HELISKI.com Top 10 Things to Consider in a Heli-Skiing & Heli-Boarding
British Columbia Canada is the center of the heliskiing world. BC Canada has the perfect combination of terrain, climate and precipitation for helicopter skiing. BC is home to the majority of heliskiing and heliboarding operations on earth (over 90%). Heliskiing British Columbia includes various regions, each with advantages and disadvantages.
Snow quantity is directly affected by proximity to the Pacific. In general, more snow falls in the Coast Ranges. Snow quality is based on a combination of factors, but most notably is the distance North (cooler temps) or East (lighter) and the elevation (the higher the dryer). The vast majority of Heliskiing occurs in the southeast ranges and the Coast Ranges. The Rockies generally have less snowfall, but what falls is dry! See a map of British Columbia Heliskiing and Heliboarding Locations.
Terrain varies widely among various mountain regions. Some of the more famous ranges in BC include the Monashees, Bugaboos, Selkirks, Purcells, Rockies, Coast, Skeena and Cariboos. Terrain can also vary even within the tenure (heliskiing permit area). Experience, recommendations and research are the best bet to differentiate between ranges. A discussion of the differences is beyond the scope of this article, sorry.
Alaska Heli-Skiing is the home of the steep and deep. The season is later and there is not much tree skiing, especially when compared to BC heli-skiing. Most operators are out of Valdez or Hanies, and there are a couple of others. See this Valdez vs. Haines article for a discussion of the differences by the operators themselves. Alaska can be more difficult to access. For example, Anchorage to Valdez flights are canceled often. Alaska has more down days than BC heliski / heliboard operators. Conditions are highly variable and it is STEEP. Do not go to Alaska on your first heliskiing trip.
There are some options better than others. The US offers heliskiing and heliboarding in the Lower 48 as well. Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, California and Idaho all have heliskiing. Many of these are located at or near resort skiing, and cater to one-day trips. Although longer trips are also available, they are usually 1-3 days. Europe heliskiing is somewhat restricted, starting late and ending early. France outlawed heliskiing. South America and New Zealand each have a handful of heliskiing operators. India, Russia, Greenland and Iceland are also available for more exotic helicopter skiing adventures.
2. Dates – Only take one if she or he can hang (kidding).
When to go…..
Most British Columbia heliskiing operates January to early April. There are a few operators offering heli-skiing in December, including Whistler, Last Frontier Heli-Skiing, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH Heli-Skiing) and Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. The Christmas to New Years week is also available from some operators.
February is prime time, but January and March are usually very good. February always sells out first, with the exception of Alaska (see below). Many heliski operators tell me that January gets the most snow. January can offer better deals, too. There is an element of luck, and any week from Christmas to mid-April can offer heli-skiing deep powder.
Stability and weather are better later in the season. Stability issues and lots of snow means January is typically more tree skiing. March is typically characterized by more high alpine and glacier heliskiing. But be aware that late season can include ‘corn snow’ in addition to, or instead of powder.
See related posting on Heli-Skiing: January vs. March Which is best?
Alaska Heliskiing has a much later season. Some operators open in February, but it’s better to wait. Prime time is March and April. Some will accommodate early May. It may be corn snow, however. There is twice as much sunlight at the end of the season than at the beginning.
The size of the group and the number of groups per helicopter, or machine, are very important. Some of the big operators including Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing use primarily big helicopters with 11 guests per lift. Almost all of the boutique, smaller operators use A-stars, Bell407’s or the new Koalas. These hold 4 to 6 guests. It is a more intimate group. In addition, smaller helicopters are more maneuverable. Small groups can access tighter areas that could not handle 13 sets of tracks. Smaller machines load and unload faster, reducing cycle time. However, the bigger machines such as the Bell212 are less expensive per heliskier.
Groups per helicopter is a very important criterion. A helicopter can easily service two or three groups without much waiting. Operators will attempt to arrange guests of similar ability and speed. But all groups can only go as fast as the slowest group…unless or until a group can be passed. The amount of waiting depends on the ‘weakest link,’ and on the willingness of the guides to ‘leap frog’ the slow group. This is frequently a cause of tension and discontent. This is especially true if the groups contain skiers with different ability and or speed. The passing group gets anxious and the group getting passed gets pissed. Fortunately the operators are very skilled at managing these challenges. Most guests never pick up on it, or care.
Another issue can arise if some guests are interested in ‘extra vertical’ (usually for extra money) and some are not. Unless the lodge is close or there are logical groups, some guests may be disappointed. One group per machine is called Private (except at TLH Heliskiing), is best but expensive. Two groups per machine, a Semi-Private, is very good and usually comes at a premium. Three groups per machine, Classic or Regular, is the industry norm for smaller, more boutique operations.
