Heli-ski reality: Ignore the misconceptions, it’s a sport without discrimination
We rocket through the sky, defying gravity, the pervading sound being the WUMPH-WUMPH-WUMPH of tornadic rotor blades. Below, the snow-caked pinnacles of the towering pine and fir tree metropolis seem to tickle the chopper’s underbelly—taunting us with the promise of the bountiful snow bedded between their trunks.
We ascend higher until the timber thins out and we hover above our designated landing zone. The mechanical bird gently kisses the wintry earth and we file out of the door, bodies hunched for safety, then huddle together a few yards away from our transport. The guide removes our equipment from the basket mounted to the helicopter’s side and distributes the gear before kneeling beside us and giving thumbs up to the pilot. With that signal, the machine lifts off delicately—as if in slow motion—then whizzes into the sky. I turn around and fix my eyes upon a seemingly endless expanse of mountains and an untouched sea of sparkling snow. Then it hits me: The hype is real—heli-skiing invokes thrills and astonishing moments unlike any other experience in the world. And I haven’t even clicked into my skis yet.
My heli-ski cherry was popped in February 2016 at the CMH K2 Rotor Lodge in Nakusp, British Columbia. According to HeliSki Canada, my five days in the Selkirk Range were part of the 65,174 heli-skier days (on average) that occur in Canada each winter. Based on a three-year average, the Canadian Ski Council estimates 16.87 million skier days occur per year at resorts across Canada, meaning less than one-percent of all skier visits in the country fall into the category of heli-skiing. Similar statistics can be applied to the United States. For those who haven’t been—which, based on the numbers is quite a few—I can testify that it’s worth it. And for those unsure about how to swing it, there’s a package for everyone. Sure, less than one-percent of Canadian skier visits relate to heli-skiing, but the sport isn’t reserved for “the one- percent.” It’s for all who share a passion for skiing.
There’s a misnomer out there that heli-skiing is exclusively for the rich. It’s true that there are operators out there that charge more than chump change for their services, and for the most part, you get exactly what you pay for. However, with the multitude of heli-ski outfits in North America comes competition and an even greater variety of guest packages. Many are not as tough on the wallet.
“The image of heli-skiing being too expensive and out of reach for the average person, when we look at who is skiing, we see a different picture,” explains Ian Tomm, executive director of HeliCat Canada Association. “You can go five-star private or budget-oriented day skiing. The market has matured so much over the last 40 years that there are enough businesses in the industry now that provide options for almost everyone and every price point.”
The different packages tend to produce diverse clientele. On the high end, at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge (TML), located outside of Anchorage, Alaska, packages are sold on a weeklong basis beginning at $13,500 per person. Obviously, TML’s guests have a great deal of dispensable income or meticulously filled savings accounts. Either way, they’re passionate about the sport of skiing. Owner Mike Overcast describes them as, “people who spend a ton of their time working their asses off in New York, Chicago, Boston, Zurich, Geneva, whatever,” and he says “skiing is important enough to them that they’re going to book one or two heli-ski trips per year.”
In Overcast’s opinion, work demands and obligations for wealthy, big-spending clientele are such that their time is perceived to be more valuable than it is for others with more flexible working hours and careers. As such, when they go skiing they want a guarantee of top-notch snow and remarkable terrain. In his words, “they can’t go and wait it out like others. They want to go to a spot where they’re going to get really good skiing on a concentrated level, then go back to work so they can do it again next year.”
The high-rolling clientele often gravitate towards the all-inclusive packages. These options provide everything: first-class lodging, world-class cuisine, a five-to-seven-day weather window that yields a high probability of life-changing skiing. The $13,500 price point is at the extreme end of the spectrum, of course, but most weeklong packages run at a lower price tag than that of TML.
Cordova, Alaska’s Points North Heli-Adventures, for example, offers its seven-day package starting at $5,875. And with that, the whole enchilada is taken care of for you.
“Our trip is six grand and is all-inclusive—meals, lodging, skiing, the works,” explains Kevin Quinn, founder of Points North and president of Heli Ski US. “People often think it has to be this once-in-a- lifetime trip, but when they understand that in this day and age it’s not that much money… and they have multiple days of glory snow on glory terrain in the Chugach, then they realize they need it in their life and it becomes an annual trip.”
Over in Canada, CMH oversees 12 heli-ski lodges that each have a different flavor, welcome varied customers and offer mixed price packages. At its K2 Rotor Lodge, CMH guide Peter MacPherson sees people who want their cash to go towards the skiing first and foremost, with amenities coming second.
They aren’t there for the accommodations or the town, nor the remote backcountry lodge or crackling fire—all the more luxury amenities that we offer within other CMH locations,” he explains. “CMH K2 tends to attract people that are more interested in the skiing and are arguably price point conscious, but would rather pay for the skiing over a bit softer experience with higher-end accommodations.”
CMH K2’s challenging Steep Shots and Pillow Drops package, for example, can run as low as $4,362. And with the Canadian dollar currently valued at .76 of the U.S. dollar and .68 of the Euro, Canadian heli-ski trips have become more popular for foreign vacationers looking to save a buck.
