Helicopter Skiing 101
What you need to know before you go.
By Halsted Morris
So, you want to go heliskiing or heli-snowboarding? The simple answer is you should go heliskiing, as soon as you can.
It’s time to stop thinking about going, and start planning on going. Stop making excuses about not going. Heliskiing is the best form of downhill skiing there is. You want to go, and that is why you’re reading this essay. With my advice, you’ll be able to figure out if you’re ready to go heliskiing or not. This is my background:
I have heliskied in Canada, New Zealand and Colorado. I have currently heliskied (as of April 2018) a total of 65 weeks in my life. Currently, I have 9+ million vertical feet of just heliskiing and have heliskied in the months of December, January, February, March and April in Canada. I have also ski-plane-skied on Baffin Island, North of the Arctic Circle.
An Apology: Ski vs. Snowboard
I am using “skiing,” “heliskiing,” instead of “skiing/boarding” and “heliskiing/heliboarding.” I am a skier, not a snowboarder. My wife, (i.e., my website goddess), is both a skier and snowboarder. I apologize upfront if you’re offended by my use just using “ski” throughout this article. I really don’t mean any disrespect; it’s just easier to use “ski” to cover all the categories.
The Good, The Bad and The Expensive: The simple truths about helicopter skiing. Helicopter skiing is VERY addictive. You’ve been warned. First time heliskiers often exclaim, “That was the best skiing day of my life.” That is why heliskiing is addictive.
Helicopter skiing is VERY weather dependent. Fog, rain and wind are the big enemies. The biggest enemy of all is rain. Flying through rain into freezing air is not good for the helicopter. Ice builds-up on the rotor blades, which means less lift – not good. Weather is the one factor that can really spoil a heliski trip. There are “heliski-horror stories” of folks trying to heliski in Alaska for two weeks and ended up only skiing one day. Heliskiing is “the luck of the draw,” when it comes to weather. But, I think your odds are better for heliskiing than winning at the tables in Vegas.
Helicopter skiing is VERY expensive, because it’s worth it! Snowcat skiing is an alternative. But if you can’t afford heliskiing in Canada or Alaska, I would suggest snowcat skiing or heliskiing in the lower 48 states. If you have the money now to pay for a heliski trip, GREAT!! If you don’t there are ways to save-up for a trip (i.e., cash in the kid’s college fund… do you really need that new couch or mountain bike or that Mexico vacation? Your wife can get along fine with the old car, etc.).
Do you have the ski skills and ability to heliski?
“Do you think I’m good enough to go heliskiing?” I get this question all the time. This is a hard question to answer sometimes since I haven’t seen how the person skis. But, here is what you should judge yourself on your ski skills.
Basically, you should be at least a stronger intermediate skier/boarder that can make linked turns in variable snow conditions for more than 500 vertical feet. Hopefully, you have had some experience skiing in powder and trees. Be honest with your self-appraisal.
Several heliski operations have on-line ability assessments that you can refer to in order to score your ski/boarding ability. Take a few minutes and check them out:
These “ratings/ability” scores are a good first step to keep you from getting in over your head. I have seen one case where a guy got pushed into a heliski trip by his wife who was the better skier. It wasn’t a pleasant situation. I sometimes wonder if they’re still married.
Obviously, you should be able to ski in powder deeper than your ankles. But, you should also learn methods to find lost skis in deep powder (very important). Learn how to get back up after a fall in deep powder. Learn how to put back on your skis in deep powder. You can waste a lot of energy thrashing around in deep powder, while trying to get your skis back on. Also learn how to ski leap-frog style with a partner in the trees.
During your pre-trip preparation, frequently ski with a small daypack to get used to the feeling and weight of the pack. I’m always amazed when folks show up and have never skied with a daypack before. A daypack can really throw off your balance. These sorts of skills can be taught at most reputable resort’s ski schools. Ask the ski school if they have any instructors that have previously been heliskiing. Sign-up for at least a half day lesson.
Do your research
You need to do some research about where and when you want to go heliskiing.
Are you interested in the quality of the snow or in the quality of the terrain? Do you want the super deep powder of British Columbia or the super steep terrain of Alaska? Most heliski operators have good websites; this is your first stop in doing research. Also, it doesn’t hurt to talk with friends or strangers about their heliskiing experiences. If someone has a XYZ heliski sticker on their helmet/mittens/jacket don’t be afraid to ask them a few of your questions about their experiences. Most folks are more than willing to talk.
Pick an operator
There are basically two types of heliski operations: the daily operations or the multi-day package operations.
The daily operators tend to just offer skiing. They do not offer accommodations or food or beverage. These operations tend to be located close to major ski resorts (i.e., Whistler, Snowbird, Alta, Jackson Hole, Telluride, Tribble Cone NZ, etc.). For the most part they can be booked on short notice, when you arrive at the ski resort. But, it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about booking heliskiing BEFORE you arrive at the resort. This way you’ll have more possible days for heliskiing. This means you’ll have better chances of skiing, if the weather doesn’t cooperate early in your trip. Go online to see if there are heliski operations (see website links) near the resort. Check the operators website for package prices, transportation to the staging field. Do they supply powder skis or do you have to bring your own? What is their refund policy?