Skiing ability requirements vary somewhat. The resort-based and one-day oriented operators suggest ‘intermediate’ ability is required and/or ‘some powder experience.’ The more remote operators suggest ‘strong intermediate’ or ‘able to ski any run at a resort in control’. These are definitely minimum requirements. Most clients will be expert with good powder ability. Do not invite a buddy with marginal ability if you want to ski fast and make friends in the lodge.
‘Good physical condition’ is another requirement. It is very important to be in good shape. You do not want to be straining to keep up. Worse, you do not want to be slowing down your friends (and former friends.) Get yourself in very good shape!
4. Length of Trip
Packages are available for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or more days. The most common lengths are 1-day, 4-day and a ‘week’. Most ‘week’ trips are 7 nights with 6 full days of helicopter skiing. Some heliski a full 7 days. An important distinction, eh? Some will offer skiing on the morning of departure. Some can get up on the afternoon of the arrival day. Several companies now offer a full seven days. They can have their guests ski a full day on the last day, instead of using it as change-over time or lengthy transfer to an airport. But those are the exception.
Resort-based heliskiing operators cater to shorter trips, especially one-day trips. These are available at Whistler, Telluride, Revelstoke, Sun Valley, Snowbird/Alta, Lake Tahoe, Alyeska (Alaska) and Kicking Horse. These day-trips are typically much more expensive per vertical skied. Safety training is required every morning, as opposed to once per trip for lodge-based operations. The first run is used to assess ability levels, to make sure everyone can ‘hang’. So it’s always pretty tame. Most will ski four groups per helicopter. In addition, the ski level of “bucket list” guests is not as high. For all these reasons, these trips are slow, and accumulate less vertical.
More remote operators justify longer trips. A travel day on each end may be required. But as mentioned, access is the key if you want to ski more and travel less. So, longer trips make the best use of time and money.
Down days, unfortunately, do happen. If the helicopter cannot fly, due to weather or mechanical issues, the bummer is magnified if it is shorter trip. A handful of operators now offer catskiing backup. It can save the day and is worth considering.
Down days happen way less at some operations than others. See Location above. There is also a wide disparity in how operators qualify down days. For some, if anyone skied any runs, it's not a down day. For others, if they only ski 1/2 of the day, it's not considered a down day. My dad used to say, "figures don't lie, but liers can figure."
Total travel time is an important criteria that is often overlooked. Some of the oldest heliski operators require bus rides of eight hours on both ends of the trip. This is an ironic contrast to the fast, convenient service offered during the heliskiing stay. It may not sit well with clients who can afford heliskiing. It used to be the norm, but it is not the case with newer operators.
Getting to and from a heliskiing destination can range from straight forward to very challenging. Some places are easy to reach, with frequent ‘commuter’ flights. Book these ASAP. The good flights often sell out, and the cheap seats sell out first. And for the best price it is usually best to combine these flights with your long flight in/out of Vancouver or Calgary. Some operators charter flights, require lengthy bus rides and are susceptible to weather delays. Most have vans or buses for the last leg of the journey. The primary airports for heliskiing access are Vancouver, Calgary, and Anchorage. Many itineraries require a night stay before or after the trip, or both. This can add $4-500 to the cost of the trip. A few operators include this in the price, most do not. Bella Coola Heli-Sports flies guests up from Vancouver in the morning, and they heli-ski that afternoon. It may also be possible to ski the morning of the last day, and fly home that afternoon. Northern Escape Heli-Skiing is close enough to fly all the way to the lodge in one day. They a remote lodge with great ambiance without arduous travel time. Another benefit to easy access travel is that it may also increase the skiing time you have available on the last day.
Heliskiing is expensive. The good news is that it is worth it. Most packages run $800 to $1100 per day. This includes food, lodging, helicopter lifts and some après ski hors d’oeuvres. Alcohol is almost always an additional cost. It's worth it, too.
Check out Heliskiing Canada is a Better Deal than Resort Skiing! A blog post that is illuminating.
There are three common pricing models: Flat Fee Plus, Unlimited Vertical and Hourly
A Flat Fee Plus typical week includes 100,000 vertical feet of heliskiing plus additional cost/1000 vertical feet over that. Additional vertical is typically $35-45 per thousand feet. Think approximately $100/extra run. Everyone in your helicopter group or ‘lift’ must agree to the extra vertical. It is common to re-configure the groups late in the day to allow one or two groups to go for the extra vertical. It's also not uncommon to have some sticker shock at checkout.
Unlimited vertical is just how it sounds. Heliski and heliboard as much as you want, weather, conditions and daylight permitting. It appeals to those who heilski fast and are in good shape. Unlimited vertical also eliminates the possibility of a big bill at checkout. Detractors say the guest and operator lack goal congruence. See a more detailed discussion at Unlimited Heliskiing vs. Flat Fee Plus Heliskiing
Hourly pricing is less common, but has its appeal. Like Flat Fee Plus, guests can manage the amount of skiing and the expense. Many Private packages are priced this way. A week will include 8-10 hours, for example. It can be more difficult to compare to other pricing models, especially with multiple groups. Beware of long ‘commutes’ to the heliskiing area, as they can really hurt. And, don’t worry, the Hobbs meter only runs when the ship is in the air.