“The industry has always been reliant on foreign tourism, but if you look at some of the stats in British Columbia over the last couple of years, it’s clear we’re in a tourism boom,” explains Tomm. “The industry is benefiting from the low Canadian dollar as well as the growth of the global economy since it started to recover in 2010 from the financial crisis of 2008-09.”
For the bargain hunters not interested in the five-to-seven-day bundles, some operations offer single day packages. Generally, skiers book these options with high hopes that the stars will align—meaning they experience impeccable weather—and they’ll have the heli-ski adventure they’ve always dreamt about. While the costs are cut when booking a single day outing, the risk to reward ratio is high.
“There’s a balance there, figuring out how much of a guarantee you want if you book a single day,” explains Henry Munter, general manager at Chugach Powder Guides (CPG). “The more of a guarantee you want, the more it costs.”
Some companies, including CPG, allow standby options, where skiers can put their names on a list and if a seat in the chopper becomes available—generally the night prior—it’s theirs for the taking. They just have to be ready to get up and go when the time is right. CPG will knock off $100 from the $1,375 day rate in acknowledgment of a client’s flexibility.
“The classic formula is having four groups with the helicopter. With five-day packages we only book three groups and open up the fourth to standby,” explains Munter. “We’re not stuffing the chopper full, we open it when it’s the right weather for it, so the people who book in advance get a better experience if conditions are tighter and everyone gets a better experience when weather is good.”
Single day packages also cater to those desperate times when weather has grounded choppers, which happens on occasion. Majestic Heli Ski, located about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Anchorage and one of only two heli-ski operations, along with TML, in Alaska’s interior, offers daily packages based upon availability. Guests can expect six runs out of the chopper as well as breakfast and lunch for $1,175. Owner Njord Rota often sees skiers show up after their previously booked trips have gone awry.
“The single day folks generally come from other operators when they are weathered out,” explains Rota. “We’re in the interior and the guys on the coast can get worse weather than us. We’ve had groups who got skunked for a whole week elsewhere and so we’ll get a last-second call asking to take on day skiers.”
There are also other creative ways to guarantee a trip full of incredible skiing, including heli-bumps, on a budget. When friends ask him about heli-skiing in Alaska on the cheap, Munter often recommends ski touring on the various mountain passes—Turnagain, Thompson, Hatcher—while keeping an eye on the weather for the chance at getting in the chopper.
“I tell them to plan on going ski touring for a week or two, travel between the three passes and go where the skiing and weather is good. Plan to have enough budget so that when the weather stabilizes, you can call the operations to book a seat in the helicopter,” he explains.
The single day packages aren’t exclusive to Alaska, either. There are operations that offer single or half-day options where skiers can book packages on a three-, four-, five- or six-run basis for a lower cost, on the average. Many of these outfits, though not all, are located near or operate in conjunction with ski resorts: Whistler Heli-Skiing (Whistler Blackcomb), Powderbird (Snowbird/Park City), Telluride Helitrax (Telluride), Selkirk Tangiers (Revelstoke) and Chugach Powder Guides (Alyeska), for example.
“The entry level heli-skier these days comes up for a week, skis the resort and, whether they book in advance or standby, tries to get out in the helicopter as availability and weather allows,” details Munter.
The proximity to the resort allows them to ski as much as they want while waiting for ideal flying conditions, when they can pounce on a seat in the chopper. It’s often what sparks a lifelong love for heli-skiing. “That’s how people get the bug and start their [heli-ski] experiences, at the day skiing operations,” explains Overcast. “They perforate the customer base that we eventually draw from.”
In the end, no matter someone’s background or how they go about facilitating a heli-ski trip, it changes their lives forever. Munter notes that, “for people that fall in love with it, it’s their thing forever.” And while the main attraction is the skiing, the friendships forged over lunches in the wilderness and après fare—whether it be in a five-star lodge or the operation’s parking lot—make the experience all the more memorable.
“It’s quite a unique flavor and bond that occurs organically within the groups we serve and I guess the only reason for that is because everyone’s here to go skiing and have fun,” explains MacPherson. “It’s the common denominator, everybody is on the same page.”
I’ve clicked into my skis and am peering over a cornice at the blank powder canvas I’ll soon paint my masterpiece upon. I back up, call my drop, skate towards the precipice and take flight, landing in the soft, glimmering snow. One turn becomes two, which becomes a slithering track and the rest is history. Skiing, for me, will never be the same.
There’s a reason most heli-ski operations boast impressive retention rates—Tomm ballparks an average of a 75-percent return rate for the members of HeliSki Canada. If tackling world-class lines with a helicopter as your chariot has been tucked in the back of your mind for some time, stop waiting and go for it already.
I asked CMH guest Tom Fontana—who has racked up over 1.6 million vertical feet of chopper-skiing over the years—”Why do you go heli-skiing? Why do you keep coming back?”
His answer, though comical, is spot on: “You can’t explain it, you just have to do it. I tell people it’s like cocaine. It’s white, it’s habit forming, it’s expensive—but the cops won’t come knocking on your door if you do it.”