Daily heliski operations are a great way to get an introduction to heliskiing. If you have any doubt about dropping the big bucks on a multi-day heliski package trip, then you should first give heliskiing a try with a daily operator.
I would also say you should check to see if the operation is a member of Helicat Canada and/or their guides are Canadian Ski Guide Association (CSGA) members/trained. For the American operators, check and see if the operation is part of the US Heliski Association. Do this for both daily and multi-day operators. Membership in these associations is a good indication that the operator is a well-qualified operation with well-trained guides.
Sometimes, folks will say that they want to save money on a heliskiing package deal, when they say they don’t want the luxury trip but will settle for something more budget minded.
As far as the “Lap of Luxury” vs. “Budget Minded” trips go, you’ll have to check this out carefully. I will tell you that there are some things that you have to lookout for that most folks don’t realize.
Check to see if the heliski operator has “unlimited vertical” or a pre-set guaranteed amount of vertical. In the second case you’d have to pay per thousand vertical feet over the guaranteed vertical amount. My experience is that I have averaged about 136 – 140,000 per week. I have had as little as 87,000’ and as much as 182,000’ in a week. So, everything over 100K is extra charge. The price per thousand vertical are variable depending upon the operation.
A few operators have “unlimited vertical” and free ski rentals. These operators appear to be more expensive on paper than most operations. But, when you start figuring in extra vertical over 100,000’ and ski rentals, shuttle transport, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re spending just as much as if you’d gone to the operators who don’t have the extra charges.
One issue you need to check on is what size of ski groups does the operation work with and how many groups per helicopter. A-Star helicopters tend to have 4 guests and 1 guide. Bell 407 helicopters tend to have 5 guests and 1 guide. The larger Bell 212/214 helicopters can hold 11 skiers and 1 guide (I think CMH still does this). At Mike Wiegele’s, their deluxe package uses the 212’s which carry 9 guests and 2 guides. The second guide is a really nice safety feature of Mike’s.
In the “old days”, (i.e., pre 1985), the heliski industry had four groups per helicopter. Now most operations work with three groups per helicopter. I would not recommend going to an operation that still uses the four group system unless it is an A-Star helicopter operation. If you have four groups in one helicopter you’ll end up waiting for what seems to be a long time and you often get cold waiting.
Three and five day package trips are good. They’re cheaper trips, but if you can do a 7-day trip, do it! If you have any “down days”, (days where weather doesn’t allow you to fly, etc.), the 3-5 day trip means you don’t get as much skiing. A 7-day trip is what you really want.
When, Where and Why
Canada is the birthplace of Helicopter skiing. If you’re interested in the early history of heliskiing, check out my essay on the early history of how heliskiing got started. There are a lot of other places to heliski, but Canada and Alaska are where most skiers prefer to go, so I’ll focus on these areas.
Where are the better places to go in Canada? I would recommend the Columbia Mountains which encompass the Cariboo, Monashee and Selkirk ranges. They seem to get the bigger dumps of consistent snowfall. But, the coast area around Whistler can get really hammered with snowfall. The Bugaboos are also known for getting lots of snow.
When to go? It sort of depends upon what kind of skiing you prefer. I like to heliski in February and March. If you go in December and early January it’s very cold with short days. You’ll almost always just ski in the trees. Tree skiing in Canada is GREAT with old-growth forests with well-spaced trees.
February is a month of combo skiing. You get to ski trees as well as ski into the higher alpine (glaciers, open bowls, etc.). The days are longer and not as cold. One thing about British Columbia is that it can rain at times. I have seen it rain during all the months of the heliski season. It sucks when it rains for flying and skiing. February is my favorite month for heliskiing. I have had consistent deep powder during February.
March is a lot of higher alpine skiing with some trees. The days are warmer and sunnier. Ski days are longer too. But you run the risk of more fog and rain. It’s also challenging skiing in that your first couple thousand vertical will be incredible, but then you have to ski through 2-3 hundred vertical feet of mashed potatoes to get to the pickup.
April can be really HOT. It also has the most chance of rain, fog and schmoo (rain-soaked powder). But, you can sometimes ski powder on north faces and wonderful creamy corn on the south and west aspects.
Heliskiing in Alaska
Helisking in Alaska can be a real crapshoot with the weather. Most, if not all the heliski operations are fairly close to the ocean. The ocean really plays a big role in the weather of Southern Alaska. This is what several Alaska friends have told me about heliskiing there.
