Heli skiing is for really anyone who can ski. If you can ski blue runs out west comfortably you can probably heli ski. What is it really like? Here is my experience going heli skiing for the first time.
You really can do it if you can ski blue runs out west. You’re sitting around watching a Warren Miller film or something from Matchstick Productions and looking at all the awesome scenery and steep wide-open empty slopes and wishing you could experience it.
Next thing you know they are jumping out of the helicopter and proceed to jump off every cliff and ridge they can find on the way down the mountain. It usually looks like every run has no way down except for jumping a lot of cliffs. The reality of the experience is very different for most skiers.
- Anyone can do it
- Where to go for your first time heli skiing
- I want to go heli skiing
- The day finally arrives. I’m finally going heli skiing for the first time.
- The safety briefing
- Riding in the helicopter
- What is the snow like.
- Break time
- How challenging are the runs
- The greatest mountain views of all time
- The wrap-up
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Anyone can do it
It seems like you have to be a really expert extreme skier to even think of getting on the helicopter. Nothing could be further from the truth. heli skiing is for intermediate skiers too.
Where to go for your first time heli skiing
Look for a heli skiing provider that caters to first time heli skiers and less advanced skiers. Typically these operate close to large ski resorts and offer single day heli skiing experiences. Below is a list of heli skiing operations that offer trips for first time heli skiers and intermediate level skiers.
I want to go heli skiing
Like everyone else I’ve wanted to heli-ski almost since I learned to ski (6 years old) and saw a movie with a bunch of guys climbing out of a helicopter on the top of a mountain somewhere really exotic. The chair lifts your parents have been taking you up just don’t seem as cool after that.
Flash forward 30 or so years. I am an advanced skier at this point but one who is terrified of most jumps and I’m a hack at best on bumps. My skill set does not include jumping cliffs now or likely any time in the future. I was planning my end of season trip to Whistler again and was looking for something to do after TheCamp ended on my last ski day.
Whistler heli skiing
While browsing I came across the page for Whistler heli skiing advertising intermediate groups. I had some extra bonus money burning a hole in my pocket so I signed up for that date feeling like if I don’t do it now I’ll never do it. After reading up on the group types, I chose the lowest level group available having no real idea of what to expect. I also signed up for rental skis since my 95mm all-mountain skis, that work fine for resort skiing, were less width then what they recommended.
The day finally arrives. I’m finally going heli skiing for the first time.
On the morning of my day, I showed up at the office for Whistler heli skiing which is in the village close to the gondolas. They gathered us outside and the guides for the day came out and very courteously introduced themselves and separated us into the groups we’d be skiing with that day. They do mixed groups of skiers and snowboarders. We then got on a bus and headed out to their staging office where they have their rental gears and do the safety briefings.
The safety briefing
We got off the bus and went inside. People were given their rental skis and boards. Then they sat us down and started discussing avalanche safety and the avalanche beacons. Everyone gets a backpack that has a probe, a shovel and everyone wears an avalanche beacon.
What you can take with you
No one can wear anything metal that might interfere with the beacon. No cameras are allowed other than your cell phone which must be in airplane mode or a GoPro on your helmet. The cellphone needs to go in a leg pocket well away from the beacon. You’ll see some awesome scenery from the helicopter but you can’t bring your DSLR or mirrorless along to capture it.
Once everything has been handed out we went outside and practiced how to use the beacons and how to go about digging someone out. They somewhat terrify you with the avalanche discussion of what might happen. They really make you feel comfortable that you’re very well equipped and ready to help each other if something actually did happen.
Time to meet the helicopter
After the avalanche instruction, we get some instruction on the helicopter and what will happen. No one will be jumping out of the helicopter that day. You won’t be skiing up to it or walking up to a helicopter with spinning rotors as you see in war movies.
You don’t get to board the helicopter like a war movie
The actual process is you huddle on the ground after getting off the helicopter right next to it and it takes off away from you. For the pickup, you ski to the landing zone, take off your skis and then huddle in a group on the ground. The helicopter comes in and lands on top of you so you just climb right in from there.
Riding in the helicopter
The way most heli skiing operations function is that multiple groups ride the same helicopter. The advanced groups do more runs so they take off first from the staging office. The intermediate group gets back on the bus and drives off to a baseball field that is at the base of the mountain we’ll be skiing on to start that day. We sit around a bit and finally the helicopter drops in and picks us up. Up we go.