Most packages include a guaranteed minimum vertical (e.g. 100,000 feet for a week). If weather or mechanical downtime prevents reaching the guaranteed minimum, most operators will issue a credit toward a future trip. It is unusual to get a refund. Operators vary widely on their willingness to accommodate clients for missed vertical. In fact, some operators have been known to start late and quit early to minimize helicopter expenses. Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. Refunds and vertical achieved are often the cause of friction on the last day, as type-A guests butt heads with cash-strapped operators. There is ample room for disagreement about the cause of slow groups and missed vertical. Negotiation can be successful, but it is best done in private, with a cool head and respect.
Some packages include unlimited vertical. In fact, a handful of operators offer unlimited vertical on every package! Others offer it during the early and late season. It may be built into a higher price. It is worth shopping around.
See blog post: The Pros and Cons of Unlimited Vertical Heliskiing.
Most BC Heliski Operators offer very nice lodges in remote locations. A few offer less expensive options, especially those that cater to day-trippers. Most will offer excellent amenities including bar, hot tub, wireless internet, ski shop, massage, pool, TV/movies, etc. Check them out online. Most are great.
Some heliski lodges are fishing lodges in the summer months. Lodging is in hotels in a handful of locations such as Last Frontier Ripley Creek, CMH Revelstoke and CMH/K2.
Alaska heliskiing is considerably more rugged, with a couple of exceptions. The center of gravity is heliskiing Valdez. Most operators shuttle clients back and forth from their motel in Valdez. A few have their own accommodations. Another interesting option in Alaska is a motor home. The operators make it easy to hook up and hang out when you are heli-skiing, and go exploring when you are not. In general, Alaska is a far less luxurious, to say the least. Exceptions include CPG Alyeska (resort ski lodge) and VHSG (built a nice new lodge, see Alaska Steep + BC Comfort.)
Down days do happen. The helicopter pilot must be able to see two points of reference to fly. When the weather closes in, this can become impossible. This is when operators with catskiing backup really shine. Catskiing backup is well-integrated at Northern Escape Heli-Skiing, Mica Heli-Skiing, Snowwater Heliskiing and Chugach Powder Guides (Alaska).
Good down day (contradiction in terms) activities include ski touring, cat skiing, resort skiing, fishing, snowmobiling, sea kayaking and more.
The food is awesome! Destination heliski operators almost all offer great food and lots of it. The food is gourmet! The wine lists are usually pretty good, but bringing your own is fine, albeit a travel hassle. Hotel-based operations may be a little less gourmet. Some of the bigger operators do buffet style, but the food is great.
Food in the field is the norm for lunch. Lunch usually consists of a couple of choices of sandwiches, a soup or two, cookies/desert and plenty of drinks and snacks.
There are several helicopters (aka machines, birds or ships) common in the heliskiing industry. Most popular with the boutique operators is the A-Star. It typically carries four guests across a bench-like seat in the back; the pilot and guide sit in front. It is also known as the A-Star B, for models B2 and the more powerful B3.
The Bell 407 typically seats five in the rear; the pilot and one more sit up front (usually the guide with the exception of the last ride home.) Bell 205, 206 and 212 carries up to eleven guests, a guide and a pilot. Operators may run two to four groups of this size. There are trade-offs. Bigger helicopters have longer load and unload time and clients ski in larger groups. Some terrain does not lend itself to 12, 24, 36 or even 48 tracks……
Operators with smaller helicopters and thereby smaller groups (lifts) have more flexibility in arranging groups, reaching terrain, etc. However, most will run three small groups per helicopter. The exception is Private or Semi Private packages that run one or two groups respectively. The price is higher, but the experience is the amazing. With 7 or more in a group, a private may be the best deal.
9. Safety and Guides
The first and most important factor in choosing a company to ski with is safety. There are industry associations establishing standards, including HeliCat Canada Association and Heliski US. They set strict standards for members and ensures that they meet them through standard audits of their operating procedures. Most companies are members. This is critical as there are currently no government regulations for guides in Canada. To date they have been very successful at self-regulation and have a very good safety record.
One of the critical points to consider is Guides Qualifications. HeliCat Canada recognizes only ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) and the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide’s Associations) of which the ACMG is the Canadian member.
Trip insurance is a good idea. It covers change of plans or travel problems. We do strongly recommend trip cancellation/disruption insurance. It is an add-on to the package price when guests make their final payment. This ranges from $200-$300, depending on the date of the tour, and the age of the participant. Evacuation insurance is usually a daily fee of $8-10 and it is a must. Some operators include it.
10. How to Choose the Best Heliskiing Trip?
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