Traditionally, the season goes from March through April in Valdez, and sometimes until mid-May. In Haines, the season goes from late February through April. But climate change is messing with the seasons making it more complicated of late. Now, there are huge, slow-moving Jetstream loops (through Arctic amplification) making the weather get “stuck” for weeks, often in an extreme of cold dry, or warm wet.
In general, February is still too cold and windy in Valdez, and still a bit marginally cold, windy, and dry in Haines. Haines has only made it to mid-April in the last few years, and early April has often been borderline for powder. Valdez usually has powder into mid-April, but late April and early May are now a bit late. Chugach Powder Guides in Girdwood has a similar season to Haines; and you can expect the same of both Points North in Cordova and the newer Majestic Heliskiing in Seldovia; both being close to the warm ocean. The Tordrillos have similar temperatures to Valdez, but are much drier. The prime season for Valdez and the Tordrillos is March through mid-April; for Haines and the non-inland Southcentral locations it’s late February through March.
There really is not much tree heliskiing in Alaska. SEABA in Haines flies a few glades close to town, and Alaska Heliskiing has a few runs with scattered trees. Valdez really has no trees, except on some of the ski-outs to the highway.
Heliskiers in Alaska often wait for weather breaks to get some of the big mountain runs. Like surfers making the pilgrimage to the big-wave breaks; and like the surfers, they often need a couple weeks or more to hit those rare but awesome conditions that give you the runs of a lifetime.
One friend has said, “My experience is that sometimes you score great conditions early or late, but they are far less reliably good.” Another friend has said, “As far as timing goes, it is kind of like Canada and the best time to go is when you can, because you never know with the weather.”
Some operations do have the “snowcat alternative” for non-flyable days. In Alaska this is a good idea. There are also operators that have “Standby” programs, where if a seat in the helicopter becomes available, you can get the seat at sometimes a majorly reduced price. But, this means you have to be near the operations and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Obviously, there is no guarantee you’ll get to fly/ski or what the amount of vertical you’ll get.
Weather is the major wild card for any heliski trip. There’s nothing much you can do about it. Usually, you’ve paid your money months in advance and to cancel a trip will still cost you. So, you might as well still go on the trip because you never know what might happen.
Training and getting in shape
Skiing a lot before you go on your trip is the best way to get into good ski physical shape. The better shape you’re in, the more you’ll enjoy the trip. You really want to be ready to ski big daily verticals. I have done as much as 40,000’ in one day (the current one day vertical record for a regular group is 72,200’ and their overall week was a record 315,800’). Obviously, these guys trained hard and were great skiers.
If you can’t get a lot of skiing in before your trip, hit the gym. Concentrate on leg and aerobic exercises. Bike riding is the best exercise and easiest on your knees. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats, stair-hops and leg presses are other good exercises. You’re going to spend a lot of money on this trip. The last thing you want is to arrive for heliskiing and not be in very good shape.
As far as time plans go, you need to remember that it will most likely take you at least a day and a half to get there (assuming your flying up there). So you need at least 3 days of traveling, to and from.
If you travel by air to the heliski operation, I HIGHLY suggestthat you carry on your ski/boarding boots. Also add in your carry-on bag, a pair of ski socks, ski pants, goggles and glove/mittens (wear a vest and have your ski jacket to travel in). If your luggage is lost you can still be “semi outfitted” for skiing; and you dream trip won’t be totally messed up.
Cancelation and Refunds
Always check the operation’s cancelation and refund policies. It’s also a good idea to check out travel insurance too.
It will help to have a buddy (partner) with you. More than likely, you won’t have to pay a single room- supplement charge. And it is better to have a pal with equal ski ability and similar attitudes.
I usually meet-up with folks who I have skied with before. Once you have heliskied at one operation you meet up with other fellow “heliski-junkies.” But I have been tossed into groups of which I have never skied with. I have been lucky and only had a few folks who couldn’t keep up. The guides usually are able to shuffle the folks around in groups so that they are of equal abilities. Relax and enjoy the people around you.
Lawyers have made it to every corner of our world, including the heliskiing world. You will have to sign a legal waiver before you can get on the helicopter that releases the heliski operation from all liability. It’s a good idea to read this before you sign it.
If you have a life insurance policy, check to see if it pays out for death while participating in “Extreme Sports.” Actually, looking over sports accident data shows helicopter skiing is less dangerous than horse jumping. But, insurance companies see skiing and flying in helicopters and possible avalanches as reason to call heliskiing “extreme.” To them, horses are just big pasture pets.
Safety and Hazards
Basically, helicopter skiing is dangerous. Between the flying and the skiing in uncontrolled wilderness mountains, there are a lot of hazards but don’t tell your wife or significant other.