Super smooth ride
The helicopter seems like a noisy shaky beast when you look at it. Nothing can be further from the truth inside. The ride is extremely smooth. We didn’t feel any bumpiness or turbulence at all. It felt very similar to a gondola ride except your not on a cable and farther off the ground (but not by a lot)
What is the snow like.
Unless you’re lucky it is probably not going to be the never-ending powder heaven it is in Warren Miller films. heli skiing operations book up months in advance during peak season so you’re not likely to be able to call and signup the night before a big snowstorm.
The finest bluebird day slush
On our day it was on the warm side and we got a very big dose of spring slush. It was bright and sunny and the views were great. There were no tracks in the snow we were skiing in but it was all crusty spring sludge snow. Be sure to get the big fat rentals offered. They turn in this pretty easily. Your narrow to mid-fat skis will dig in and be awful. I will admit I’ve had much better powder days at both Nubs Nob and Caberfae Peaks than the snow quality that day.
There is no bottom
Another very interesting thing occurs. This was maybe my most unexpected surprise and annoyance as a first time heli skier. At resorts, the snow is skied over and over and packed down even in the trees and other ungroomed areas.
Out here in the backcountry that the helicopter took you too, no one is skiing anything regularly. The snow underneath is not packed down. I dug an edge into the slush and fell at one point. Getting up was fairly challenging. I tried to push into the snow to get up. My hand went down until my arm was in the snow without really hitting anything firm. Some packing of the snow is needed to make something to push off of.
After our second of 3 runs, we skied to the bottom and found the helicopter sitting on a snow ledge mid-mountain. Both the advanced and intermediate groups stopped here. Lunch for the day was sandwiches and soup. The photographer that has been following your group in secret that day will take a bunch of group individual pictures with the helicopter in a nice scenic area.
After eating and the break ends, the advanced group takes off skiing farther down the mountain and we get back on the helicopter. The helicopter was sitting at a decent angle and I’m sure a bit nerving for all of us.
Anyone have a set of jumper cables?
The gremlins at this point decided to act up and the helicopter refused to start. We sat there as the pilot climbed on top and banged around a bit. He got back into his seat, nope. He got out and banged around 2 more times. On the third try it fired up and we were off. He took a bit of a dive off the ledge and this was the only time the ride got a bit roller coaster like.
How challenging are the runs
On my day of heli skiing, we did 3 runs. All 3 were very comparable to any blue run at Whistler. They were all wide open and not particularly steep. If they hauled a snowcat up there and groomed these they could be at any resort out west. There were no cliffs or anything in sight to jump off of even if you had wanted too. There are much steeper and challenging runs at any out west resort.
The greatest mountain views of all time
Our skiing day was a wonderful not a cloud in sight sunny day. The views while flying over the mountains were spectacular. It’s a totally different feel being up there when there are no people or signs of people anywhere. No lodges, lift structures or otherwise.
We ended the day back at a different baseball field. They had to leave the helicopter running for the rest of the day because it was having difficulty starting. They had to land in the baseball field and wait for a fuel truck before it could go back up to get the advanced group. We took the bus back to the staging office to pick up the belongings that couldn’t go with us skiing and then to a bar for a few beers.
Was the whole experience worth it? Absolutely. It was the 3 most expensive ski runs I’ve ever done. I’ve had some discussions with people over the years on the lifts at Whistler and in TheCamp groups. Everyone says go heli skiing once.
Hear thoughts on this article and heli-skiing from the skibumpodcast.com episode #216. Commentary starts at 42:05 into the podcast but you should listen to the whole thing. They are a great bunch of guys.
Everyone who has gone heli skiing and cat skiing say that cat-skiing is a lot better experience in terms of getting just as many runs in and it is a much more relaxed pace. You can talk to your buddies in the cat on the way back up. The engine noise in the helicopter is too loud to talk over. The pilot is on a schedule to make sure all the groups he is flying get their runs in.
Now that I’ve done it once I probably not go heli skiing again unless I’m with a friend who is going heli skiing for the first time. I definitely will go cat-skiing.
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About the author
My name is Doug Ryan. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water. I actively run an adventure sports meetup where I get asked many questions. I decided to start Gear Craver as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports their gear.