Heli-skiing is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of skiing. Anyone who has ever lined up early enough to be first off a chairlift on a deep-powder day has maybe felt something close to it.
But instead of launching by chairlift, the heli-skier is whisked by chopper to an awe-inspiring peak for a long plunge into a snowy paradise. The ultimate skiing experience, it’s like flying on a cloud.
The world offers several far-flung places to heli-ski, from Alaska to New Zealand, but Canada is the prime global destination, and British Columbia, the epicentre. According to Powder Magazine, 95 per cent of all heli-skiing happens on B.C.’s 10 major mountain ranges, where there are more heli-skiing resorts than anywhere else.
One of those resorts – Bella Coola Heli Sports – has just been crowned “World’s Best Heli-Ski Operator” at the World Ski Awards for the fifth consecutive year.
Situated within the mighty Coast Mountains, about an hour’s flight north from Vancouver, Bella Coola has the world’s largest permitted heli-skiing area – roughly the size of the Swiss Alps – and the world’s longest commercial heli-skiing descents. Mountains rise directly from the sea to 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). At the south end is Mount Waddington, B.C.’s highest peak.
“It’s just very wild and remote,” says Beat Steiner, co-owner and chief executive officer of Bella Coola Heli Sports, who opened the area’s first of five luxury lodges in 2003.
Before that, Steiner travelled the world filming and writing about skiing in such locations as Greenland and Iran. The first time he skied Bella Coola, he says he “fell in love immediately.”
“The peaks are so rugged, steep and dramatic. And empty – you won’t see another soul around. It’s still an undiscovered part of the world,” says Steiner.
Amid such vast terrain, guests can expect to ski or snowboard down an average 37,000 vertical metres (120,000 vertical feet) of snow in a week. First descents are not uncommon, and of the tenure’s nearly 1,000 mapped runs, Steiner says his clients have named at least 300 of them: Maserati, Addams Family and Spotted Dick, among others.
Being the first to ski a newly discovered peak is a thrill, says Steiner, who has named more than a few himself. But “almost equally awesome is the helicopter ride” to these uncharted areas, he says.
“You’re flying through the mountains, getting a bird’s-eye view of all this epic terrain. It’s a magical experience.”
Film director Eric Crosland, co-founder of Sherpas Cinema, in Whistler, B.C., has captured that magic in stunning heli-ski films. An ace big-mountain skier, he describes the ideal heli-skiing experience as “the finest delicacy in the world. It’s just so decadent.’
“You weave between dramatic mountains – in the winter, the snow makes them look like they’re decked in full regalia – and then you get to ski them.”
It’s also not without risks. Avalanches are the primary safety concern, says Bob Rankin, long-time heli-skiing guide at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing.
One of the world’s original commercial heli-skiing operations, founded in 1970, the iconic Blue River Resort in B.C. established many industry safety standards, and is home to the Canadian Ski Guide Association.
“It’s why I’m here,” says Rankin, who is also a racer, ski-patroller and stunt-doubler for feature films. “The system of safety that Mike Wiegele developed here is unparalleled.”
Industry legend Wiegele, who passed away last year at the age of 82, was an avalanche expert first, fearless heli-skier second. He received a Governor General’s Award for his mountain safety advocacy, and the avalanche research course he initiated at the University of Calgary is taken by all operators.
In the 1960s, Wiegele’s idea to access big-mountain terrain via helicopter and ski down was considered outlandish, says Rankin. But it didn’t take long for it to catch on, he adds.
Every morning, before skiers emerge from their lodging quarters, Rankin leads a risk-mitigation meeting with pilots and guides. Weather is monitored and snowpack is studied before the right locations are chosen for the day.
Rankin skies all day – “sometimes 15 runs” – guiding groups of up to 10 down all kinds of terrain: steeps, spines, couloirs, glades, huge bowls. At times, the chopper will take a remarkably tiny perch on an alpine peak. “We always land,” he says. “We don’t jump out of the helicopter like everybody thinks.”
Rankin has guided 25-year regulars from countries all over the world; others are experiencing the luxury lodging, five-star food and rush of soaring down endless verticals, waist-deep in powder, for the first time.
Rates at “Wiegele World,” as it’s affectionately called, start at $7,000 per person for a three-day package; week-long stays with a private helicopter can cost more than $200,000.
“[Skiers] are checking off a bucket-list life experience,” says Rankin. “They’re all smiles.”
If you like that, you’ll love this …
Here, a few other places that offer an escape into endless powder with a helicopter at your beck and radio call:
Mica Heli Sports Perched on a mountain flank accessible only by chopper, the sleek, modern chalet is primed for a James Bond adventure. Mica’s 500 miles of terrain, smack in the middle of B.C.’s Rocky, Selkirk and Monashee mountain ranges, offer everything from steep spine lines to glacier cruising atop some 18 metres (60 feet) of annual snowfall.
Northern Escape Heliskiing Small groups fly in Koalas, the fastest helicopter in the industry, the sportscar of the sky. With snowcat back-up, protected tree skiing in the Skeena Mountain location, near Terrance, B.C., is ensured on stormy, no-fly days. Northern Escape is one of the select few carbon-neutral certified heli-skiing operators in the world.
Yukon Heli Alaska, B.C. and Yukon meet in the Northern Coast Mountains, where Yukon Heliskiing’s handful of tiny cabins circle a saloon. Proximity to the coast means massive amounts of snow, providing some of the most stable, safe snowpack on the planet, while cool northern temperatures keep new layers light and powdery. Share the day’s ski thrills around a bonfire under the Northern Lights.
The Chic-Chocs The only place one can ski via a helicopter in eastern North America, Quebec’s Chic-Choc Mountains offer long, above-treeline slopes with 460-metre verticals (1,500 feet). Some seven metres of annual snowfall blanket limit-pushing cliffs and chutes – all virtually unexplored, except by a select group of guides, who run the Chic-Chac Hostel, in Murdochville, Que.