several U.S. and NATO Mountaineering courses, including the Slovenian Mountain Warfare School. Before entering the military, Harding served on a mountain rescue team in Vermont.
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