Love That Heliskiing

heliskiingOn a good day, says TLH president and general manager George Rosset, heliskiing guests can expect to ski 30,000 vertical feet on 10 to 12 long runs. The riding is serious, and so is the price. But that’s not my thought as we strap in close on the big bird. I stare out the windows at the gorgeous etched mountains, and as we take off and skim low toward our first run, I sense both the fear of performance that looms ahead and the desire to get into it.

The helicopter lands and my eight-person group huddles as guide Glen Wortley performs an avalanche safety check. The great, fresh snow that’s ideal for riding is also highly unstable; for that reason, TLH has an almost obsessive approach to safety. Our first day begins with a half-hour of training on Orthovox avalanche transceivers – if a slope lets go, we’ll have only minutes to find and unearth a buried comrade. The concern carries through to every run, in fact. Wortley will scrutinize snow conditions carefully on each hill, giving his OK only when he’s sure everything’s stable. After a minute or so of prodding on this first day, Wortley begins to lead us down the hill.

Riding this kind of snow almost defies description. I’m filled with a sense of joyous, bobbing mobility. Light, flying snow covers my goggles as I build speed and carve like a lunatic great uncle let loose on a Thanksgiving turkey. I am too pumped to focus on it as I ride, but when I reach the end of the first run, I realize something strange. This is the first time I’ve ever looked down a slope and seen nothing in front of me: No kids, no skiers, no tracks. Nothing. Just a white expanse urging me to ride as hard as I can.

This is a prospect worth paying for if you can. But if spending $3,500 for a week of unbelievably magnificent helicopter skiing or boarding isn’t practical for you, taking a snowcat tour offers similarly slog-free access to the backcountry’s untracked glades, trees and steeps at a fraction of the price. Boarding by ‘cat doesn’t offer the instant gratification that a helicopter delivers – you’re driving up the mountains, not flying up them – but a wait-free day spent riding 15,000 or so feet of pristine powder costs only about $200, a fourth or less of what a helicopter day would cost. If heliskiing is a brand new Porsche Boxster, snowcat skiing is a used Mazda Miata. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s still great.

Carving comparison

This assumes, of course, that you want the skiing equivalent of a convertible – free, fun, expensive and a little impractical. I can’t answer the question for you, but I can say this: If you love the challenge of snowboarding or skiing on ungroomed resort snow, you’ll love it beyond belief on deep, fresh powder.

If the challenge excites you, there’s nothing better than spending a day on a ‘cat or heli. Both offer unbelievable access to great snow. Both also have their drawbacks – the slight possibility of a freezing, suffocating death under eight tons of powder not least among them. Here’s a breakdown on the good and the bad of both.

Sport: Helicopter skiing

Accessibility: The biggest and best helicopter skiing operations are in Western British Columbia, Canada, although there are also excellent outfits in Alaska. The big Canadian operations are relatively easy to get to from big air hubs like Vancouver and Banff.

Shred factor: Unlimited. My trip overlapped with a filming tour by snowboard legend Craig Kelly. Because helicopter time is so expensive, tour operators are careful to keep riders of like ability together. You’ll fill out a questionnaire about your abilities and interests on the slopes, then you’ll be installed in a compatible group. Then, if the weather is good, you’ll rip to the limit of your experience – the possibilities are endless.

Weather factor: If it’s snowing, the bird doesn’t fly. If it’s foggy, the bird doesn’t fly. If a huge dump has turned the terrain into an unstable, snowy deathtrap, you’ll be guided to tamer hills. Weather is heliskiing’s wild card. Most operations charge by the vertical foot. If you don’t fulfill your allotment – in TLH’s case, 100,000 vertical feet for a weeklong package – you’ll get a refund for what you don’t use.

Danger factor: Helicopters can be scary. I’ve flown on puddle jumpers, Cessnas and 747s, even the old ValuJet, and I’ve never been as afraid as when my heliskiing bird hit a rough spot in dense fog and instantly plummeted 50 feet. Despite taking every possible safety precaution, skiers occasionally die in these things. If that small risk is a big issue for you, don’t heliski.

Do it if … you’re fearless, intense, skilled, motivated – and flush. You don’t have to be an expert powder skier or boarder, but you should be fairly experienced. You should have logged a couple years at the big resorts, progressing steadily from the blue intermediate runs to the black diamonds. Your turns should be confident – if not always stylish – even in sketchy snow.

Don’t do it if … flying scares you. Or if you hate pressure – you’ll be out with people who want lots of vertical, and who may not be very nice about chasing it.

Tip: Rent fat powder skis or a long powder snowboard. On the way there, carry your own boots on the plane – if they get lost in a luggage mishap, your expensive trip is hosed.

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