Each operator safety briefings before you can even step into the helicopter. In general they will cover the use of avalanche rescue transceivers, how to conduct an avalanche rescue, loading and unloading from the helicopter, emergency exits of the helicopter and what to do after a crash and how to bundle up your skis as well as where the survival equipment is in the helicopter. So there isn’t a reason to go through all that information here. But, here is a list of the heliskiing skiing hazards that you should be aware of:
The Helicopter: Respect it, keep your eye on it, move slowly and carefully around it and keep your seatbelt on until you’re instructed to undo it. NEVER walk away in an uphill direction while the helicopter is running. Also don’t ski downhill to a running helicopter. If you do, you could be walking and skiing into the running rotor blades. The helicopter will land VERY close to you at the pick-ups. Never touch the helicopter until it lands, because the helicopter builds-up a big static electrical charge while flying. These electrical shocks have caused folks to wet their pants or worse.
Avalanches: These are what most folks worry about the most. There is always the chance of an avalanche. But, your guide will lead you around the major avalanche terrain. Your guide will select terrain that is safe and reasonable for the current state of avalanche conditions. Some days, conditions allow for skiing steep terrain, while other days demand a lot more caution and skiing lower angle terrain or just in the trees. Your guide would also like to ski the steeper terrain, but your guide doesn’t want to get buried or have members of the group buried. Don’t argue with your guide about avalanche conditions especially since you haven’t been there all season.
Falling into tree wells: Tree wells are nothing to fool with. If you fall near one, try anything than to end up going in feet first (see Avalung under equipment). Tree wells are why you want your tree skiing partner close by. A lot of times it is almost impossible to get out of a tree well without help. Be careful around trees with deep tree wells.
Falling tree snow mushrooms: Skiing in the trees is wonderful and the huge snow mushrooms look fantastic. But, if you brush one you might have it fall on you. These mushrooms can weigh several hundred pounds. Avoid touching them!
Example of a large snow mushroom.
Cornices: These are large overhangs of snow, usually on ridges. You don’t want to walk/ski out on to a cornice in order to see what is over the edge. Don’t get suckered into going out on a cornice for a better view. The cornice may breakoff with you standing on it, because there is nothing supporting the cornice. Many of the heliski landings in Alaska are on VERY narrow ridges or summits, so using extreme caution around cornices is necessary. There have been a couple of fatal accidents when skiers landed a cornice that eventually gave way in Alaska.
Crevasses: They mainly happen on glaciers. Follow your guide’s instructions and their tracks through crevasse areas. Never stop in a terrain dip while on a glacier. You could be standing on a sagging snow bridge that covers a crevasse.
Cliffs: Obviously, you don’t want to ski off a cliff when you have no idea how big the cliff is. If you want to jump cliffs, talk with your guide about finding suitable cliffs with good landings. Pay close attention in tree skiing for cliffs.
Buried logs and stumps: These hazards are mostly on logging cuts. Pay attention to the surface of the snow for bumps and discolored areas. These are signs of buried logs and stumps.
Logging roads: The ditches and edges of logging roads seem to be were a lot of folks dig ski tips and heal eject. Also it can sometimes be hard to see drop-offs on to logging roads. These flat landings can really hurt.
Creeks and Lakes: Obviously, falling into a creek or through lake ice is very dangerous; doing so could ruin your day. There has even been one case of a woman that actually did drown in a creek while heli-boarding: The snow bridge where she was skiing broke. Creeks and lakes deserve special caution.
Other skiers/boarders: People get excited while heliskiing and sometimes lose peripheral vision and forget that there are others skiing/boarding around them. For this reason, there is the protocol of skiing/boarding 5-8 turns apart. Enjoy the mountains by allowing plenty of space between each other.
Frozen snowmobile tracks: Snowmobile tracks are big deep rut’s in the snow. Try to cross them at an angle, so that when you hit it doesn’t cause you to face plant forward.
Ski poles: Believe it or not, your own ski poles can be a hazard to you. Don’t use the pole straps looped around your wrists. If you have them looped over your wrists the pole can catch on trees and injure your shoulder/wrists. Having your poles attached to you in an avalanche can also cause problems with getting buried. Learn how to hold on to your ski poles without using the pole straps.
This is only a partial list of hazards, but these are the main ones to know about.
There are basically two types of heliskiing. The first is in high alpine terrain or in the trees. It’s not to say that you can’t combine the two types: alpine terrain and dropping into trees.
In Alaska, if you are in the high alpine you maybe on steeper faces or on glaciers. On the steeper faces you need to be aware of “sluffs.” Sluffs are where the skier/boarder kicks off some surface snow. These are like “small” avalanches. They can grow to be fairly large and powerful, so to deal with these sluffs you need to use “sluff management.” Sluff management is where you pick a ski line that keeps moving away from the sluffs that will follow you down the slope. Your turns will often have to end with a short traverse leg to get out of the way of a sluff. You’ll often see in the Alaska ski porn movies, where the skiers as they are making turns look uphill, in order to see how big the sluff is behind them. This is has been referred to as “the Chugach Swivel Head” move.
