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Skiing from the Sky

For Skiers Tired of Following Other People's Tracks, Heli-Skiing Takes Them Away from It All
Larry Olmsted
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.

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