|This article relies on references to primary sources. (July 2013)|
Heli-skiing is off-trail, downhill skiing that is accessed by a helicopter, as opposed to a ski lift. Heli-skiing is essentially about skiing in a natural, albeit highly-selected environment, without the effort required for hiking into these areas as in ski touring or ski mountaineering.
Most heli-skiers 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, and steep slopes.
The presence of the guide and aircraft offers protection against the risks and discomforts unavoidably associated with entering this mountainous environment, allowing skiers with little or no mountain sense to enjoy a natural environment.
The term heli-boarding is used if the participant is snowboarding instead of skiing. For the purpose of this article, "heli-skiing" also covers snowboarding in this manner.
Heli-skiing has become an increasingly popular activity since its inception in the 1960s, with operators established in Canada, the continental USA, Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand, Indian Himalayas, Nepal, Russia, Turkey, Norway(Voss), Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Georgia, Chile and Switzerland. The Canadian province of British Columbia is the most popular area for heli-skiing with over 90% global market share.
The mountain terrain that heli-skiing 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.
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 (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 co-guide. 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 take on or drop off passengers while holding collective (hovering) with the skids near or touching the ground, it is safer and more common (and also cheaper) for the helicopter to settle onto the snow and reduce power to the rotors while the passengers disembark. This reduces blowing snow, increases visibility and reduces confusion. The guide unloads the skis, setting them flat on the ground. The skiers move away from the helicopter, crouch in a location designated by the guide and hold onto their gear.They face towards the machine and remain crouched until the helicopter has lifted off.
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. Clients usually set off a few turns apart to avoid collisions and each other's tracks. In less stable conditions the guide may insist that only one rider is on the slope 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 and 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. 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 150,000 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.
Skills and techniques
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (December 2012)|
Canada-style heliskiing is identical in execution to downhill skiing. There are no special techniques involved. Being able to consistently ski intermediate and advanced ski resort runs is a requirement, however.
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.
Equipment and gear
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (December 2012)|
Avalanche transceivers, shovels, and probes are required and a buddy system may be used because of the danger of avalanches. Clothing needs to mirror ski resort activity level: layered clothing fit for sub-zero temperatures, goggles, hat, ski gloves, and neck warmers. Having a backpack is a requirement, and is used to carry avalanche rescue 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. For snowboarders, similar wider powder snowboards also exists. For European model, one may use a splitboard where situation warrants it.
Hans Gmoser, a mountain guide and Austrian immigrant to Canada, is generally credited with starting heli-skiing in 1965 in the Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia with his company, (although he experimented with helicopter accessed skiing in the years proceeding in the front range of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary). Evidence suggests that heliskiing may have even taken place earlier in the late 50s or early 60s in Alaska, Wyoming or Utah based on old photos in ski books.
Heliskiing is very well promoted in ski films and has its own star athletes: Seth Morrison, Mark Abma, Glen Plake, etc. which—along with its significant expense—has helped to create heliskiing as a status symbol to some degree.
- 1936: Airplane inventor Orville Wright denounces helicopter technology as facing, "several seemingly insurmountable difficulties, en route to success."
- 1939: Russian immigrant Igor Sikorsky perfects the single-rotor helicopter in New York.
- 1958: Bengt "Binks" Sandahl is the first recorded heliski guide. He started guiding skiers out of Alyeska Resort, Alaska, using a Hiller helicopter with a Soly conversion. Ahead of his time, his operation didn't last.
- 1965: Hans Gmoser heli-lifts skiers from an old logging camp near Radium, BC, to otherwise inaccessible Bugaboo Mountain terrain with his fledgling Rocky Mountain Guides, Ltd. Gmoser later forms Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH).
- 1966: Bill Janss heli-skis with Gmoser in the Purcell Mountains then, inspired, starts his own heli operation in Ketchum, Idaho: Sun Valley Heliskiing.
