Skiing from the Sky
For Skiers Tired of Following Other People's Tracks, Heli-Skiing Takes Them Away from It All
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98
"It's like taking the first run of the day right after a big storm. No"--he pauses, correcting himself--"it's like the first run of a truly epic day, except it's like that every run and they are twice as long." Mike Keating, a hedge fund analyst, is describing his first heli-skiing trip, taken last winter to Nakusp, British Columbia. Like many other avid downhill skiers, Keating had long fantasized about heli-skiing, a fringe subset of the alpine sport that is often viewed with a mixture of reverence, mysticism and fear. Urged on by a friend who had gone several times, Keating, after decades of downhill skiing, made the move from lifts to helicopters, and now he is hooked. "I'm definitely going to do it again."
He is not alone. Heli-skiing is addictive, and the major operators enjoy tremendous loyalty, selling about 70 percent of their spaces each year to repeat customers. There are heli-ski fanatics who go for several weeks each year, and many onetime avid downhill skiers who will no longer set foot in a conventional ski area.
Despite its reputation, heli-skiing is not about incredibly steep terrain, extreme skiing or big air. It's about snow, and plenty of it. It's about powder so deep there's no point in measuring it, and skiing in it for a week at a time without coming across another set of tracks. It's about perfect conditions on every descent, day after day, and never having to wait in line.
"Without being able to put my finger on the thing that makes it work any more than I could say what is the thing that makes someone fall in love, the fact of the matter is that over and over again people go, and then they just have to go back again," says Reb Forte, a money manager who lives at Squaw Valley, one of the nation's best ski resorts. He should know. Despite having a mountain that has hosted the winter Olympics at his doorstep, Forte has gone heli-skiing for the past 15 years, often for two weeks a year, and is already booked for next winter. While other heli-skiers strive to join the exclusive club of those who have skied a million vertical feet in their lifetime, Forte is pushing 5 million. "I find it hard to explain to people why I keep going back up there," he says. "It's incredibly enjoyable and satisfying, and you really spend the other 51 weeks of the year waiting for that week to roll around. For most people, it is the best week of their year."
Forte and many other heli-skiing junkies like him patronize Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the granddaddy of the sport. Canada is far and away the leading purveyor of heli-skiing, which can also be found in the United States and New Zealand, and to a lesser degree in Europe. The world's two largest heli-ski operators are in Canada, where conditions and terrain lend themselves to the pursuit. For this reason, Canadian heli-skiing is mainly a destination pursuit, where customers travel from around the world to ski, usually for a full week. Elsewhere, heli-skiing is more of a day trip, a chance for regular skiers to take a break and try something new and unusual.
In either case, the idea is to ski unbroken powder on terrain that is not served by lifts, and to ski a lot of it, far away from the crowds. Depending on the size of "the machine," as heli-skiers call the copter, anywhere from four to 11 skiers, accompanied by at least one guide, land on a ridge or plateau in the mountains and begin making turns in the best snow that their guides can locate, usually choosing from an area far bigger than a conventional ski resort. While some world-class ski areas, especially those in Utah, enjoy a reputation for large quantities of dry, light powder, even their biggest storms fall on runs that have been skied off and groomed. Every time they receive two feet of fresh snow, it's two feet on a firm base. For heli-skiers, every storm brings two feet of fresh powder on top of a staggering depth of older powder, creating conditions that many believe are unmatched anywhere.
"I can remember one day in 25 years here at Squaw where we had that kind of powder," recalls Forte. "The snow was light and above your waist. You can expect those kind of conditions at least once on every trip to Canada."
"It's virgin powder," says Andy Epstein emphatically. This past spring marked Epstein's 20th consecutive year of heli-skiing, averaging two to three weeks a season, enough for him to have accumulated six and a half million vertical feet. "In the summer, you might get two or three perfect days, where the temperature is just right and there is not a cloud in the sky, but down in the Caribbean that kind of weather is the norm and they get 200 days like that every year. That is what heli-skiing is like. You do more powder skiing in a week than most people do in a lifetime.
"I rate every trip I take from one to 10. I've been in a group with first-timers on what I consider a subpar week of heli-skiing, maybe a three or a four, and without a doubt they'd say it was the best week of skiing they ever had. I'm sure it was. The worst powder there is better than the best most people ever see."
