James Morland is an experienced Heliskier and has spent the past 10 years searching for the world‘s best powder. His Heliski adventures have taken him to the far corners of the world including Alaska, British Columbia, India, Greenland, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Western Caucasus and Turkey.
We interviewed him:
1. About Heliskiing
James, I can conjure up what I think Heli Skiing might entail, but what is it in reality?
It's a pretty simple concept really. You take a helicopter up to the top of a mountain where you get dropped off with a guide and a group of friends for what will hopefully be one of the best runs of your life. When you reach the bottom, the helicopter picks you up and you do it all over again - no chairlifts or busy pistes, and certainly no crowds.
Sounds pretty amazing, I'm curious, who came up with the idea of jumping out of a helicopter to go skiing... was it actually a disgruntled skier who'd been stuck on too many chair lifts?
Yeah, that wouldn't be surprising! In fact, commercial Heli Skiing originated in the Bugaboo Mountains of Western Canada in the mid sixties, thanks to an Austrian Mounatin Guide called Hans Moser. It's likely that helicopters were used to access remote skiing in Alaska and Wyoming as early as the late 50's, but not on a commercial basis.
Heliskiing's been going for some time then. Is it the case that anyone anywhere with a helicopter can off and Heli Ski, or is it heavily regulated?
It depends on where you are. Most places that're easily accessible and have good ski terrain are (or become) highly-regulated. As a general rule, the more inaccessible and logistically challenging a region, the less regulated it is. With a massive population base and relatively small area, Europe is highly regulated - to the point where Heli Skiing is completely banned in France.
At the other extreme, somewhere like Valdez, Alaska in the early 90's was almost totally unregulated and yes anyone could hire a helicopter, be picked up on the side of the road and ski whatever unnamed peaks they wanted. With people like Doug Coombs leading the way, this was an age of genuine modern day pioneering.
2. What It Costs
All well and good James, but I can't imagine Heli Skiing is ever described as 'cheap thrills'?
Involving a helicopter in just about anything tends to raise the price pretty quickly, but you get what you pay for and if you compare the price of an average week's Heli Skiing to what it costs to go to a good resort and stay in a nice hotel, there's a lot less in it than most people would expect. If you take into account what you're actually getting for your money, there's really no comparison at all.
Can you Heli Ski on a shoe-string?
It's all relative really…if you're comparing it to a bargain week in Isola 2000, then not really. However, it can be much more affordable than people think. Often the key to this is deciding the right time and place to go. Often the prices will be significantly lower either early or late season and in some places the snow is still exceptional at these times.
Let's break it down, what's the cheapest and most expensive Heliskiing trip Elemental Adventure offers, just to give some idea of scale?
Disregarding the value for money, the least expensive Heliskiing trips we offer are probably to Russia. You can Heli Ski in Krasnaya Polyana for around £2,500 a week for example.
Our most expensive Heliskiing trip (and probably the best value for money) is the Platinum Package at TLH Heliskiing in British Columbia. For one of these you are looking at about £10,000 per person. For that you get a private luxury chalet with a helicopter parked outside, unlimited skiing or riding, your own private chef and massage therapist, 10,000 acres of personal playground and the kind of service you would expect from one of the world's best 5-star hotels.
I know you make a distinction between what you call 'destination' Heli Skiing and 'non-destination' Heli Skiing, what on earth are you talking about?
Maybe this is my own definition, but what I mean is that some Heliski operations focus on attracting people who are already going to ski at a resort and want to try Heli Skiing for a few runs or just a day. Typically these are based in or very near to ski resorts like Whistler or Snowbird in Utah. Generally speaking, these type of operations act a little like conveyor belts shipping relatively large volumes of skiers and riders up the mountain. It's very good for what it is but it's a totally different experience to 'destination Heli Skiing'.
By 'destination Heli Skiing' I mean places you would go exclusively to Heli Ski. You are there for a week with a maximum of maybe just 30 or 40 other people and you Heli Ski all day everyday. Both are good for what they are but there is a huge difference between the two. Think of the daily trips as a taster for the real thing.
I think I'm right in presuming Elemental Adventure only run 'destination' Heliskiing trips, so what do the prices generally include and not include?
That's right, generally speaking a week long Heliskiing trip will include getting you to and from your arrival airport, 6 or 7 days Heli Skiing including 30-40 runs, 7 nights full board accommodation, and use of fat skis and all safety equipment. You would pay extra for drinks at the lodge and possibly for 'extra' skiing if you have the chance to do over and above what's included. Most packages do include a certain amount of skiing - usually measured in vertical metres or feet, which is to say cumulitive verticle that you ski, not what the helicopter flys. Once you breach this amount you pay extra (usually about £50 per run). Similarly, if you don't reach this threshold you're refunded at the same rate.
3. Why Heli Ski
When did you first feel the need to go Heli Skiing?
I guess my first real draw to Heli Skiing came after watching some of the early ski films shot up in Valdez. Just awesome stuff, and truly inspiring.
...and in general, why do people want to step up to Heli Skiing?
Simply, it's just much, much better than resort skiing. Nothing else to it really.
4. Choosing where to go
Crunch question then James, where is the best place on earth to Heli Ski?
