The Most Honest Guide to Heli-Skiing You’ll Ever Read
The nuts and bolts of the most expensive ski trip of your life.
Heli-skiing is godawful expensive.
I know that’s a truism—it’s so patently pricey t hat the mere invocation of it conjures images of European royalty and New York hedge fund managers blowing their inheritances and their bonuses, respectively. But in almost any heli-skiing story I’ve ever read, the actual cost is relegated to a small sidebar at the end, often with the dreaded “from $…”.
I’m telling you this because when my brother-in-law Clarke called me last fall to say that all he wanted for his 40th birthday was to go heli-skiing and that he hoped I could come, I didn’t dream up images of waist-deep pow or choppers banking hard over a cornice laden with snow. I thought, “Oh daddy, this is going to be expensive.” I hemmed and hawed and hawed some more before my wife—YOLO before there was YOLO—finally goaded me into it.
$1,980. Plus tax. Plus tip. That was what it was going to cost me. For that sum—more than an entire season’s pass at Whistler—I would get a guaranteed eight heli runs spread out over a day and a half. That’s it. Clarke was going to pick up the accommodation, and we would make the drive to Revelstoke with a third friend, Phil, to keep costs down. But notwithstanding the hefty figure, once I committed I was equal parts nervous and excited.
I had been heli-skiing once before, several years ago, and it was outstanding. The conditions that time were actually just okay—there were none of those snow-flying-in-your-face moments you see in ski magazines, and, frankly, our first few runs were on a hard crust that gave way to powder underneath, making for exceptionally tricky skiing. But ultimately the pilot and guides found some slopes where the sun had softened the snow (exposure is everything in the backcountry), and thereafter I enjoyed two days of the best skiing I had ever known. It was late in the season and we were skiing in the alpine (a.k.a. above the treeline), and the terrain was made up of those ungodly beautiful sweeping bowls. And while there wasn’t a surplus of snow, there was a far decreased concern of avalanches. Each run was as good as the very best run you’d have in a given (great) year at the resort, and they just kept coming all day long. I didn’t go the next year or the next for a very simple reason—it’s just too expensive.
Clarke had decided to go with Selkirk Tangiers out of Revelstoke, and, without being unkind, I think it’s fair to say they’re the top of the second-tier heli-skiing operations. The first tier is occupied by the twin gods that are Mike Wiegele out of Blue River and Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) out of almost every region of B.C. Skiing with them will usually come with a three- to five-day minimum, and prices start at $5,000. If this were Hollywood, these two would be Tom Cruise and George Clooney, the top of the A-list. Selkirk Tangiers? They’d be more like Matt Damon—well respected, very cool. But the main draw was that they’d take us early in the season, and they’d take us for just two days.
The rub with going in the early season became evident as soon as we hit the Coquihalla and saw that the “highway through hell” had nary a snowbank—not there or on the entire drive to Revy. It was December, and even though Whistler already had a sizable base, the Interior so far had not been blessed with any huge dumps. We actually considered cancelling the trip, but every time Clarke called Selkirk, they told us not to worry—there was snow in them thar hills, and they’d find it. Trust us, they said, and we did. It was 6 p.m. as we pulled into the bare streets of Revy, and as we downed our first beer it started to snow.
We awoke the next morning to what seemed like a foot of the white stuff blanketing everything in sight. We were set to be at the office by 8:30 a.m. for an hour or so of mandatory avalanche training, following which we’d be up, up and away. As we were in the early season, the twin—and very real—threats of tree wells and avalanches were less severe, but the Selkirk guides were deadly serious about both. In addition to our training, we’d be skiing with two official guides and another employee on her day off. For every single run, one of the guides would go first to make sure everything was copacetic, and if it was they would relay the green light back to the second guide. We’d all ski in pairs, being responsible for each other, but the final guide would go last, or tail-gun, to help with any crashes and to make sure no one was misplaced. There are operations out there that utilize only the forward guide and have a guest tail-gun, and all I can say is I’d never patronize such an operation even in an early season, low-risk situation.