The other sluff management technique is where you ski on top of “spines” (aka: arête or flutings). A spine is like a mini-ridge line. By staying on top of the spine, the sluffs breakaway to both sides of the spine and pass you by. Skiing on a spine is like a game of turning on one side and then crosses over the spine and then makes another turn, and then back to the other side. Skiing spines can be a lot of fun.
The problem with spines is eventually they peter out and come to an end (i.e., the spine becomes too steep to ski or there is a cliff/rock band) and then it becomes necessary to cross the gully to the next spine or slope. Ideally, you can stop/pause and let a large sluff go shooting past you. Getting hit by a sizeable sluff is not good. The sluff can knock you off your feet and cause you to tumble a long vertical distance.
The Alaska steep alpine stuff also requires you to jump off smaller cliffs and bergschrunds. The bergschrund is a feature of the mountain where the glacier and the steeper slope above separate and leave a deep hole. Basically, bergschrund’s are a crevasse where the glacier and mountain meet. There is usually a lip that you need to jump in order to get on to the glacier, where the helicopter can land. Basically, you need to be comfortable with getting air off of cliffs in Alaska.
With these larger steep alpine faces, you’ll ski one at a time, nonstop to the bottom of the face. Obviously, this requires a lot of strength and good technique. There isn’t much in the way of tree skiing at the heliski operations in Alaska.
Skiing in the high alpine with the Canadian heliski operations deserves as much respect as the Alaska heliskiing.
Large slab avalanches in the high alpine are the major concern along with icefalls and crevasses. Make sure to follow your guides instructions with how many turns apart each skier should be along with where is safe to stop (i.e., not below an icefall or on top of crevasses). Make sure that you follow your guide’s tracks through crevasse area, and do not wonder off the trail or cut corners/turns. If you take a “shortcut,” you maybe are crossing over a weaker section of a crevasse.
When skiing wide open slopes in the high alpine it is good to spoon your ski tracks next to the previous skiers tracks. You only have to be about 3’/1 meter apart for the previous track, contrary to some European ski schools that teach that they should be 50 cm apart. Spooning track (i.e., side-by-side) is a nice thing to do so there is some untracked snow for the second or third group. Remember, you may be in the second or third group the next day.
Spooning tracks and powder eights.
If the avalanche stability is good, ask your guide if you can do figure eights with your partner. Doing figure eights, can be a lot of fun and make for great photos.
Skiing in the trees is a real art. To be a good tree skier you need to not only ski well, but you need to read the snow and the terrain. It also helps to have a good ski partner.
The guide will go first while tree skiing. The idea of tree skiing is that you always keep YOUR ski groups’ski tracks in sight with your peripheral vision. Typically, the guide will start first and the first pair of skiers would ski to the right or left side of the guide’s tracks, unless the guide instructs everyone to ski to only one side. The next pair of skiers adds on to the first pair of skiers tracks to the side. Essentially, a ski group in the in the trees should be like a “flying wedge” formation of skiers. The guide will lead the group by calling out with loud shouts or yodels. As a group, you should also respond with call-outs to not only let the guide know where you are, but also your follow group members. You’ll often hear skiers calling out, “Aaaaaa-oh!!” Sometimes it can be a little confusing if everyone sounds the same. With one of my tree partners, we often call out various demeaning or less than endearing names loudly. You may laugh, but we haven’t lost each other yet.
While skiing in the trees, you don’t have to follow exactly in your partner’s ski tracks. There are times you may have to, but the idea is to stay close to the lead/first skier, but maybe off to one side. The first skier should ski 30-40 turns and then stop/pause for their partner to catch-up. Then the second skier gets to take the lead. By staying fairly close together (i.e., 2 -3 turns), your partner is readily at hand to help if one of you happens to fall into a treewell. If you’re in the lead, don’t go ripping off down the mountain and ignore your partner behind you. If your partner falls in a treewell, it’s going to be long hard hike back up to help them. Also, it is really bad to show up at the guide’s regroup without your partner. Tree partners are very important.
Skiing steep trees in heavy snowfall. Look at the tops of the trees, to find open areas.
There is a lot to watch out for while skiing in the trees. Not only do you have to watch out for your partner and other skiers; but also the trees, tree wells, cliffs and changing snow. Finding your line through the trees can at times be difficult.
But these tricks can help.
When the guide says to ski in this or that direction, note what direction the guide is pointing (if they don’t point, ask the guide to point) and pick-out a landmark across the valley. Pick a line that keeps that landmark strait ahead of you. Don’t just go “SFD/B2TW” (i.e., Strait Fu#king Down-Balls To The Wall). Taking a second to pick a line can really pay off with great skiing.
As you’re picking out your line, don’t just look at the trees at surface level. Look to see how the tree tops are spaced further down the slope. If you’re on a steep enough slope you’ll be able to tell where there are open spots in the trees. These open areas often indicate one or two things. There is either a nice “alleyway” through the trees or possible a small cliff. The clue that there’s a big cliff is when the height of the trees suddenly changes ahead of you a lot. Slow down and approach with caution, if the average height of the trees suddenly changes. The last thing you want to do is end up “cliffed out,” where you can’t climb back up to get around the cliff.