Heli-skiing zealots like Forte and Epstein sound awfully convincing, and they are part of the reason it can be hard to even book a heli-skiing vacation. The destination ski areas in Canada routinely sell out every prime week, often a year in advance, and generally charge between $4,000 and $6,000 (all prices in this article are in U.S. dollars) a week per person, double occupancy. Typically, these packages include food, lodging and a guaranteed minimum amount of skiing of about 100,000 vertical feet a week. If weather conditions cause skiers to fall below this minimum, they receive a refund based on the shortfall. Above the guarantee, they are usually charged an added fee for extra skiing, which can easily reach an additional 30,000 to 40,000 feet in Canada. Although skiers can stop at the minimum, few do, and the extra skiing can add between several hundred and a thousand dollars.
"We begin taking bookings on the first day of the season for the following winter," says Marty von Neudegg, the marketing manager for Canadian Mountain Holidays, the oldest and largest heli-skiing operator in the world. This usually occurs around the second week of December. "By the end of January, we're 85 to 90 percent booked for the following year. People should call whenever they want, because there is always a space here or there or a cancellation, but if they are coming as a group and want a real selection, they need to be calling this year for the following winter--over a year in advance. If you're skiing with us in March and you wait until you come up to book your next trip, it may be too late."
Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing is Canada's other big destination outfit, and it enjoys similar success with reservations. "Guests who were here last winter commonly rebook the same week for the next year, so 70 percent of the seats are presold," says Leslie Woit, a marketing coordinator with the company. (Since the time of the interview, Woit has left Wiegele.) "We're usually full by the time the week rolls around, but some seats do go unsold, so it's worth checking. I think it's a misnomer that we are always fully booked." Nonetheless, she recommends making reservations a year in advance.
One of the reasons it is so hard to get space on these trips is that the operations take only a few skiers at a time. Mike Wiegele, which operates the single largest heli-ski area in the world, takes only 100 guests each week. The company's sole facility, in Blue River, British Columbia, consists of 19 chalets arranged around a central lodge, forming a self-contained village. The lodge houses a lounge, restaurant, gym, Jacuzzi, sauna, massage rooms with physical therapists, game room and wine cellar. Outside is a hockey rink, Austrian bowling on ice, and 12 kilometers of cross-country ski trails. That is the entire compound, but people come here to ski, and the hundred guests have a staggering 3,000 square miles of skiable terrain all to themselves. That's 30 square miles per guest.
CMH's lodges, which are also in British Columbia, are even more exclusive, accommodating a maximum of 44 and as few as 10 guests per area. As von Neudegg explains, the scope of the terrain is unbelievable: "There is no comparison with regular skiing. If you were at the very best ski resort, the largest ski resort in the world, it would be about one two-hundredth the size of one CMH heli-ski area, and we have 11 of these. Inside that regular ski area on a holiday weekend, there might be 30,000 skiers. In our area, it's you and 43 others in an area 200 times the size. Two of our areas accommodate only 10 guests, and they are not any smaller. If you have a huge snowfall at a regular ski area, by 10 o'clock everything is tracked up. We can easily go three weeks between snowfalls without crossing another skier's track."
To put this in another perspective, CMH's total area is almost 15,000 square miles, or about half the size of Switzerland, and there are never more than 400 people skiing there. This is why people like Forte and Epstein come back year after year, rotating their trips among the lodges. CMH's most private lodge, Valemount, is available only to a group of 10, which takes the entire facility, including chefs, staff and private helicopter, for the week. This fetches about $85,000 a week, and CMH is completely sold out for this winter. At another lodge, Revelstoke, one private party of four is accommodated each week, in addition to the 40 regular guests, and gets exclusive use of a smaller helicopter during their stay. This royal treatment costs the foursome more than $10,000 each for the week, and it is also completely sold out for the season.
"Time is a commodity, and if I am going to spend two or three weeks a year skiing, I want to make sure it's in powder, and get the most exciting skiing for my dollar--and that's heli-skiing," says Mitch Fields, a California contractor who has been heli-skiing for 20 years and has amassed almost 7 million vertical feet. "It's expensive, but when you compare the amount of skiing you do, it's really not. You can spend the same amount on a week of regular skiing with a nice hotel room at Vail or Snowbird, and you can't ski a third as much. You're standing in line with thousands of other people."
