Most heliskiers are seeking specific, pleasurable skiing conditions that are hard to replicate in the highly manipulated terrain of ski resorts: particularly powder snow, but also long descents, natural terrain contours and features, smooth corn snow, old-growth tree glades, steep and extreme slopes, or for the more adventuresome, wild snow and a natural, variable environment.
The presence of the guide and machine offer some protection against the risks and discomforts unavoidably associated with entering this mountainous environment, allowing skiers with little or no mountain sense to enjoy a wild environment.
Heliskiing has become an increasingly popular activity since its inception in the 1960s, with operators established in Canada, the continental USA, Alaska, Greenland, New Zealand, Indian Himalayas, Russia, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Chile and Europe.
The mountain terrain that helisking takes place in is diverse. Runs vary from high alpine glaciers, to alpine bowls, to steep chutes, to gladed trees. Rarely, operations have runs nearing 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters in vertical relief. Average runs are more likely 2,000 feet or 700 meters.
The type of terrain skied correlates to the mountain topography and snowpack characteristics where an operator is based. For example, Alaska heliski operations generally lack tree skiing due to the low tree line yet ski glaciated peaks where the strong maritime snowpack clings uniquely to very precipitous slopes. Meanwhile, Canadian operations with their old growth forests often ski tree runs for challenge, better visibility and wind-sheltered snow -- especially during periods of inclement weather. Inland mountain ranges have thinner, weaker snowpacks which generally offer the lightest powder and best weather, but somewhat less extreme slope angles due to increased slab avalanche hazard and dry, fluffy snow that simply falls off extremely steep terrain.
Heliskiing can take place in remote mountain regions where seldom visited terrain exists. However, helicopters are expensive to operate over long distances, economically favoring operation near paved, plowed road heads. Controversy often erupts when heliskiing conflicts with wilderness values or overlaps with self-powered backcountry riding near established ski areas and population centers at these same road heads. This conflict has led to bans on heliskiing in France and other European Union countries, strict regulation of landing zones elsewhere in the Alps, and active citizen resistance to unfettered helicopter access in places like Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Non-motorized winter users specifically object to the noise, air pollution, carbon footprint, mechanical disruption of undeveloped natural areas, and unfair competition for untracked snow in areas easily and more frequently reached by foot.
U.S., Canadian and some other operations typically treat the helicopter like a ski lift, picking up and dropping skiers repeatedly on the best snow sections for 5-12 runs a day (let's call it the "Canada-model"). European and some other operations typically treat the helicopter like a taxi, dropping skiers near a high peak, then leaving them to work their way back to a road (the "European-model"). This generally involves some ski mountaineering, even though the trend is downward.
There are as few as 4 or as many as 12 skiers, depending on the aircraft type and numbers. Most operations offer private heli-skiing charters and daily, three, four and seven day packages are common in the Canada-model.
On most tours, a group of heliskiers are led by an experienced guide and possibly an assistant, or "tailgunner". In fact, it is difficult or impossible in many areas to hire a helicopter for heli-skiing without a professional mountain guide certified by UIAGM (IFMGA). Helicopter skiing access is also regulated in many mountain ranges, eliminating the possibility of simply contracting a helicopter for random drops.
The helicopter typically meets the ski group in an open area in a valley. European pilots are very aggressive and accustomed to operation in narrow mountain valleys, so landing in a wide spot of a narrow mountain road is not uncommon in the Alps.
The guide or a helicopter crew member load the skis and poles into an exterior basket. The skiers board the helicopter and are lifted off and carried to a landing zone on the mountain. These LZ's may be officially designated, but regardless, they are generally familiar to the pilot.
While it is possible to "hot load" [or unload], meaning to take on or drop off passengers while hovering with the skids near but not touching the ground, it is safer and more common for the helicopter to actually settle onto the snow and reduce power to the rotors while the passengers disembark. This tends to reduce blowing snow, increasing visibility and reducing confusion and flying ski equipment. The guide unloads the skis, setting them flat on the ground. The skiers move away from the helicopter, hold onto their gear and clothing, face away and remain crouched until the helicopter has moved far enough away that the gusty propwash and stinging driven snow is no longer a problem.