It depends on what you are looking for really. What's good for you or your buddy next door might not be good for me or someone else. Just like we all look for different things when we go skiing at a resort, some Heliski areas are better suited to some people than others. For me personally there is a great appeal to Heli Skiing in areas that are culturally diverse and interesting - mixing great skiing with interesting travel.
I see, so it varies quite a bit depending on what you're aiming at- same with most things I suppose. Can you tell me instead where you've had your best Heliskiing experiences?
One place that stands out for me is Kamchatka in the far East of Russia…not really because I skied the best snow or had the best conditions but more because exploring there was a bit like exploring a different planet… we skied into the smoking craters of active volcanoes, down to the beach and finished most days soaking in hot springs sipping cheap Russian champagne - all very surreal!
That certainly challenges the conventianal ski resort! Where else is it possible to Heli Ski?
In theory it's possible to Heli Ski anywhere with snow, mountains and access to helicopters. Some of the greatest potential for Heli Skiing lies in places like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In fact, there's already some Heli Skiing in all these places, but for Elemental Adventure from a safety and organisational stand-point they don't quite make the grade yet.
5. Choosing an operator
In terms of operators, are there just a few global operations, or is it country specific? How does that side of it work?
A good 70-80% of Heli Skiing takes place in Western Canada and the three biggest players there are Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), TLH Heliskiing and Mike Wiegle. But aside from these three, there are many other independant operators around the globe.
... and is the pricing down to operator, country... whether you choose to ride in a platinum plated helicopter...?
Generally speaking you pay the highest prices either for the top-end packages, which include lots of extra services like helicopter transfers, massages and a private chef, or you also pay top dollar in remote, logistically challenging areas where Heliskiing operations are not established - like Greenland or Argentina.
6. Skiing ability needed to Heli Ski
Another big question is based around 'ability' (Morland starts to smile broadly as if this is something he's asked every day). Now in all the films you see in ski shops and places like that, the skiers in question tend to display fearlessness on a psychotic scale, and a serial need to ski off vertical inclines- seemingly competing on who can start the biggest avalanche. Is this the case on all Heliski trips?
I guess those ski movies don't really do us any favours. If you want to throw yourself off a cliff and ski or ride the Alaskan-style flutes then yes it's possible but the fact is most people don't want to do that and if the Heliski industry relied on this type of clientele, there wouldn't really be one. In reality, Heli Skiing is available to what most would find to be a surprisingly wide audience. The one thing that made the biggest difference was the arrival of fat skis. This meant that people who previously struggled in the powder, face-planting their way down the mountain, could now tackle it relatively effortlessly and enjoy the kind of skiing that in the past was restricted to the much more experienced.
If you're in good shape and can ski down a red run confidently -regardless of style- in all conditions without wanting to burn your skis at the bottom, then somewhere out there is a Heliskiing experience for you.
So you don't have to be a pro skier with a death-wish, but I'm guessing fitness plays a pretty key role in making the most of a Heliskiing trip?
Sure, it's a simple equation: the fitter you are the more you'll take away from the experience.
No wheezing couch potatoes, but equally you don't need to be a Kenyan marathon runner?
Yeah that sounds about right… I think one of the things that makes the biggest difference is to try and get in a few days skiing at a resort before you Heli Ski - either immediately before or at least during the same season. You can bike around the place till you're blue in the face but there is no substitute for time on the snow.
8. Helicopters used for Heli Skiing
Let's talk machinery and rotor blades: What sort of helicopters are used, and is there a standard Heliskiing helicopter?
There's now quite a range of helicopters used for Heli Skiing. The industry standard for some time has been the Bell 212 - used widely in Canada. They take 10 or 11 skiers plus guide and pilot. The Bell 407 and European A-Star B2 and B3 are also popular and offer a very different kind of experience because they take smaller groups of 4 or 5 skiers. The beast of the Heliski world is unquestionably the Russian MI8 MTV. Outside the Heliski industry I would hazard a guess that these are the most widely used helicopters in the world. Russian helicopters may not have the best of reputations, but well-maintained and well flown these are some of the safest machines out there.
9. Bad weather and down-days
On the very limited knowledge I have of helicopters, I gather they need pretty good weather to fly, which I dare say is not always the case...?
The pilot needs to be able to see where the ground is in order to land safely, and the critical factor here is the elevation of the cloud. Low-lying fog tends to ground helicopters pretty quickly. It therefore makes sense, if your priority is to ski as much as possible, to choose a location that has enough consistent good weather to ensure you can fly regularly.
So what happens on days when Heli Skiing is not possible? Do all the operators have a good selection of equally engaging activities on offer, and what's the refund policy?
Almost all operations offer some kind of refund if the weather prevents you from skiing or riding a certain amount, and as a general rule this becomes less generous the worse the 'normal' weather is in a given region! Aside from that, several operators are near ski resorts, and some offer activities like cross country skiing and snow shoeing. Of course there are also the lodge or town facilities, like the gym, games rooms, massage etc., but these do vary tremendously depending on where you go. Consumption of fine alcohol seems to be the consistent alternative!
10. Just one more question
Finally James, what would you say to someone who claims to have skied it all, but hasn't been Heli Skiing?
Based in The UK, Chamonix, and as often as possible in a Heliski destination, James Morland is the founder of Elemental Adventure , one of the world's leading specialist Heliskiing tour operators and travel agent. For more information visit Elemental Adventure .