HELISKI.com – Top 10 Criteria to Pick the Best Heli-Skiing
Best Heli-Skiing: Location
British Columbia Canada is the center of the heliskiing world. It has the perfect combination of terrain, climate and precipitation. It is home to the majority of heliskiing and heliboarding operations on earth – over 90%. Within British Columbia there are different regions with different advantages and disadvantages.
Canadian Heliskiing Operator Map – Click to Explore
Snow quantity is directly affected by proximity to the Pacific. In general, more snow falls in the Coast Ranges. Many operators report receiving the most snow in January and the least in March.
Snow quality is based on a combination of factors, but most notably is the distance North (cooler temps) and the elevation (the higher the dryer). A minimum amount of snow is required for both ground coverage and general stability and for this reason the vast majority of Heliskiing occurs in the Interior ranges and the Coast Ranges. The Rockies generally receive less snow fall, but the snow tends to be lighter.
Terrain varies within and among mountain ranges. Steep, trees, bowls and high-alpine cruisers can be found most places. But many operators tend to offer a predominance of a particular type of terrain. Let us know what you prefer, and we can offer feedback on the ones we have visited….which luckily is most!
Alaska Heli-Skiing Operator Map – Click for more
Alaska is home of the steep and deep. The season is later and there is not much tree skiing compared to BC. Most operators are out of Valdez,
but there are a couple in Haines, and some outliers. Alaska can be more difficult to access. For example, Anchorage to Valdez flights are cancelled over one third of the time in the season. Alaska can have more down days than many BC operators. There are some options better than others.
The United States mainland offers heliskiing and heliboarding in the Lower 48 as well. Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Idaho all have heliskiing. Many of these are located at or near resort skiing and cater to one-day trips, although longer trips are also available.
Rest of the World. Europe heliskiing is somewhat restricted, starting late and ending early. France outlawed it. More eccentric locations include Russia, Turkey, Iceland, Sweden. ‘Summer’ locations include Chile and Argentina in South America. Australia and New Zealand also offer some limited heli skiing.
Best Heli-Skiing: When to Go
BC operates January to early April. Whistler and a few others offer December days. The Christmas to New Years week is also available from some operators. Primetime is February, but January and March are usually very good, can can be less expensive.
- Some say January best kept secret in the industry. Most guides and operators will tell you this is their favorite skiing of the season.
- Colder – So you may have to bundle up, but you may get drier, lighter powder
- Short days – This can limit your vertical; which is especially bad if you are paying for unlimited vertical. It’s also worse the farther you go North. Alaska gets twice as much light at the end of their ‘season’ as they do in the beginning.
- Snowpack /Coverage /Stability – Not usually a problem unless it’s a lean year, or you are very early in January. Early season will have fewer boundary layers, but may also be relatively unsettled. But expect to ski more trees and less high alpine, bowls and glaciers.
- Price – early January and late March are the best deals going. Early April is a very good deal, and many operators would keep going if demand existed. The ‘prime’ weeks are now bleeding into late January and early March.
- Warmer – usually very comfortable. Be aware that late season can include ‘corn snow’ in addition to or instead of powder. And too warm can make south-facing slopes ski like mashed potatoes.
- Longer Days – Think huge vertical and tired legs. 40-45K vertical feet in a day is possible! If you choose Unlimited Vertical, you can really rack up the vert.
- Coverage/Stability/Terrain – By March, everything is skiable. Some cornices may build up, but stability is usually very good. Spring heliskiing usually includes a heavy dose of high alpine / glacier skiing. Runs so smooth and consistent that you may want to bring something to read…..kidding. I have counted 50 turns with my eyes closed, however.
- Price – Not as cheap as January, but the later you go, the better the price.
Alaska has a much later season. Some operators open in February. Prime time is March and April. Some will accommodate early May. It may be corn snow, however. There is twice as much sunlight at the end of the season than at the beginning.