Since Mike Wiegele and CMH offer primarily week-long destination vacations, their lodges, though rustic, feature fine dining, massages and a variety of other diversions. Because they are remote, with Wiegele's guests bused in and CMH lodges accessible in winter only by helicopter, each week's group becomes a close-knit band.
"There is definitely a camaraderie that develops," says Forte, who has also done day heli-skiing at several locations in the United States. "You're in the lodge with the same people all week, and that's a lot of fun. I really like the lodge aspect. Everyone there is nuts about skiing, and they love being there. You see some of the same people each year, and you always meet interesting people. It's a certainty." Forte recalls skiing with professional and Olympic skiers and snowboarders, as well as royalty: "After the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the king and queen of Norway came up. I skied with them and their son and daughter and two pistol-packing security guys, who were very good skiers."
Few CMH customers have the special relationship with the company that Fields and his wife, Holly, enjoy, and they would certainly agree that the lodges have an appealing social dimension. "We met up there in 1982, and we even got married up there," he recalls. "It was her first trip, but I had been a few times." The couple often goes for two weeks back-to-back, and Holly has nearly the same amount of heli-skiing under her belt that her husband boasts.
"The non-skiing part is also excellent," Epstein agrees. "I've developed a lot of lasting friendships from heli-skiing, and so have a lot of people I know. There's no other experience I've been through where you have that type of camaraderie. It's almost similar to a country club." Epstein's family has gotten into the act, and his brothers often ski with him; two of them, Larry and Mark, have surpassed the million-foot mark.
Mike Wiegele awards million-foot skiers with a silver belt buckle to mark their accomplishment, while CMH presents those who attain that level a custom-made ski suit valued at more than $1,000. To date, more than 1,300 skiers have joined CMH's elite fraternity; the record is 17 million-plus feet, held by a gentleman named Ned Damon, whose wife, Carolyn, has tallied 14 million feet. Von Neudegg proudly notes, "We were the first organization in the world to recognize 'frequent fliers', way before the airlines. We were doing it in the '60s. To reach a million feet means you've skied with us eight to 10 weeks."
Heli-skiing in the United States is a very different proposition. Operators are almost exclusively geared towards day trips, which affords an excellent opportunity to experience heli-skiing without the expense, planning or time commitment that the destination package requires. Most operators are based at major ski resorts, where skiers seek to augment their vacation with a different experience. Heli-skiing outfits can be found in Telluride, Colorado; Sun Valley, Idaho; Snowbird, Utah; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. An outfit called Triple Crown of Colorado uses helicopters to shuttle guests for a day each of conventional skiing at Aspen and Vail and a day of heli-skiing at Telluride (guests also have the option of skiing at just one site). Resort-based day operators can also be found at the Panorama ski area near Banff and at Whistler resort, both in British Columbia.
These one-day packages typically include three to five guided runs, lunch and transfers to and from the helicopter. Prices range from $325 to $625 per day, making this a cost-effective way to sample the sport. By comparison, the destination are as in Canada typically offer at least twice as much skiing in a day, but they are able to take advantage of an earlier start and a later finish, since guests are already there, as well as higher mountains. One advantage of skiing with day outfitters is that they generally use smaller helicopters and therefore have fewer skiers with each guide, while CMH generally has 11 skiers per guide and Wiegele has 10 skiers with two guides.
One exception to the American mold is Ruby Mountain Heli-Skiing in Lamoille, Nevada, the country's only destination heli-ski area. Ruby Mountain offers three-day packages in the northeastern corner of the state, amid 500 square miles of high-elevation powder. Each three-day excursion is limited to 16 guests, housed in a luxurious ranch.
"American heli-skiing is mostly done in much smaller helicopters, and the hot one right now is the A-Star 350 B2 model, which carries four skiers and a guide," says Joe Royer, the owner of Ruby Mountain. "While Canadian heli-skiing is primarily a destination thing, in America it's mostly day skiing associated with ski areas, except for us. Our runs are a bit shorter, but other than that it's pretty much the same. For people who have not tried it, the source of uphill transportation is radically different from a lift. When those helicopters start up in the morning, it doesn't matter how long you've been doing this, or how much longer you're going to be doing this; it's very exciting." Heli-skiing season in western Canada generally runs from late December until the beginning of May, while Royer's season starts in mid-January and lasts until mid-April. Three-day packages run about $2,500.