- 1968: Rocky Mountain Guides opens the Bugaboo Lodge, the world’s first heli-served five-star backcountry cabin.
- 1974: The industry's first avalanche related fatality occurs with CMH.
- 1974: High Mountain Helicopter Skiing in Teton Village, Wyoming starts operations. Robin “Boomer” McClure and Dave Miller launched High Mountain Heliski, with help from Jerry Tapp, Frank Werner, and Dr. Richard Sugden. From 1974 – 76, they did only two or three flights a year, with Kjerstad Helicopters. During the drought year of 1977, they flew only once on 16 inches of snow! Determined to make the business successful, however, Miller printed a brochure and rented an office in 1978. Business improved throughout the early 80’s until 1984, when the Wyoming Wilderness Act established the Jedediah Smith and Gros Ventre Wilderness areas, ousting the heli-ski service from its best terrain.
- 1977: Joe Royer, a patroller at Snowbird, Utah, spies a lonely, powder-choked mountain range south of I-80 near Elko, Nevada, and opens Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing.
- 1977: Dick Barrymore rented a Hughes 500 helicopter and filmed heliskiing in the Chugach Mountains near Palmer, AK. He said, “Skiing in uncontrolled areas is risky. We carried radio transceivers but I thought it smart to stop in Anchorage and pick up some big red balloons and a canister of helium. We tied the balloons onto our waists. In the event we were caught by an avalanche, the balloon would ride high and dry, easily revealing the whereabouts of a buried skier.
- 1978: Canadian heliskiing and snowcat skiing outfits form British Columbia Helicopter and Snowcat Skiing Operators Association (BCHSSOA) to define standards and operating guidelines. The association changes its name to HeliCat Canada in 2006.
A safety concern of heliskiing operators is the danger of avalanches. Heli-skiing operations employ guides and pilots who are trained and experienced in evaluating snow conditions, snow stability, and risk management. Many guides are trained and skills assessed according to standards set and maintained by the Canadian Ski Guide Association or the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and/or International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA). Many guides also enter the profession after years of personal experience, ski patrol experience, other guide experience, and a high mountain I.Q.
Operators do not generally conduct any form of explosive avalanche control. More typically risker slopes are avoided depending on the assessed risk of the snow pack, resulting in guests riding mellower slopes in safer places when the risk is high.
Poor weather, especially limited visibility, freezing rain or high winds limit the ability of helicopters to fly in the mountains. In these conditions most operators will be unable to fly. Some operators offer a snow cat as backup for these conditions, although this is relatively rare.
Most tours will include in the price the use of avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes and provide training on the use of them and other avalanche rescue equipment. Guides, and increasingly guests, carry radios to communicate within the group, between groups, with the helicopter and the lodge.
Some operators are beginning to offer additional avalanche protection that reduces avalanche burial potential or increases burial survival time, i.e. avalanche air-bags.
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.
Financial hazards include pre-paid ski days lost to un-flyable weather. However, this may be mitigated through the use of snowcat back-up thus guaranteeing skiing everyday. Heliskiing agents qualify and book tours based on client requirements.
Environmental groups like Mountainwilderness have expressed their concerns and opposition to Heliskiing because of its negative impact on a mountain's quietness, atmosphere, and environment.
- Wanrooy, Bill; Anthony, Chris (2006) Dream Season: Worldwide Guide to Heli & Cat Skiing/Boarding Lulu.com ISBN 9781847287915
- Atwater, Montgomery M. (1968) The Avalanche Hunters Philadelphia: M. Smith Co. OCLC 449852
- Gmoser, Hans (1996) The CMH Gallery: a visual celebration of CMH Heli-Skiing and Heli-HikingAltitude Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 9781551531168
- "Teton Skiing: A History and Guide to the Teton Range, Wyoming", Thomas Turiano
- Donahue, Topher (2008) Bugaboo Dreams: A Story of Skiers, Helicopters and Mountains ISBN 1897522118
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