Heli-skiing is off-trail, downhill skiing that is accessed by a helicopter. It is essentially about skiing in a natural – albeit highly selected – environment without the effort or gear compromise 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, 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.
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 3,000 meters in vertical relief. Average runs are more likely 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.
Heli-skiing 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 heli-skiing 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 heli-skiing 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.
Skills and techniques
Canada-style heli-skiing 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.
Europe-model heli-skiers also need to be competent in ski mountaineering, which adds climbing uphill on skis and occasionally using ropes, ice ax and crampons.
All heli-skiers 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 heli-skiing contract and evanescent snow conditions can lead to a "feeding frenzy" mentality when the clients are making multiple runs. Canada-model heli-skiers 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
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 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 heli-skiers. 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.
Requested by : Wilson Berry