Heliskiing – Canada & USA
Heliskiing is the ultimate experience for any skier or boarder searching for turns in fresh powder, and Canada & USA have a near monopoly of the finest heliski destinations on the planet. It all started in 1965 when an Austrian mountain guide, Hans Gmoser, started Canadian Mountain Holidays.
The crème de la crème experience of the exclusive, hedonistic and high-octane world of heliskiing can only really be found in a full-on week in a lodge or hotel in British Columbia, Canada (where the whole idea of heliskiing started) or Alaska, USA (mainly in the Chugach Mountains but also in Haines).
With its extra-steep “fluted” couloirs, the traditional image of Alaska’s heliskiing terrain is more extreme than that of British Columbia, where the slopes – which tend to attract less “gung-ho” skiers and boarders from the corporate world – are generally not so severe. But in practice no-one heliskiing in Alaska needs to scare themselves by attempting terrain that sometimes verges on “no-fall” zones. If you want to avoid terrain that’s too challenging for you, it makes sense to ensure that you are not skiing with a group in the “do-or-die” category.
All Canadian operators are in British Columbia. Many run “private” days so that you don’t need to share the helicopter with other groups. These are more expensive, but give you more skiing each day. The midday meal is usually an agreeable packed lunch on the mountain. Traditionally most helicopters were Bell 210s or 212s with seating for 10 or 11 plus a guide, but these days many operations use smaller helicopters with seating for four or five plus a guide. In Canada, where the heliski lodge experience is the norm, considerable emphasis is placed on the excellence of the evening meal since apart from skiing there’s very little else to do except enjoy succulent dinners prepared by expert chefs!
One-day heliskiing is the normal arrangement in the USA and in some Canadian heli operations, but try to distinguish between locations where you can try heliskiing for the day, like RK Heliskiing, an excellent operation at Panorama, BC, and operations where it may be expected that you already have some heliskiing experience. For example, the equally excellent High Mountain Heliskiing near Jackson Hole offers one-day heliskiing mainly across the Wyoming border in Idaho, but is not suitable for first time heliskiers.
Here’s Ultimate-Ski.com’s pick of the best heli-skiing operations in Canada and USA. The list is dominated by British Columbia and Alaska, but also includes a couple of excellent operations elsewhere in the USA to give a full North American perspective.
Best Heliskiing in Canada
Mike Wiegele Heliskiing, Blue River, British Columbia
In his mid-70s, Mike Wiegele, a former Austrian ski racer still running the show after 44 years, gets the No 1 slot simply by arguably being the biggest single heliski operator on the planet. Unlike his big rivals CMH, which operates in 11 different lodges, Wiegele has put all his eggs in one basket. ‘Wiegele’s World’ claims to cover 3,000 square miles and more than 1,000 peaks with a fleet of 10 helicopters in the heart of the Monashee and Cariboo mountains from his base in Blue River, a remote BC township between Kamloops and Jasper. Web: www.wiegele.com
Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) Cariboo Lodge, British Columbia
CMH runs 11 lodges in British Columbia with more than three million acres of skiing between them. Clients need to spend at least three, four or five days – and more often a whole week – with no opportunity to try the product just for a day.(A major part of the first day is devoted to practising essential safety procedures.) The Cariboo Lodge, built in 1974, is the only remote mountain lodge in the Cariboo Range. Located a little further north than many heliski ranges, it receives unusually good snow. The terrain at the Cariboo Lodge includes 382 named runs, ranging from high, north-facing glaciers to excellent tree skiing – very useful during days of poor visibility. Web: www.canadianmountainholidays.com / Web: www.purepowder.com (UK agent)
Selkirk Tangiers, Revelstoke, British Columbia
Revelstoke is one of the great ski centres of North America – it’s possible to heliski, cat ski and of course to ski or board in-resort too – rather like Alyeska. Whichever you chose – you can certainly “just” heliski for a day and it’s highly recommended – you’re certain to have a fulfilling day. The heliskiing, bordering Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, takes place on more than 200 runs in the Selkirk and Monashee Mountains – including half a million acres of tree skiing. The runs are anything from 1640 to 7220 vertical feet. CMH also has a heliski lodge in Revelstoke. Web: www.selkirk-tangiers.com / Web: www.heliski.co.uk (UK agent)