Snowboarders are also welcome at heli-skiing destinations, and the deep powder of heli-skiing may be even better suited to snowboards than to the so-called fat skis, which, being wider than traditional skis, supply more flotation in deep powder and are the choice of most heli-skiers today. For skiers and boarders, companies urge guests to carry their boots onto the plane, as no rentals are available at the remote lodges, and lost luggage could ruin your vacation.
All the destination operators in Canada and the United States include the rentals of fat skis in their packages, and encourage guests to leave their "skinny" skis at home. Most of the day operators also offer the option of renting these skis; much of the recent popularity of the sport can be attributed to them. "Fat skis have totally revolutionized heli-skiing," claims von Neudegg. "No one brings their skis anymore. Fat skis are the tool for the job, and 99 percent of our skiers, including our guides, use them. Even the very best skiers use them, and they find that they've never skied faster or had more fun in their lives."
"They came out about seven years ago," says Leslie Woit. "Before that, heli-skiing was the domain of fit, younger males. You needed really good technique, strong thighs and a good heart. Fat skis have made the sport more forgiving. A few diehards still come with their skinny skis, but I've yet to see anyone make it beyond Tuesday without giving fat skis a chance, and then they stick with them. You can ski longer days and get less tired."
Even such longtime skiers as Epstein, who began heli-skiing well before the advent of fat skis, have made the leap. "It's like having power steering versus manual," he says. First-timer Keating, an expert skier, is more blunt: "I tried my own skis the first morning and I got my ass kicked. I switched to their fat skis and it made a world of difference. They make it easier--there's less effort and it's easier to turn, so it's easier to look good."
Turning is the essence of heli-skiing. Many expert conventional skiers are surprised to learn that heli-skiing terrain has no bumps or moguls. It consists of hundreds of linked turns through deep powder, which can be tiring, especially on regular skis. Guides instruct skiers through the number of turns, scheduling stops to regroup at "that stand of trees 200 turns down." Typically, the guide will go over the terrain with the skiers, explaining any peculiarities, such as crevasses on a glacier, and then lay out a game plan and rules, including the spacing between skiers, whether they should go single file and other details. He also usually skis one side of the run and insists that everyone in the group stay to the left or right of his tracks. No one ever skies or stops below the guide.
Safety is an important consideration in heli-skiing. Skiing is an inherently dangerous activity, and flying helicopters in the mountains in winter weather exacerbates the risks involved. Since these are not groomed ski areas, there is also the possibility of avalanches, a very real threat that should never be underestimated. On the other hand, many of the accidents that take place at conventional ski areas are the result of skiers going too fast on groomed or icy surfaces, falling on hard pack, and colliding with man-made objects and other skiers on crowded slopes, none of which are likely to happen while heli-skiing. Still, the major operators are extremely serious about safety and always up-front about the dangers.
"Safety drills are very intimidating," says Royer. "Every other word is death. There's a huge risk out there that no one is trying to hide, and we want to make sure that everyone is willing to assume it."
In the past few years, high-profile accidents have included a crash that injured supermodel Christie Brinkley and another that killed Frank Wells, then the president of Disney. Heli-skiing literature is full of waivers and warnings, and CMH's excellent publication, the "Heli-Skiing Handbook," tackles the safety issue before delving into anything else. The company is candid about the risks and detailed in its precautions. As the handbook states, "In spite of all of our efforts over more than 32 years, and 80,000 skier weeks, there have been 28 fatalities; 21 of these in seven avalanche accidents."
Every skier is given an avalanche transceiver, an electronic device that can be used to locate them in case they get buried in the snow. No one should go heli-skiing with an operator that does not provide these devices and explain how they are used. "We view a safety video, go through the equipment, shovels, avalanche probes, et cetera," says Woit. "Then we have a transceiver session and a helicopter safety orientation."
"Safety instruction begins long before they get in the helicopter," says von Neudegg. "It begins when they get their first information packets. They have a safety briefing on the bus from Calgary. Then we have additional briefings at the lodge." CMH employs aerial photography, and each evening employees at all the resort's lodges communicate with one another by radio, comparing data to ascertain weather and avalanche conditions.
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