So, what should you do if you get lost or separated from your group? First off, don’t panic and do something stupid. When you realize you can’t hear the guide, STOP!! Shut-up and LISTEN for your guide’s “Aaaaaaaaa-oooooohhh!” If you don’t hear anything, try to get to a spot in the trees that are in an open enough spot so you can be seen from the helicopter. But, don’t go skiing off trying to find the group. If you stay in one spot, the guides will come for you. They will follow your ski tracks to you. The last thing you want to do is keep skiing where you end up in an avalanche chute on top of some big-ass cliff. This situation is where having a whistle is worth its weight in gold.
Luge tracks, are where you maybe following a track set by the guide in the trees. Luge tracks are for getting from one spot to another, in order to ski. Some guides call them “transport tracks.” These can become VERY fast and narrow. It is best to get some space or “separation” between skiers on these tracks. You really don’t want to be skiing on someone tails or have someone doing the same to you.
In order to slow-down there a three tactics to use. 1) Use the snowplow. 2) Use the sideslip edging method. 3) Use the untracked powder to the side of the track to slow down. Ski one or both skis into the untracked and this will slow you down.
The one thing with these narrow, fast luge tracks is that they often have major “whooped-dos” (i.e., major dips). If you hit one of these, the natural tendency is to try and absorb the compression of the dip. It took me a couple of years to realize that it is better to come into a dip and instead of absorbing the dip, it’s better to “spring-upward.” Try it and you’ll see what I mean.
While skiing in the trees on a sunny day, be aware of variable snow conditions. If you’re skiing in the shadows of trees, the snow will be colder and lighter. Once you come out into snow that has had sun on it, that snow will be moister and grabby. Be ready for the change. In the spring this can cause you to really go over the tips of your skis.
A lot of times when you’re skiing in the trees, you’ll exit out of the trees onto a log-cut road. This is an area where the trees have been cut down. As previously mentioned, watch out for stumps, downed trees and logging roads. I’m very cautious skiing logcuts.
Don’t think of skiing trees or log-cuts as an ordeal. See them as a fun challenge. Look for the spaces between the trees, not at the trees.
For the most part, all these terrain tips here are also applies to snowboarders. But, one extra piece advice for snowboarders is; when the terrain gets to be low angle, stay at the back of the group. You’ll be able to take advantage of the broken/packed trail the skiers leave. Keep your speed and momentum up in order to coast through flat areas. As a skier, I don’t mind helping snowboarders with a push or ski pole to tow them. By helping out you’ll keep the heliski day rolling along.
It always seems like people get “vertically obsessed” with the amount of vertical that they ski during the trip. These people push themselves harder in order to achieve some number; and they end up hurting themselves or being disappointed in the whole trip. I like to slow down and enjoy the mountains. The amount of vertical you skied at the end of the week should be a number that you enjoyedskiing. You’ll be surprised at the end of the trip how much you skied.
I highly suggest skiing a lot before you go on your heliski adventure because the better shape you’re in the more you’ll enjoy the trip. You really want to be ready to do big daily verticals. As I said before, I have done as much as 40,000’ in one day. You never know how much you may ski in a day of heliskiing.
If you end up feeling tired, speak to your guide about how you feel. There is no shame in going in early on an afternoon fuel run. The shame is if you stay out in the mountains and push yourself too hard and end up getting hurt. It’s better to enjoy an afternoon nap and be ready for the next ski day.
Just about all heliski operations provide some sort of lunch. Eat what you want of what they offer. I usually don’t eat a large heavy sandwich or soup. Larger meals cause me to have “serious lunch legs,” on the first run after lunch. I normally ask for a PB&J sandwich, chocolate bar, juice box and maybe an orange. If you have dietary issues, call ahead and find out what options you have.
The Call of Nature
Ah yes, you’re out in the wide-open mountains and you have to pee. Normally, you would do just what you need to do. But, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind with heliskiing.
The first is, do it quickly. With heliskiing you don’t want to hold up the system. Second if you need to do number 2, try not to get anything on your ski tails. Third if you’re in a co-ed ski group and the ladies want privacy, the boys should ski a few turns away and admire the view in the opposite direction of the ladies. Forth, if you’re at a pick-up, walk away from the landing pad (i.e., 8- 10 steps) and do your business. The worst thing is when some pees right at the end of the landing pad, where the helicopter is going to approach from. No one likes yellow snow sprayed on them by the rotor wash.
Clothing: Make sure your jacket/pants system keeps out snow. Low rider pants are not recommended, because you want function, not fashion. Don’t wear white color clothing. Some folks still like to heliski in one-piece suits. I hear the one-piece is making a comeback.