It hadn’t stopped snowing by the time we took off, which, although great for the powder, meant we weren’t going to be able to get too high in the alpine because of visibility concerns, both for the chopper and for us, as skiing in a huge open bowl with blowing snow can make judging grade and depth a wee bit tricky. But the pilot was confident he’d find some sweet spots, and the mood in the very packed cabin was boiling over with excitement and, for me alone, some trepidation. Not only had I not skied yet that season, but also I had actually, for the first time since I was eight, missed the entire previous season as well. So my first turns in 20 months would be on a foreign pair of very fat skis in a foot of fresh snow. What could go wrong?
One of the first things newbies to heli notice is just how packed the cabin of the average chopper is. Empty seats mean lost revenue, so most heli operations will make sure every spare seat is taken, even if it means morning-of discounts for lucky locals or letting an employee hop along for a special day. In practice, that means that getting everyone in the chopper requires people facing each other to alternate their legs together like teeth on a zipper, and as the day progresses the combination of melting snow and heavily sweating skiers transforms the space into a combo of steam room and boxing gym—dank and very humid, and chock full of testosterone.
The pilot was confident he’d find some sweet spots, and the mood in the very packed cabin was boiling over with excitement and, for me alone, some trepidation.
After less than 30 minutes in the air we were touching down on an impossibly small landing area and quickly but carefully scurrying out in the crouched position. This is where the guides grab your skis and poles and throw them in a pile, and everyone huddles up while the chopper pulls away, invariably blowing snow into every possible entry point in your jacket and pants. And like that, you’re alone in the wilderness and it’s time to ski. Be it on an epic resort day or deep in the backcountry, no skier ever forgets those first few turns in deep snow. The skis sink, then, as you pick up speed, their girth gets them to float up while your legs adjust to the bounce, bounce, bounce of powder skiing that only bears tangential connection to the movements you use ripping groomers at your local hill. It’s heaven.
I wish I could tell you my fears over my fitness were unfounded, but they weren’t. I’m in my mid-40s and am in pretty good gym shape, but by the fifth or sixth run my legs were really feeling the pain. My break from the slopes played a huge role in this, as general fitness doesn’t help those muscles utilized in deep-snow skiing, but there is also the fact that your average run is far longer than you’d do in a resort setting. Unless you spend all day skiing Peak to Creek, even an average heli run will have you sucking air by the time the chopper comes back into sight. Also, time is money—the chopper is waiting for you at the run’s end, and the faster everyone gets down and the faster you load, the more runs you get in a given day—so there’s heavy peer pressure to give ’er. The saving grace for this is that skiing in deep snow is, actually, all things considered, easier than carving on the hardpack of a resort. I’ve often said that I think most good intermediates could handle heli in a group of similarly skilled skiers. And it’s mostly true, but not always—and this began to become clear at the end of our first run, for while we started in the alpine, we were ending in the trees: this awarded us with good visibility in the blowing snow, and all the trees asked in return is that we navigate their very tight confines with fat skis made for floating, not turning at an angle that was north of comfortable. Our group of very advanced skiers had no trouble with this, but by run four or five, my tired legs were squawking at being required to fire off rapid turns at the end of each run, and I parried back at them by hitting a number of trees at speed—one sizable sapling hard between the legs, Jim Carrey-style. At midday we stopped for a brief picnic lunch of sandwiches and soup—a long lunch means one less run—and it was back at it.
By the end of the second day, even the diehards were nearing the no mas point. A shorter trip means you go full tilt for as long as you can to pack in as much vertical as possible, so by 3 p.m. the pilot indicated that we might need to head in. His inflection said, “If you guys need one more run, I’m game,” but we collectively waved the white towel. The previous run was so epic that it wasn’t worth the risk of ending on a lower note.
Was it worth it? For me it was. It may be $650 more than a season’s pass at Whistler, but I’m the type who hates the driving, parking and waiting in line almost as much as I love skiing, so I’ll take a few good days over a slew of mediocre ones. The question is, Is it worth it for you?