Last Frontier Heliskiing, South Chilcotin Mountains, British Columbia
As its name suggests, Last Frontier Heliskiing – which opened for business in 1996 – is satisfyingly remote and wild. Most skiers access it by air. The action takes place an hour or so north of Pemberton in Northern BC, in two lodges – Bell 2 (220 miles north west of Smithers ski area – a good place to spend a day or so skiing en route) and the Ripley Creek Inn (200 miles north-west of Terrace). The operator rather grandly describes it as “the largest single heliski area on the planet” – 2.2 million acres, with 4, 5 or 7-day packages to choose from. Web: www.lastfrontierheli.com / Web: www.eaheliskiing.com (UK agent)
Crescent Spur, Cariboos / Northern Rockies, British Columbia
Crescent Spur Heliskiing (the local hamlet of the same name has a population of around 24!) is not far from McBride and just under two hours by road east of Prince George. It belongs in the “hidden gems” section of any heliskiing list. Apart from some genuinely thrilling terrain (a 1500 square mile operating area with skiing up to 9,000 feet) and truly friendly hosts, this family-run operation goes out of its way to keep clients busy when they’re not skiing (or eating “legendary meals – heliskiers won’t lose any weight at Crescent Spur”!) There’s a sauna, hot tub, library and massage therapy. Web: www.crescentspurheliskiing.com
RK Heliski, Panorama, British Columbia
This isn’t a place to spend a week in a heli-ski lodge but it IS an excellent operation for one-day heliskiing in the Purcell Mountains. Based a 20-minute drive west of Invermere, at the Panorama ski area, RK (named after its 1970 founder, the late Roger Keith Madson) has wide, open alpine slopes, scenic glaciers and gladed forests. With only one fatality in 45 years of operations, RK has one of the most professional pre-skiing safety talks in the business. Needless to say, RK attracts many visitors already in resort to ski Panorama, but there are excursions too from Calgary, Banff and Cranbrook. Web: www.rkheliski.com
Best Heliskiing in USA
Chugach Powder Guides, Girdwood, Alaska
There are at least nine heliskiing operations in Alaska with little to choose between the best. The advantage of this one is that it’s based at Alaska’s No1 ski resort, Alyeska, so that of the weather doesn’t co-operate (which is more likely to happen in Alaska than BC) you’re not “grounded” for the day. At Alyeska there’s also a cat-skiing alternative (which is a rather more laid-back, slower and cheaper version of heliskiing, with shorter vertical drops and no worries about flying) and you can also ski conventionally at Alyeska, which itself has plenty of good skiing, both groomed and ungroomed.
Valdez Heliskiing, Valdez, Alaska
Operating in 2,500 square miles of the eastern Chugach Mountains, Valdez Heliskiing is one of the original heliskiing locations in Alaska pioneered in 1993 by the late Doug Coombs, an iconic skier who was twice world extreme ski champion and named many of the runs still skied today. It operates two helicopters and hosts up to 24 clients a week. Runs average between 3,000 and 5,000 vertical feet with the longest run at 6,200 feet. As in Alyeska, snowcat skiing is available as an alternative on “no-fly” days. Web: www.valdezheliskiguides.com
High Mountain Heliskiing, Jackson Hole, Wyoming (mainly Idaho)
After a long battle with environmental groups in Wyoming, most of High Mountain Heliskiing’s terrain is on the Idaho side of the state border, where they are expanding to compensate. On a day-for-day basis, the company, which has been operating in the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests for 40 years, compares favourably with Canada’s one-day operations and is arguably one of the very best USA heliski operations outside Alaska – especially as it can be easily teamed with superb skiing on the edge of the majestic Tetons in Jackson Hole/Teton Village. Helicopter-assisted ski touring has also become popular here. Web: www.heliskijackson.com
Sun Valley Heli Ski pioneered American helicopter skiing, and has now been going for nearly five decades (since 1966). An extensive territory covering three mountain ranges in Sawtooth National Forest provides access to terrain for all abilities. “If you are new to heli-skiing” says the operation, “this is the place to start”. With more than 750,000 acres of terrain to explore on three mountain ranges (Smoky’s, Boulders and Pioneers) the groups are small, with a guest-to-guide ratio of 4:1 in an A-star helicopter. Average runs per day: six. Web: www.sunvalleyheliski.com
Author: Arnie Wilson
Arnie Wilson has heliskied over one million vertical feet in 40 heli-ski operations in 14 countries.