It’s better to underdress than to overdress. I have found that overheating causes you to waste energy, and you end up wet from sweat. Carry an extra vest in your daypack for lunchtime if you have issues with staying warm. Hard shell jackets are better than insulated jackets.
Remember you’ll wear one jacket all day, and the weather can really change during a day (i.e., sunshine in the morning and then heavy snow in the afternoon). A layered clothing system is the better way to go.
This is what I wear heliskiing: Regular ski socks, expedition-weight polypro long underwear tops and bottoms, a mid-weight fleece vest, a very light weight neck gaiter, Gore-Tex hard shell jacket and pants (with suspenders). I also use two long Voile rubber ski straps around my pant cuffs. I use the plastic/rubber Voile straps around my pants cuffs, because no matter what ski pant boot cuff system your pants have, they don’t work when you step out of a helicopter into two feet of fresh snow. I hate snow getting into the tops of my boots. For my hands, I use long-sleeved/gantlet mittens. I also hate those thin little glove liners, but this is my preference. Under my helmet, I have a thin polypro beanie (see comments about helmets). I use goggles, but carry sunglasses in my jacket.
Backpack: It’s nice to have in a small day backpack (about 20 liter size). I carry spare gloves/mittens, wool hat (a pair of dry mittens and hat at lunch is great), goggles, small crush-leak-proof water bottle, sun cream and camera. Leave room in your pack for a shovel and probe pole. If you don’t have these, the operator will provide them. A lot of operations now require their guests to ski with a small backpack that does contain at least a shovel and collapsible probe pole (see Avalanche Airbags**).
Skis: I highly suggest that you use the heliski operations skis. You want the best “fat ski” that they have. It is a good idea to find out what brands and models of powder skis the operation has on hand. Ideally, you might get to try out a pair before your trip. You really don’t want to bring your own skis or board, since they are a hassle to travel with. Also, skis tend to get really banged up a lot in the helicopter ski basket. If keeping your personal skis from being dinged-up is important to you, then don’t bring them.
Telemark skis: As far as telemark skiing goes, go ahead and telemark on fat skis,and call ahead to find out what telemark skis and bindings they have. Be ready to ski any and all types of snow on tele gear.
Snowboards: Like Telemark skis, call ahead and find out what types, lengths, bindings and brands the operation has.
Hearing protection: I highly suggest getting some hearing protection, helicopters are noisy beasts. The hearing protectors on the curved plastic loop (you can get them at Home Depot) are great. Use some Duct tape to keep the little ear pads on the loop. You can leave them hanging around your neck, instead of putting them in a pocket while skiing. That way you have them handy to use.
Knee pads: Knee pads under your pants are a nice touch. It’s easy to bang your knees on the helicopter. And you’ll be kneeling in the snow a lot when the helicopter comes in to land or during take-offs. I’m always amazed at the black-and-blue marks I have on me after a couple of weeks of heliskiing. I know a few guys that wear a back protector brace/padding systems. I haven’t tried this yet. So, all I can say is some folks are happy with them.
Goggles: Get the best fog-free goggles you can. The Smith Turbo fan goggles are what a lot of experienced heliskiers use. I have found that with black electrical tape, I can block the lower vents because I tend to tuck my chin inside my jacket and as I breathe moisture goes upward and into my goggles. If I didn’t have the lower vents blocked, I’d get fogging.
Helmet: Helmets are a personal choice. For years I didn’t wear one; now I do after brushing my head against a tree. But, I have often seen folks not hear the guide’s instructions/directions clearly because of their helmet. Make sure that you can hear someone talking 20’ away from you with your helmet on. I have removed my ear pads in my helmet so I can hear better.
Whistle: For years I didn’t carry a whistle. But, I learned my lesson in one situation, on the first day I carried one. After that situation all I can say is, whistles are worth their weight in gold. Either hang the whistle around your neck or on your pack strap, where it’s handy.
Ski Bundling Strap: Your “bundling strap” is something not to lose (normally, the operator will give you this strap). It is used to bundle your skis and ski poles into a package for loading into the helicopter ski basket on the side of the helicopter. I have a small carabiner/clip on my pack that I attach my strap to it. Other folks put it in their pocket or around the cuff of their boot. Carry two of them if you can score them of the 10-12” size.
GoPro Camera: GoPro cameras are fun to have. Carry extra batteries. But, try to keep the camera at least 30 cm’s away from your avalanche transceiver. GoPro’s can sometimes cause electrical interference with transceivers.
Cell Phone: If you’re going to use your cell phone camera, put the cell phone on “airplane mode” so that it won’t interfere with your avalanche rescue transceiver. Besides, you don’t want to be getting phone calls while you’re having your best ski day of your life. Who cares about some leaking toilet, you’re heliskiing!
