Heliskiing – Europe
Partly because of environmental concerns, heliskiing in Europe is unlike Canada where it’s regarded as the holy grail of powder skiing. Heliskiing Swiss sections of the classic haute route between Zermatt and Chamonix, for example is resented by ski tourers because heliskiers are often the first to exploit the best snow. But the European product is still hugely exciting.
Most European heliskiing terrain is in Italy and Switzerland, and usually it’s accessed from a conventional ski resort. Although heliskiing per se is banned in France and in Austria too, apart from single descents offered by the Wucher operation in the Arlberg, there are ways round the ban. Because there’s heliskiing across the boarder in Italy, when you’ve finished skiing for the day there you’re allowed in some places (Val d’Isère for example) to be helicoptered back across the border and land high on the French side.
European heliskiing is very different from North America. It’s rare to spend consecutive days heliskiing in the Alps and almost unheard of to be based in an Alpine version of a Canadian heliski lodge. It is possible at the Pook Heli Lodges 20 minutes from Bourg St Maurice in France, although even if guests stay for consecutive days there they’re more likely to ski conventional neighbouring resorts and try heliskiing just for one day. Here’s Ultimate-Ski.com’s pick of six of the best heliskiing operations in Europe:
Best Heliskiing Operations in Europe
Italy – Gressoney, Monterosa
Gressoney, Italy, in the heart of the Monterosa Ski Area (which includes Champoluc and Alagna) is the base for one of Europe’s largest heliskiing regions, on the Monte Rosa chain. Using an Ecureuil AS350B3 helicopter, four skiers and a guide can enjoy huge vertical drops on Monte Rosa’s Colle del Lys or even longer runs from the Margherita refuge for the more adventurous. From here you can venture almost 3000 vertical metres, with many choices of terrain, back down to the Italian side or press on past two glaciers to Zermatt’s higher terrain in the Swiss side before returning via Cervinia. On “down days” skiers can switch to the Monte Rosa ski area’s three ski resorts.
Switzerland – Verbier
Although heliskiing in Switzerland is under threat from environmentalists, Verbier is a major heliskiing destination in the Alps. Excellent long runs can be skied from official landing zones on the Petit Combin, Rosablanche, the Trient Glacier and Pigne d’Arolla. This is one of the main differences between heliskiing in Canada and many of the runs in the Alps: you get many more runs in British Columbia but they are shorter. In Switzerland you’ll normally get two or three much longer runs in a day’s skiing. Les Guides de Verbier even suggest combining a day’s heliskiing with a day’s ski touring to get maximum off-piste vertical.
France – Pook Heli Lodges, La Rosière
Attempting to copy the Canadian model of heliskiing from a lodge is at the heart of a recently established operator, Val Heli-Ski. As well as using a helicopter to transfer clients from Geneva airport, the company offers heli-skiing adventures from the heli-pad located in front of their luxurious Pook Heli Lodges in the hamlet of Le Laix 10 minutes from La Rosière. This enables them to fly four clients with a guide in AS350 B3 Squirrel and AS355 Eurocopters to 32 drop zones in three Italian heliski destinations: Valgrisenche, Courmayeur and the Col de Petit St Bernard Pass. The lodges are also well placed for driving to other nearby resorts including Les Arcs and Val d’Isère.
Iceland – Troll Peninusla
The Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland is a vast, unexplored area with thousands of slopes waiting for first descents. Covering more than 4,000 square kilometres of Arctic mountains, there’s terrain to suit almost every skier’s ability, be it steep couloirs or wide open glaciers, normally with anything from 12 – 15 runs a day. The A-Star B2 Helicopter takes from one to three groups of four clients (plus guide). The mountains offer big descents of up to 1,500 metres (almost 5,000 feet) ending directly on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The lodge is an ancient sheep farm that’s been continually inhabited since Viking times, with added modern accommodation.
Riksgränsen, Swedish Lapland
Almost 190 miles north of the Arctic Circle near the small railway town of Riksgränsen, this heliski area of 60, 000 square kms is arguably Europe’s largest wilderness ski area. There are more than 100 peaks, and a daily choice of either three runs in the immediate Riksgränsen region with 700-1000 vertical metres, or six runs in the more remote areas of Kåtotjocka/Mårma and Kebnekaise, where there’s as much as 1500 vertical metres for more experienced skiers. Lapland Resorts/Mountain Guide Travel offer three, four or seven day packages from early March till late May, and there’s the possibility of heliskiing one “midnight sun” run between May 15 and May 31.
Morocco – Marrakech
The new Heliski Marrakech programme, run by the French ski company Evolution 2, is the only heliski base in Africa. A three-day trip to the Atlas Mountains includes two days of heliskiing on the Tacheddirt summits in the Ourika Valley.After lunch on arrival day the safety briefing is held in the evening. This saves time the following day, when skiing starts early, with the objective of three runs in the morning and three in the afternoon. Many of the runs start from more than 13,000 feet, with stunning views across the Sahara. On day two, there are four more runs – two before lunch and two in the afternoon.
Text by Arnie Wilson
Arnie Wilson has heliskied a million vertical feet in 27 locations in 11 countries.