The size of the group and the number of groups per helicopter, or machine, is very important. Some of the big operators like Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and Mike Weigele use big helicopters with 10 or 11 guests. Almost all of the boutique, smaller operators use A-stars or Bell 407s. These hold 4, 5 or 6 guests. It is a more intimate group. In addition, smaller helicopters are more maneuverable. Small groups can access tighter areas that could not handle 13 sets of tracks (remember two guides). Smaller is usually better, if for the simple reason that you are only as fast as the slowest skier/boarder. And if one person falls or loses a ski, the entire group waits.
Groups per helicopter is another important criterion. A helicopter can usually service two or three groups without any waiting. Operators will attempt to group guests of similar ability and speed. But all groups can only go as fast as the slowest group, unless or until a group can be passed. The amount of waiting depends upon the slowest group, and upon the willingness of the guides to ‘leap frog’ the slow group. This is frequently a cause of tension and discontent. This is especially true if the groups contain skiers with different ability and or speed. Another issue can arise if some guests are interested in ‘extra vertical’ (for extra money) and some are not. Unless the lodge is close or there are logical groups, some guests may be disappointed. One group per machine, aka Private, is best but expensive. Three groups per machine is the industry norm for smaller, boutique operations. But there are notable exceptions. We are happy to help.
Length of Trip
Packages are available for almost any length. Many ‘week’ trips are 7 nights with 6 full days of skiing. Some will offer skiing on the morning of departure. Some can get up on the afternoon of the arrival day. Several companies now offer a full seven days as they are located with easier access and can have their guests ski a full day on the last day.
Resort-based operators cater do shorter trips, especially one-day trips. More remote operators justify longer trips. A travel day on each end may be required. Access is the key if you want to ski more and travel less. So, longer trips make the best use of time and money. Down days, unfortunately, do happen. If the helicopter cannot fly, due to weather or mechanical issues, the bummer is magnified if it is shorter trip.
Resort operators can be found at Whistler, Revelstoke, Snowbird, Sun Valley, Telluride, Panorama, Silverton and Kicking Horse.
Some HELISKI.com clients want to ‘warm up’ at a resort before traveling to a destination heliskiing lodge. The best resorts for this are Whislter and Revelstoke.
Total travel time is an important criteria that is often overlooked. Some of the oldest heliski operators require bus rides of eight hours on both ends of the trip! This is an ironic contrast to the fast, luxurious, convenient service offered during the heliskiing. It may not sit well with clients who can afford heliskiing.
It is a good idea to get the travel itineraries for everyone in the group before you book. Getting to and from a heliskiing destination can range from straight forward to very challenging. Some places are easy to reach, with frequent ‘commuter’ flights. Book these ASAP. The good flights often sell out, and the cheap seats sell out first. Others charter flights, require lengthy bus rides and are susceptible to weather delays. Most have vans or buses for the last leg of the journey. The primary airports for heliskiing access are Vancouver, Calgary, Kelowna, Anchorage and Seattle, in that order. Many itineraries require a night stay before or after the trip, some both. Some operators include this in the price, others do not. Some operators that are easy to access allow West Coast heliskiers to fly up in the morning and ski that afternoon. It may also be possible to ski the morning of the last day and fly home that afternoon. This allows three days of heliskiing in a total of four days.
Convenient travel results in more heliskiing for a given trip length.
Trip insurance is a good idea. It covers change of plans or travel problems. We strongly recommend trip cancellation/disruption insurance. It is an add-on to the package price when guests make their final payment. This ranges from $200-$300, depending on the date of the tour, and the age of the participant. We partnered with Lifestyle Financial to offer trip insurance to offer trip insurance to HELISKI.com clients.
Best Heli-Skiing: Cost
Heliskiing is expensive. The good news is that it is worth it. Packages range from $800 to $1800 Canadian per day. This includes food, lodging, and helicopter lifts. Alcohol is always an additional cost.
Most packages include a guaranteed minimum vertical. Additional vertical feet are typically $35-45 Can. per thousand. Everyone in your helicopter group or ‘lift’ must agree to the extra vertical, or groups must be reformed. It is common to re-configure the groups late in the day to allow one or two groups to go for the extra vertical.
