You swoop down the hill. The wind is in your hair, and the sun is shining
overhead. This is what skiing is all about.
You bounce over the last set of moguls, and then you see it: a long line
of skiers waiting to get on the chairlift. If you want to get back up the
mountain, you'll have to wait with them. This isn't what skiing is all about.
You dream of a day carving S-turns down the perfect slope and being whisked
quickly up to the peak once you finish the run. This doesn't have to remain
Heli-skiers glide down untouched mountain slopes, often in remote areas.
A helicopter waits at the bottom of the run to pick up the skiers and carry
them back to the peak.
Heli-skiing is usually done on two types of slopes. The first type of slope
is a glacier, which is a treeless, wide open space. The second type of slope
has widely or sometimes tightly spaced trees.
"People are usually more afraid of tree skiing because there are obstacles
for them to run into," says Cathy Orchain.
Heli-skiing isn't something you do on the spur of the moment. Skiers must
book through a company that has qualified guides and a license to operate
a helicopter. A heli-ski trip is usually a three to seven day adventure, which
includes daily skiing, food and lodging in a remote mountain area.
Heli-skiing has traditionally been thought of as a dangerous sport. "People
are intimidated by the long-standing idea that heli-skiing is an extreme sport,"
says Orchain. She says heli-skiing is no more dangerous than a lot of other
adventure sports people do.
While only one in eight heli-skiers used a snowboard a few years ago, in
2000 the proportion seems to be growing. "There are definitely more snowboarders
involved in the sport," says Tom Biddulph, a heli-skier in California.
"This year, we went to Revelstoke, British Columbia, for a week, and about
10 of the 40 people were boarders. Most of the guides have tried boarding,
and some of them -- at least the ones I've talked with -- prefer it to normal
Biddulph believes the sport will become even more popular in the coming
years. "With the baby-boomers entering the prime market -- money, kids gone
and time on their hands -- I think the sport will continue to grow," he says.
Like some other extreme sports, heli-skiing is still mostly done by men.
"But this is changing as more and more women are trying it for the first time,"
It's difficult to estimate how many people heli-ski across North America,
says Orchain. Her company, which hires 11 heli-ski chopper operators, carries
5,500 people up the mountain in one season.
The same boots and clothing that you use at the ski resort are used for
heli-skiing. However, on a heli-ski outing, you should fill your pack with
extra warm clothing, good eyewear, sunscreen and a camera.
Most heli-skiers recommend using a wider ski when on these remote slopes.
"You should have 'fat skis,' which most operators rent to you for $30 a day,"
New or used ski outfits and boots should only cost you a couple hundred
dollars, but that's only the beginning of heli-skiing expenses.
Being transported by helicopter to a remote ski slope is prohibitively
expensive for many people. A one-week holiday on the slopes, including food
and lodging, will cost around $3,500.
Heli-skiing isn't for people who are most comfortable on the bunny hill.
"We recommend people are experienced, strong skiers -- or at least intermediate
skiers," says Orchain.
Even the most experienced skier won't enjoy a heli-ski trip unless he or
she is in good physical condition. "The level of fitness is most important,"
says Orchain. "The more endurance a person has, the more they will get out
of a heli-skiing trip."
Guides are trained to assess the mountain terrain and look after the safety
of the group. However, sudden weather changes and avalanches are dangers to
"Avalanches can kill heli-skiers," says Greenstein. "They go off on 30-
to 45-degree pitches, precisely the area of steepness most heli-skiers crave."
In order to minimize the risk of such accidents, skiers are trained in
safety procedures before they go up the mountain. They are also instructed
to follow the guide's path down the hill. "Pay close attention to your guide,
and be alert yourself," advises Greenstein.
Just as in regular downhill skiing, injuries such as twisted knees and
broken legs can occur. However, the risk of skiing injuries isn't greater
with heli-skiing. "There's no difference between regular skiing and heli-skiing,"
Heli-skiers who can't get enough of the sport can find a career in this
recreation. However, most jobs require extensive training. A heli-ski guide
must pass mountain guide courses. "The training is extensive, and takes almost
as long as it would take to get a university degree," says Orchain.
A helicopter pilot for the heli-ski operations also must have extensive
pilot training and hold proper certification. Extensive knowledge of ski areas
is also required for both jobs.
Opportunities are also available for people who want to organize and book
heli-ski trips. If you want to get close to the mountains, perhaps for a part-time
or seasonal job, consider housekeeping at the heli-ski lodges.
Mike Wiegele's Helicopter Skiing
Check out one person's heli-ski adventures on slopes around the
Canada's extraordinary heli-skiing experience
Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing
A tour operator in northeastern Nevada