Heliskiing vs Resort Skiing – There’s No Comparison

June 08, 2016 D'Arcy McLeish

Those who have never been heliskiing often ask how it compares to resort skiing. That’s a good question, but alas, it is one with a fairly short answer: it doesn’t. The two are vastly different. But for fun, let’s look at what those differences are.

No Crowds, No Lift Lines. Just Untracked Snow As Far As The Eye Can See.  Photo - Jeff Van Driel
No crowds, no lift lines. Just untracked snow all day, as far as the eye can see.
Photo – Jeff Van Driel

Picture a powder day at a big resort, say one like Whistler or Vail or Aspen. First, you wake up in your hotel, get some breakfast. Maybe you’re staying in a ski in/ski out hotel so all you have to do is click into your skis and head down to the lift. So far so good. But here is where things change. ‘Cause if it is a powder day, you better get there early. Lifts tend to open around 8:30 and if you’ve come to the chairlift or gondola at that time, the lift line will be as long as you’ve ever seen it. Locals will line up as early as 5:30am to get first chair. And this is only in the valley, just wait until you get to the high alpine chairs.

Enough Terrain For Several Ski Resorts... Photo - Caton Garvie
Enough terrain for several ski resorts…
Photo – Caton Garvie

But let’s say you get lucky and get up there fairly quickly. Now it’s a mad dash to get some pow laps in lower down before deciding when you’ll go wait in more lift lines for the high alpine to open. On powder days, the ski patrol has to do avalanche control and, depending on how much snow has fallen and what the stability is, this could take until noon. In the meantime, there are a zillion people skiing what little terrain is on offer in the lower elevation areas until the high alpine lifts open for public. And when they do? Again, you better have been waiting in line early, otherwise you’ll be there all afternoon.

This. Lap After Lap.   Photo - Randy Lincks
This. Lap after lap.
Photo – Randy Lincks

Finally, because so maybe modern resorts have such immense lift capacity and a rapid turnaround, things tend to get tracked out very quickly, so unless you have braved several long lift lines in the cold, freezing your feet, hands and head, the best you can hope for is a few untracked turns here and there. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? For sure, there are tricks to mitigate this. Ski during the week, never on holidays, hope for early December pow or late April storms, but in the high season, pow days at the big resorts can be absolute mayhem and no fun at all. All this is added to the logistics of getting to and from the hill, dealing with a busy resort village, airport transfers with millions of other guests etc…

Your Chairlift For The Week. Photo - Caton Garvie
Your chairlift for the week.
Photo – Caton Garvie

Enter heliskiing. Aside from the fact that on every single lap, you are skiing untracked, virgin snow, the greatest single benefit to heliskiing is you never, ever, have to deal with crowds. A typical day at Last Frontier Heliskiing sees folks rolling out of their beds around 7 or 7:30, grabbing a hearty breakfast at the lodge, getting a quick briefing from the lead guide and then it’s a fully indoor walk to the gear room, where all of your ski equipment is stored in one place, ready for your use. Then it’s a short walk (like 30m) out to the helicopters for your first run of the day. Groups of four, plus a guide make sure that every lap there is plenty of snow to go around. And it’s not uncommon for each lap to encompass enough terrain to open several ski hills. Some of them are long, too. Like 6,500 vertical feet long. That’s 1,300 vertical feet more skiing than in Whistler. This on glaciers, in old growth forest and beautiful alpine vistas that take your breath away.

Our Idea Of A Busy Resort Village.  Photo - Steve Rosset
Our idea of a busy resort village.
Photo – Steve Rosset

And there is not a soul as far as the eye can see. No crowds, no lift lines, no crusty locals fighting for every pow turn. Just you, your friends and your guide. With a helicopter to act as your chairlift all day. There’s nothing like it, really. It gets back to heart of why all of us ski. Sure, you might feel a little spoiled out there, but believe me, that passes fairly quickly! That is what I love most about heliskiing. It’s a chance to be in the mountains, ski lap after lap of untracked snow, and enjoy the quiet and solitude of some of the most pristine wilderness left on earth.

So how does heliskiing compare to resort skiing? It doesn’t. Not even a little bit.

Be safe, ski hard.