Top 10 Things to Consider in a Heliskiing Trip
The Top 10 Heliskiing Trip Factors
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. Within British Columbia there are different regions with different advantages and disadvantages.
Snow quantity is directly affected by proximity to the Pacific. In general, more snow falls in the Coast Ranges. Snow quality if 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 have less snowfall, but what falls is dry! See a map of British Columbia Heliskiing and Heliboarding Locations.
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 of others. 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 US offers heliskiing and heliboarding in the Lower 48 as well. Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, California 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. Europe heliskiing is somewhat restricted, starting late and ending early. France outlawed it. South America and New Zealand also offer heli skiing trips. India, Russia, Greenland and Iceland are also available for exotic adventures.
2. Dates – When to go, not whether or not to take one…..
BC operates January to early April. Whistler may 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. January can offer better deals, including unlimited vertical. Be aware that late season can include ‘corn snow’ in addition to or instead of powder.
See related posting on January vs. March Which is best?
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 Wiegele Helicopter Skiing use primarily big helicopters with 11 guests per lift. Almost all of the boutique, smaller operators use A-stars, Bell407’s or the new Koalas. These hold 4 to 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. Smaller is better. However, the bigger machines such as the Bell212 are less expensive.
Groups per helicopter is another important criterion. A helicopter can easily service two or three groups without much 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 on the ‘weakest link’ and on 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. Two groups per machine, a Semi-Private, is very good and usually comes at a premium. Three groups per machine, Classic or Regular, is the industry norm for smaller, more boutique operations. Be aware that many of the newer companies are calling there packages Private or Semi-Private but do not offer the same service as the more reputable companies.
4. Length of Trip
Packages are available for 1, 3, 4, 7 or more days. Most ‘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 instead of using it as a change over time and lengthy transfer to an airport. But those are the exception.
Resort-based operators cater to shorter trips, especially one-day trips. More remote operators justify longer trips. A travel day on each end may be required, but as mentioned 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. A handful of operators now offer catskiing backup. It can save the day and is worth considering.
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, 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 or very challenging. Some places are easy to get to 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, and Anchorage, 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.
Several offer easy access with all the same feelings of remoteness without the additional travel time. Another benefit to easy access is that it may also increase the skiing time you have available during your package. This may actually add up to a full day more given the same package duration.
Heliskiing is expensive. The good news is that it is worth it. Most packages run $800 to $1100 per day, Canadian. This includes food, lodging, helicopter lifts and some après ski hors d’oeuvres. Alcohol is always an additional cost.
Most packages include a guaranteed minimum vertical. Additional vertical is typically $35-45 per thousand feet. Resort-based operators are around $100/extra run. Everyone in your helicopter group or ‘lift’ must agree to the extra vertical, or the day is over. 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. In fact, some operators have been known to start late and quit early to minimize helicopter expenses. Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. 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.
Some packages include unlimited vertical. In fact, a couple of operators offer unlimited vertical on every package! Others offer it during the early and late season. It may be built into a higher price. It is worth shopping around. See this blog post about the pros and cons of unlimited vertical heliskiing.
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. Check them out online. Most are great.
Some are fishing lodges in the summer months. Lodging is in hotels in a handful of locations.
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 when you are skiing, and go exploring when you are not. You have the option of cooking for yourself, too. In general, Alaska is a far less luxurious, so say the least.
Down days do happen. Good down day (contradiction in terms) activities include ski touring, cat skiing, resort skiing, fishing, snowmobiling, sea kayaking and more.
The food is awesome! 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.
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. 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 one more sit up front (usually the guide with the exception of the last ride home.) 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. There are trade-offs. Bigger helicopters have longer load and unload time and clients ski in lager groups. Some terrain does not lend itself to 12-48 tracks…… Operators with smaller helicopters and groups have more flexibility in arranging groups, reaching terrain, etc. However, most will run three small groups per helicopter. The exception is Private or Semi Private packages that run one or two groups respectively. The price is higher, but the experience is the best. With 7 or more in a group, a private may be the best deal.
Requirements for skiing ability vary somewhat. The resort-based and one-day oriented operators suggest ‘intermediate’ ability is required and/or ‘some powder experience.’ The more remote operators suggest ‘strong intermediate’ or ‘able to ski any run at a resort in control. These are definitely minimum requirements. Most clients will be expert with good powder ability. Do not invite a buddy with marginal ability if you want to ski fast and make friends in the lodge.
The other requirement is ‘good physical condition.’ It is very important to be in good shape. You do not want to be straining to keep up. Worse, you do not want to be slowing down your friends (and former friends.) Get yourself in very good shape!
9. Safety and Guides
The first and most important factor in choosing a company to ski with is to ensure it is a member of the HeliCat Canada Association. This association set strict standards for its members and ensures that they meet them through standard audits of their operating procedures. Most companies are members, however a handful of companies did not meet the operational standards of the association and therefore are not members. This is critical as there are currently no government regulations for guides in Canada. To date they have been very successful at self-regulation and have a very good safety record.
One of the critical points to consider is Guides Qualifications. HeliCat Canada recognizes only 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.
HeliCat Canada has a set of standard operating procedures and all members follow them so you’ll find that most companies operate, with regard to safety, in a standard manner. Be sure to check the operator credentials and safety record. You may be surprised to find out that the company you are considering is not a member, regardless of its longstanding reputation, and is therefore not regulated in any way.
Trip insurance is a good idea. It covers change of plans or travel problems. We do 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.
Evacuation insurance is usually a daily fee of $8-10 and it is a must.
10. How to Choose?