Avalanche Rescue Transceivers: If you want to use your personal transceiver, you will have to prove that you’re highly skilled with it. Practice a lot with your personal avalanche rescue transceiver (if you don’t own one, the heliski company will proved one to you along with instruction, etc.). There is no “faking” this skill.
Avalanche Airbag Packs: There is still some debate about the value avalanche airbag packs in certain terrain types (i.e., trees, halfpipe gullies, cliffs).
The idea of an airbag pack is that if you’re caught in an avalanche you pull the trigger and out of the pack come some airbags that inflate. The airbags make the user bigger in overall surface area, and larger objects tend to stay on the surface of flowing avalanche. There is a fancy name for this theory, call “aggregate dispersion.” But, I call it the “cereal flake theory” where the larger flakes stay at the top of the cereal box, and the smaller ones end up at the bottom of the box. It’s not to say that all avalanche airbag pack users are “flakes.”
There are some issues with avalanche airbags in heliskiing. The first is that most operations do not allow an “armed” airbag inside the helicopter. There are lots of very good reasons for this. The last thing anyone wants is an airbag going off inside a crowded helicopter; where it might push out a window or for that matter a person. The last thing anyone wants is a plastic window going into a jet intake or the tail rotor.
So, if you’re using an airbag pack you will have to disarm it each time you get into the helicopter. You should practice this procedure several times before your trip. Also learn how to deflate your airbag. I have seen one guy accidently trigger his airbag and then didn’t know how to deflate it, while the helicopter was coming in to land.
Airbag packs can also be difficult to travel with. The TSA has approved the gas (normally compressed nitrogen gas) canisters for air travel. But, sometimes you’ll get a TSA agent that isn’t fully briefed on the current rule and regulations. To avoid these travel issues, some folks ship their airbag packs ahead of them to the operation via UPS. This method seems to avoid a lot of air travel issues with airbags. There are a few operations out there where Airbag packs are mandatory and they usually supply them to their guests**.
Overall, avalanche airbag packs have saved some lives in avalanches. But, there are drawbacks to them (arming/disarming all the time, the weight and bulk, etc.). They are not totally full proof (i.e., remember they are not a Superman’s cape) for surviving an avalanche. Do some research; make up your own mind on this one.
Avalanche airbags deploy in seconds.
Avalungs: The Avalung is a device that a skier/boarder can wear on the outside of their clothing. It consists of a mouthpiece to a tube with a one-way valve. Since most of snow is actually air, the Avalung is used to extract oxygen from the snow, and expel the CO2 away from a buried victim. Most avalanche victims die of actually asphyxiation, where they rebreathe the CO2 that they expel around their head in the snow around them. Avalungs have saved a few avalanche victims.
The Avalung is manufactured by Black Diamond. They have a couple of different models, that it is incorporated into the shoulder strap of a small day pack. This is a perfect set-up for heliskiing.
The Avalung is like the airbag pack in that it’s not full proof, in saving you in an avalanche. But, it is a tool that might work. The one good thing is that an Avalung can also be used if you fall into a treewell. IF you happen to fall into a treewell, you want to keep yourself from panicking. The easiest way to do that is being able to breathe and then work your way out of the situation. The Avalung is a great way to breathe as your head is covered in snow. Obviously, practice with the Avalung before your trip, on how to quickly get the mouth piece into your mouth.
A few folks have asked me if using an airbag pack with an Avalung is the best way to go. Frankly, I think if you did have both, you might have a hard time making that split-second decision of what to do first; pulling the airbag trigger or getting the Avalung mouth piece into your mouth first. Obviously, if you have both train for doing both at the same time.
Avalung goes on the outside of your jacket
Tipping your guides
Your heliski guide is working very hard to insure your safety and overall enjoyment of your trip. You’d be surprised that they actually don’t get paid that much per day considering all the training and certifications they have to have. So, at the end of the day/trip it’s nice to tip your guide. In the overall cost of your trip, a reasonable tip isn’t that much. A couple of hundred dollars is good at the end of a week-long trip. If you feel inclined, tipping your pilot isn’t a bad thing either. Cash is always great.
Finally: Bring your swimsuit for the hot tub and workout clothing. Most if not all heliskiing operations are very casual, so you can leave the tux and fur coat at home.
1) Listen to your guide.
This means shutting up when the guide comes to a stop at a regroup spot.
2) Follow your guide’s instructions.
Your guide wants to keep you safe with the best skiing possible.
3) Move slowly and carefully around the helicopter, don’t rush.
4) Don’t be overwhelmed by the terrain or the helicopter (aka: Heliski-shock).
5) Learn a couple of great jokes to tell, while you’re waiting for
the helicopter during fuel runs.
6) ENJOY YOURSELF!!! Have a great trip!!!
7) Put down the deposit for next season while you’re at the operation.
Sometimes they do a discount for doing this.
One final item
Let’s just settle this one, once and for all; NO you do not have to jump out of the helicopter. Anything else??
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