If weather or mechanical downtime prevents reaching the guaranteed minimum, most operators will issue a credit toward a future trip. It is unusual to get a refund. Operators vary widely on their willingness to accommodate clients for missed vertical. Refunds and vertical achieved are often the cause of friction on the last day as type-A guests butt heads with cash-strapped operators. There is ample room for disagreement about the cause of slow groups and missed vertical. Negotiation can be successful, but it is best done in private and with a cool head and respect.
Other packages include unlimited vertical. Some operators offer unlimited vertical on every package. Others offer it during the early and late season. One operator offers it as an add-on pricing option. It is worth comparing, based on your desires, physical stamina and the time of year. HELISKI.com is happy to help do the math.
Critics of unlimited vertical believe that the clients and operators have conflicting goals. The helicopter is the biggest expense for the operator. Some operators have been accused of starting late, taking long lunch and quitting early to minimize helicopter expenses.
One more thing, remember to tip, please. The gratuity is shared by guides and house staff. It is a significant part of their compensation. I recommend $50-100/day.
Lodging and Food
Most BC Operators offer very nice lodges in remote locations. A few offer less expensive options, especially those that cater to day-trippers. Most will offer excellent amenities including bar, hot tub, wireless internet, ski shop, massage, pool, TV/movies, etc.
The lodges vary widely. It is best to talk with someone who has been there, stayed there.
Destination heliski operators almost all offer great food and lots of it. Hotel based operations may be a little less gourmet. Some of the bigger operators do buffet style, but the food is great.
Alaska is considerably more rugged, with a couple of exceptions. The center of gravity is Valdez. Most operators shuttle clients back and forth from their motel in Valdez. A few have their own accommodations. Another interesting option in Alaska is a motor home. The operators make it easy to hook up and hang out
Activities include ski touring, cat skiing, resort skiing, fishing, snowmobiling, sea kayaking and more.
There are several helicopters common in the heliskiing industry. Most popular with the boutique operators is the A-Star. It typically carries four guests across a bench-like seat in the back; the pilot and guide sit in front. Some get five guests in each lift. It is also known as the A-Star B, for models B2 and the more powerful B3.
The Bell 407 typically seats five in the rear; the pilot and guide are up front (With the exception of the last ride home – don’t be shy about asking!) Bell 205, 206 and 212 carries up to eleven guests, a guide and a pilot.
Operators may run two to four groups of this size. Most will run three small groups per helicopter.
There are trade-offs. Bigger helicopters have somewhat longer load and unload time, and clients ski in lager groups. Some terrain does not lend itself to 12-52 sets of tracks. Operators with smaller helicopters, and thus smaller groups, have more flexibility in arranging groups, reaching terrain, etc.
The big advantage of the big helicopters is cost. It is significantly less expensive to lift one group of 12 than three groups of 4. Whether or not the savings are passed on to the guests in the form of lower prices depends on the operator….
Private packages offer one group exclusive use of the machine. With 7 or more in a goup, a private may be the best deal. HELISKI.com is happy to help find the best arrangement for your group.
Safety and Guides
The heliski industry is primarily self-governed. There are industry associations that develop and encourage standards for the heliskiing industry. In Canada it is HeliCat Canada Association. This association set strict standards for its members and ensures that they meet them through standard audits of their operating procedures. To date they have been very successful at self regulation and have a very good safety record. Many operators in the US belong to Heli-Ski US Association.
One of the critical points to consider is Guides Qualifications. HeliCat Canada recognizes ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) and the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide’s Associations) of which the ACMG is the Canadian member. There are many other training schools in Canada, but none, other than the ACMG are internationally recognized.
So, How to Choose?
HELISKI.com offers free, objective advice and recommendations that is base on experience. It’s free to the client. Visit HELISKI.com or Call 866-HELISKI (866-435-4754) or Email tj@HELISKI.com