A brief guide to heli-skiing
If piste-skiing is the gateway, the heli-skiing is the real deal.
It is, quite simply, the Everest of adrenaline sports. So why the hype? Because there’s little to beat the feeling of touching down in a helicopter miles from anywhere, or anyone, followed by absolute stillness as the last sounds of the departing chopper are absorbed by peaks and snow.
Then knowing that all day you’ll be making fresh tracks in powder — sometimes up to waist-deep — and five minutes after finishing each descent you’ll be at the top of another slope. You don’t need to be a seasoned pro to appreciate the buzz because modern skis do most of the heavy lifting for you, but you will need a fairly fat wallet to make this more than an occasional treat. But say you do find that million dirhams down the back of the sofa, here’s where to spend it.
We’ll start in Europe. France banned heli-skiing a while back (for environmental rather than safety reasons) but neighbouring Italy and Switzerland are both prime heli destinations, with the Monte Rosa massif the zenith. Stay at The Omnia (the-omnia.com) in glamourous Zermatt with the Matterhorn as the perfect Toblerone bar backdrop.
For a more Viking vibe, head to the Bond baddie lair-evoking Deplar Farm (exsus.com) in the excellently named Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland. The vertical drop (ie, how far you descend in altitude on each run) may not be much, but you just ski, ski, ski, repeat, and then spend hours recalling your feats in the vast outdoor hot tub, celebratory drink in hand. For added braggability, hit Riksgransen (riksgransen.se) in northern Sweden in late May to ski all day, enjoy a delicious dinner (reindeer steaks with lingonberries, anyone?) before climbing into your chopper to ski under the midnight sun until, well, midnight.
Cross the Atlantic and you can heli-ski where it all began: Canada’s British Columbia. An Austrian expat started ferrying guests in helps back in the Sixties, and now BC is home to many of the very best companies for getting the most out of the backcountry (North American speak for off-piste).
Difficult gig, but if we had to pick one outfit, it would be Bella Coola Heli Sports (bellacoolaheliskiing.com) for slick service, guides and lodges in one of the world’s single biggest ski areas — just the 2.64 million acres. BC also benefits from a key advantage; when moist air off the Pacific Ocean hits the Rockies, it creates a meteorological motherlode of perfectly light powder that those in the know hail as the best snow on earth.
Canada’s noisier neighbour does good heli, too. There are decent descents in the Teton range from Jackson Hole in Wyoming and also in Colorado (jacksonhole.com), but the grail of US heli-skiing is Alaska, which again benefits from some serious snow dumps. The Tordrillo and Chugach ranges are both home to luxurious lodges, by Tordrillo Mountain Lodge (tordrillomountainlodge.com) is only accessible by floatplane for added Bond-style bad-ass arrival points. Staying in the Americas, for Northern Hemisphere heli-addicts with withdrawal symptoms during the Arabian summer, the chic resort of Ski Portillo in Chile (skiportillo.com/en) — helicopter transfers included — runs from June to August.
Another summer option even further removed is New Zealand. It’s worth the trip to stay at Minaret Station (minaretstation.com) on Lake Wanaka in the South Island not far from “adventure capital of the world” Queenstown. Heli out to ski wide-open bowls and steep couloirs before staying in one of four luxury chalets where a world-class chef serves lamb from the estate.
Back north of the equator, so best for the Gulf winter, is Japan’s island Hokkaido, home to powder-hound paradise Niseko (niseko.ne.jp/en).
As with so much travel in Japan, heli-skiing here feels pretty otherworldly, descending steep and deep on the sides of a volcano, and staying in ryokan (traditional inn) eating sushi and sleeping on a futon in a room with tatami (reed matting) floors and rice paper walls. Salivating yet? Time to start saving up.
Tom Barber is a founder of the award-winning originaltravel.co.uk