For Skiers Tired of Following Other People's Tracks, Heli-Skiing Takes Them Away from It All
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Skiers selecting a heli-ski operator should be demanding when inquiring about safety. In addition to each guest's transceiver, each guide should carry a radio, a shovel and other essentials. Other standard precautions include using a buddy system when skiing among the trees. Do not hesitate to inquire about the guides' training. Many outfitters use only guides who have been certified by a body such as the International Association of Mountain Guides, which has stringent requirements. In addition to skiing and understanding snow conditions, these individuals are professional mountain guides, who are trained in climbing, evacuation, survival and first aid.
Weather plays an important role in heli-skiing, and despite the high price of the sport and guests' desire to ski, helicopters are sometimes grounded. Frequent skiers say they rarely lose more than one day a week to inclement weather, and CMH estimates that its areas have five or six days a year when flying isn't feasible. At these times other diversions, from curling to cross-country skiing, are provided; besides, the skiing can be so exhausting that some guests welcome a break. Ruby Mountain in Nevada uses snow-cats, motorized vehicles with treads, that make skiing possible even on the worst flying days.
The steep terrain and rocky peaks have given heli-skiing an extreme reputation, but this is far from accurate. The companies say that although many guests believe that heli-skiing is beyond their abilities, it is within the grasp of the strong intermediate. "Heli-skiing is not the place for beginners," says von Neudegg, "but the overwhelming majority of skiers are good enough to go. You should have been skiing regularly for at least four seasons, and be able to manage any terrain at your ski area."
Since the areas served by heli-skiing are so vast, there is terrain for many different abilities, and skiers are organized into groups accordingly. CMH and Wiegele offer introductory heli-skiing packages aimed at less accomplished skiers who need more individual attention. "It's not for someone who can barely get down a blue [intermediate] run," says Forte, "but an intermediate who can ski expert runs but doesn't do it with confidence can definitely go up there and have a wonderful time."
Still, some frequent skiers, including Fields, yearn for the old days, when the sport was more exclusive. "Right now there is a real problem with people who think they can cut it because of fat skis but still can't," he says. "Just because they have the money and are intermediate skiers, they think they can go up there and do well, and it's just not true. When you get people who [only] ski two or three times a year, they struggle. With the fat skis, people think, 'Now, surely I can do it.' Someone who is a borderline skier can ski more with fat skis because it's less fatiguing, but it doesn't necessarily make you a better skier."
Conditions vary throughout the winter at each heli-skiing location, but in general, peak season is from January through April. There is no one best time to ski, but there may be better times, depending on personal preferences. "In December and January it snows constantly," says Woit, "so we do a lot of tree skiing, because that's where the most stable snowpack is. In February, March and April there is more sun, the snowpack gets more stable, so we do more glacier skiing. There are some guests who come especially for one or the other and would not like to spend their week doing the reverse."
With the advent of fat skis and newer helicopters, and the chronic overcrowding at conventional ski areas, there has never been a better time to try heli-skiing. The food, lodging and company are all first-rate, and even the ride up the mountain is a thrill in itself, with the helicopter landing on cornices seemingly at the top of the world. Of course, the skiing is not bad, either. As Woit says, "It's all about the powder. It is the filet mignon of the skiing experience." * Larry Olmsted, who frequently writes about travel, golf and outdoor recreation, lives in Vermont. HELI-SKI THE WORLD
Here are the top choices for prime heli-skiing:
Canadian Mountain Holidays In commercial operation since 1965, CMH is the oldest and largest heli-skiing operator in the world. Offers easy access to 11 large heli-skiing areas via Calgary. Also offers introductory heli-skiing programs and operates lodges in summer for heli-hiking and mountaineering. (800) 661-0252
Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing Founded in 1970. Operates the single largest heli-skiing area in the world, with more than 3,000 square miles for 100 guests in Blue River, British Columbia. Also offers summer heli-hiking, fishing and biking programs and introductory heli-skiing. (800) 661-9170
R.K. Heli-Ski Based at the Panorama Resort in Invermere, British Columbia. Offers day packages. Also operates ground transportation daily from Banff. (800) 661-6060
Tyax Heli-Skiing Based at Whistler Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Offers day and week trips, learn-to-heli-ski packages and executive heli-ski trips from Vancouver, British Columbia. (800) 663-8126
High Mountains Heli-Skiing Based in Teton Village, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Offers day and three-day packages. (307) 733-3274
Ruby Mountain Heli-Skiing Offers three-day packages with lodging in the Ruby Mountains of northeastern Nevada. In inclement weather, offers snow-cat skiing. (702) 753-6867
Sun Valley Heli-Ski Based at Sun Valley ski resort, in Ketchum, Idaho. Offers day trips, multi-day packages, and backcountry ski and mountaineering trips. (800) 872-3108
Telluride HeliTrax Based in Telluride, Colorado. Offers day trips and custom charters, and operates connecting flights from other major Colorado ski resorts. (970) 728-4904
Triple Crown of Colorado Based in Aspen. Offers unique three-day heli-trips with conventional skiing at Vail and Aspen, conventional or heli-skiing at Telluride and upscale accommodations. Also offers heli-golf packages in the summer. (970) 925-1328
Wasatch Powderbird Guides Based at Snowbird Resort, Utah. Offers day packages. (801) 742-2800
Harris Mountain Heli-Ski Offers week-long and daily packages in southern New Zealand. (64) 3-442-6722
Southern Lakes Heliski New Zealand Offers assorted trips in southern New Zealand. (64) 3-442-6222
Adventures on Skis Until recently, this Massachusetts-based ski travel company ran the only heli-skiing trips in the Himalayas: week-long packages to Kashmir. Due to recent political unrest, however, trips have been suspended, but they may be reinstated in the future. (800) 628-9655 --LO