They used to say that there was a 10-year window for heli - skiing.
The under-35s could not afford it and the over-45s could not keep up.
Now the latest generation can afford to hire a helicopter and head for the Canadian wilderness.
Today, the companies that pioneered heliskiing, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, are only two among scores of operators. Despite the choice, British Columbia is still on top of the pile. While a few regions may match its interior for snow quality and empty space, none can match its operating efficiency
What does heliskiing involve?
A helicopter takes small groups of skiers to otherwise inaccessible parts of the mountain. Skiing is on virgin, untracked snow.
Am I up to it?
Heliski holidays used to come with the warning that anyone unable to keep up would be confined to the lodge without a refund. Now that we are all encouraged to feel powder-empowered by fat skis, strong skiers fear having their expensive fun compromised by slow groups.
Bear in mind that heliskiing is an intense and not always comfortable experience. The pace is hard and the less well you ski, the more tiring it is. The snow is not always light and lunch is a brief, sub-zero picnic. Women are outnumbered and there are no loos on the mountain. Some areas are more suitable than others for half-day heliskiers.
CMH or Wiegele?
Wiegele's 120 skiers stay in a chalet village between Kamloops and Jasper. CMH skiers are dispersed in small groups, in remote lodges reached by helicopter. CMH has one guide per group, Wiegele two. Weekly packages are standard, but Wiegele offers shorter packages (and unlimited skiing footage) in low season. CMH has two areas reserved for strong skiers and one that offers part-week packages all season. How much does it cost?
At least £5,000 for a week. Packages include lodging, all meals, guiding, equipment and a set amount of skiing, usually defined in vertical feet of flying or skiing (not quite the same thing) - 15,000 vertical feet a day is average. In good conditions, strong skiers may achieve double this and face a big extras bill on departure (at about £10 per 1,000 vertical feet).
Where to Heli - Ski
The Monashees, British Columbia
The most challenging of the ski areas are in the Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) portfolio, the Monashees are not for the first-time heli-skier. Offering what is arguably the best “steep and deep” tree skiing in the world; two-thirds of the runs are set in mature, well-spaced forest.
Two private guides will take you to a seemingly unlimited range of locations with long, steep-pitched terrain; skiers staying for a week are guaranteed to descend at least 10,000ft of vertical drop. About 66ft of snow falls each season, so – as one skier quipped – don’t forget your mask and snorkel. The fully catered lodge sleeps up to 48 people and has all the usual mod cons, as well as a rooftop Jacuzzi, games room, sauna and massage therapists on hand to ease those tired legs.
CMH is offering seven days of heli-skiing from C$5,500 per person. The price includes full board, equipment hire, guides, all helicopter costs and transfers, but excludes international flights.
The Cariboos, British Columbia
Run by one of the pioneers of "fat boy" skis, Mike Wiegele’s heli-skiing base nestled in Blue River can access both the Monashee and Cariboo Mountains.
The Cariboos are still considered the best all-round destination, whether it is for first-timers on gentler slopes or for more experienced skiers tackling steep-pitched runs through trees and across wide open glacial bowls.
With 22 log chalets to choose from, the resort has no shortage of accommodation either. The private Bavarian House Estate, with eight double rooms and the feel of an Alpine chalet about it, offers spectacular views across Eleanor Lake. Facilities for guests include a sports centre, games rooms, a private chef, plus a spa and sauna.
Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing is offering a five-day package from C$6,414 The price includes 80,000ft of vertical descent, two guides per group and full-board accommodation, but not flights.
One for the purists, Chugach does not offer the homely accommodation of British Columbia – but the skiing is unrivalled. A far northern location and guaranteed snow mean heli-skiing can take place at lower altitudes than in BC. The steep terrain of the Chugach Mountains has made this a favourite location for extreme winter sports videos, but there is plenty of more moderate skiing, too. Valdez Heli-Camps, founded by Vermont-born Matt White, is the only all-inclusive heli-skiing destination in Alaska. Groups are limited to four, transported by fast A-Star helicopters, and typically negotiate 20,000ft of vertical descent.
Valdez Heli-Camps are offering three-day packages from US$4,149 the price includes full board in Valdez, equipment, helicopter fees and transfers, but not flights.
The Andes, Chile
Every summer, heli-skiing fanatics head south to Chile for the southern hemisphere’s winter. Powder South, flying out of its base deep in the Central Andes, has access to about 1,900 square miles of heli-skiing terrain, including the Rio Colorado Valley to the north and the Tinguiririca Valley to the south. With light “dry” snow, it may not offer the kind of tree-skiing seen in the best of the BC locations – but for sheer variety of landscape (towering faces, steep couloirs, ridges, bowls, and volcanoes), it has few equals. All this is set among mountains 22,000ft high. The cosy, family-owned El Ingenio Lodge, in the Maipo Valley, boasts hot tubs, gourmet food and an outdoor pool.
Powder South Heliski Guides are offering a week from 7,000 euros per person, including full board and equipment, but not international flights.
The Alps, Europe
Heli-skiing in Europe bears little resemblance to the Canadian wilderness experience, since helicopters fly out of major ski resorts or bases close to them.
If the weather and snow let you down, there is always conventional skiing (and the facilities of a resort) to fall back on.
In Switzerland, stay at the discreet Tivoli Lodge in Davos and fly to the Davos Klosters Mountains; in France (where heli-skiing is banned), you can still stay at Chalet Yellowstone in Ste Foy and take a flight to the Italian peaks. From there, ski back down into France across the Italian border.
Descent offers both the above as options in its Maximum Descent packages. A week in Ste Foy costs from £1,575 per person. Heli-skiing is extra: 450 euros (£350) per person, for two drops on the mountain with a guide, based on a full helicopter. CS-S
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