5 Things People Don’t Often Tell You About Heli Skiing

July 03, 2015 Katie Marti

Heli skiing is pretty tough to beat: it’s the ultimate backcountry ski experience and we consider ourselves very fortunate to be living the bucket list year after year. But, despite the obvious pros and upshots – like skiing untouched powder in some of the world’s most beautiful and remote terrain – there are a few things people don’t often tell you about heli skiing. We count five.

It's Tough To Imagine Anything But Pros And Upshots... | Photo: Steve Rosset
It’s tough to imagine anything but pros and upshots… | Photo: Steve Rosset

1. Sometimes there are down days
It happens. The same storms that deliver the goods in the form of knee-deep fresh powder can be problematic for helicopters and their pilots. Unlike with airplanes, these guys need visibility in order to fly, so when the big weather systems move in, sometimes we have to stay put. The good news is this: they are relatively few and far between, and they tend to be followed by the most epic of days.

It Happens. Photo: Jun Yanagisawa
It happens. Photo: Jun Yanagisawa

2. It’s not all sweeping alpine bowls
Depending on a number of factors, the vast majority of a heli ski day could very well be spent below the tree line. Of course, the quintessential image most people conjure when they imagine heli skiing is of panoramic vistas and long runs from mountaintop to valley bottom; this simply isn’t always the case. Fortunately for us, our massive tenure gives us enormous flexibility in terms of terrain, enabling us to find incredible skiing in a wide variety of conditions. If you’ve really got your heart set on the picture-postcard high alpine, the best time to book a trip is March or even April, when the winter storms start to taper off.

Not So Bad... | Photo: Caton Garvie
Not so bad… | Photo: Caton Garvie

3. It’s sweaty and a little bit exhausting
There’s a common misconception, particularly among people with limited experience skiing in powder, that heli skiing will be easier than a day at the resort. While we’re certainly partial to it, there is a certain level of physical fitness that will allow for greater enjoyment and fewer aches and pains at the end of the day. For starters, there are no groomer laps when your quads and thighs are screaming for you to take a break. You’ve got to keep up with the group, which, in most cases, is composed of relatively fit and experienced skiiers/snowboarders. What’s more, the breaks you do have in the helicopter are much shorter and quicker than the average lift or gondola. The upside, of course, is that there is the potential to cover much more terrain and ski nothing but powder for an entire week, if you’re able. In order to ensure that you’re well prepared to maximize the positive outcome of a heli ski vacation, it’s best to establish a fitness regimen like the one below that combines cardio with strength training a few months in advance. (Why not now?)

4. You must be one with nature…
This comes as a surprise to some people, but there are no toilets out/up there. There are plenty of trees, but no indoor plumbing or rustic facilities in which to relieve oneself. If this is something you need time to wrap your head around, consider this your fair warning!

Not Even An Outhouse | Photo: Katie Marti
Not even an outhouse | Photo: Katie Marti

5. You are not in control
Certainly, guides want their guests to have the best possible experience and they will go to great lengths to ensure a variety of terrain to suit the abilities and desires of their groups. Having said that, there are a number of factors that go into play in terms of delivering a day of heli skiing: snow stability, travel logistics and unexpected delays due to injury or a change in weather can all throw a monkey wrench into even the most carefully laid plans. It’s important to go into a heli ski vacation with a clear understanding that things may not always unfold exactly the way you would like or even expect. One way to minimize a few variables is to book a private tour or rally enough friends to make your own group of five: this means that, at the very least, you won’t have to compromise with other skiers or snowboarders who may have a different perception of what makes a day ideal. Of course, even on a private tour, the lead guide is the boss in terms of setting parametres as to what can be skied on a given day.

A Decidedly Ideal Scenario | Photo: Dave Silver
A decidedly ideal scenario | Photo: Dave Silver

I’ve said it before and here I will say it again: despite the curveballs, any day spent zooming around in a helicopter and dropping into endless powder with a small crew of good buds is a really, really great day. Even if you’re tired and you have to pee and you spent all morning crushing pillow laps in the trees before taking an early return trip to have beer in the hot tub while it dumps snow all around you, it’s a really great day.

Like, maybe the BEST. DAY. EVER.