After unloading, the clients do not ski off at random; the guides decide exactly where the clients will ski. Often a guide will go first to assess the snow, avalanche or glacier conditions, then signal the clients to proceed. Depending on the conditions, the clients may ski en-masse, or in less stable conditions, one at a time. The guide may instruct the group to stay to one side or the other of the guide's ski tracks in order to avoid glacial serac falls & crevasses, avalanche starting zones, cliffs, crusty snow or other potential difficulties that are not obvious to untrained eyes. In very treacherous glacier sections, the clients may be instructed to stay in the guide's track. On a broad, stable slope, the guide may allow the clients to spread out & pick their own line of descent.
Conditions encountered when heliskiing range from effortless powder or corn snow, to the most difficult snow possible such as breakable wind crust. Conditions often vary from run to run due to wind and solar aspects. Guide experience and the mobility of the helicopter enable careful matching of terrain to the current conditions within the limits of the operator's permit. Customer expectations are generally for easier, more pleasant snow conditions, however. It is unlikely that anyone ever paid the heliski premium desiring to ski breakable crust.
Conditions vary depending upon the time of year. Most patrons specifically go earlier in the winter during colder temperatures in order to seek and often find deep, fluffy powder or granular, recrystallized "sugar" snow, which when skied in good conditions makes for one of the most relaxed skiing descents.
Some heliskiers opt for spring skiing because of longer days, warmer temperatures, and the creamy ski conditions offered by corn snow that forms when the sun's heat creates meltwater lubrication around the snow crystals during the day. Spring days also mean more daylight and the opportunity to ski greater vertical. In fact, it is not uncommon for spring heli-skiers during week long ski packages to exceed 200,000 feet of cumulative skiing.
The length of skier descents depends on the weather, snow stability and snow quality as evaluated by the guides and pilots. On long descents, the snow may change character dramatically from cold to warm over the elevation change.
All heliskiers must be able to manage skiing along all types of terrain and be able to get down the hill in all possible snow conditions. Avalanche awareness is helpful, but it is not mandatory, since it is the guides duty to mitigate this danger through client training, careful route selection and group control.
The expense and short duration of both the heliskiing contract and evanescent snow conditions can lead to a "feeding frenzy" mentality when the clients are making multiple runs. Canada-model heliskiers seek to maximize vertical drop and number of runs, so skiers need to be reasonably fit and take advantage of efficient gear to avoid slowing the group.
Avalanche transceivers are required and a buddy system is mandatory because of the danger of avalanches. Clothing needs mirror ski resort activity level: layered clothing fit for sub-zero temperatures, goggles, hat, ski gloves, and neck warmers. Having a backpack is not allowed by some Canadian-model operators but one can bring a small pack to store basic pieces of skiing gear. European-model heliskiers are really just ski mountaineers with a vertical assist, so they require ski touring equipment appropriate to the location and conditions, including glacier travel equipment if necessary.
Fatter off-piste, powder, freeride or "all-mountain" skis are used by the majority of heliskiers. They are less tiring in use and handle difficult terrain more easily. The introduction of these skis, originally known as "fat boys", has led to an increase in the amount of vertical feet skied, as the skiers become less tired and spend less time looking for lost skis. They have also been linked with decreased injury rates.
Heliskiing is very well promoted in all Warren Miller skiing movies and has its own star athletes: Seth Morrison, Mark Abma, Glen Plake, Dean Cummings, etc. which -- along with its significant expense -- has helped to create heliskiing as a status symbol to some degree.
The primary safety concern of heliskiing operators is the danger of avalanches. Reputable heli-skiing operations employ guides and pilots who are trained and experienced in evaluating snow conditions, snow stability, and risk management. They may even conduct occasional explosive avalanche control in association with the land management agency. When weather is inclement or avalanche conditions are elevated, one may end up skiing safer, gentler or heavily treed slopes, sometimes with the use of an alternate snowcat rather than the helicopter.
Most tours will include in the price the use of avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes and will provide training on the use of them and other avalanche rescue equipment. Some operators are beginning to offer additional avalanche protection that reduces avalanche burial potential or increases burial survival time, i.e. avalanche air-bags or avalungs.
Other hazards of heliskiing include falling into very deep tree wells, "snow mushrooms" dropping from trees, suffocation after falls in very deep powder (rare), crevasses on glaciers, common mountain terrain features such as cliffs and creek beds, and -- obviously -- typical ski-related injuries. Helicopter crashes are also far from unheard of.
Directory of Operators: