Heli-skiing is exactly as it sounds. You climb into a helicopter kitted up with your skis and avalanche gear, and let the helicopter take you high up over the mountains, away from any notion of a groomed ski run or any other skiers.
In my opinion the helicopter ride is almost as fun and awe-inspiring as the actual skiing! When you do finally reach the top of the mountain or wherever the helicopter takes you and you start to unpack your equipment ready for the descent, it dawns on you just how surreal this experience actually is.
With heli-skiing you will always need to have an experienced heli-ski instructor with you at all times – this will be provided by the heli-ski company for you. As guided by the instructor, all there is to do is ski down to a designated spot where the helicopter will meet you, enjoying all the light untouched powder with every single turn you make. When you do eventually reach the helicopter, you hop in, enjoy the ride back up to the top of the mountain, and do it all over again down a different route, with even more untouched powder snow! It really is a day of non-stop enjoyment and fun. Generally speaking you pay for a specified number of trips in the helicopter, for example a 5-run heli-ski or a 7-run heli-ski would be normal.
Heli-skiing vs Cat-skiing
Another very popular alternative to heli-skiing which has grown in popularity in Colorado in recent years is that of cat-skiing. This serves the same purpose of heli-skiing to get you out into the backcountry to ski through untouched snow and fresh powder. There are a couple of drawbacks and advantages of both options.
As you can imagine, climbing into a helicopter compared to a snowcat give you far more options of where to go and how far up the mountain you are able to go. Heli-skiing allows you to travel right to the top of the mountain or wherever you would like to go and wherever you are permitted to go in an instant. Compare this with cat-skiing and you will find there is a much longer wait between runs, and you may only be able to ski 15,000 vertical feet compared to a whopping 40,000 vertical feet if you choose to go heli-skiing.
As well as being a more affordable option compared to heli-skiing, cat-skiing is a more reliable option incase you wake up in the morning to find a snowstorm has rolled into town. It does not take a lot for heli-skiing to be called off due to bad weather, however cat-skiing can operate in much more extreme weather, and won't be called off for poor visibility – unless it's really really bad visibility!
How much does a heli ski trip cost?
A heli-ski is widely seen as somewhat of a luxury for those already partaking in a luxurious sport. This is due to its cost. The base price for a heli ski is in the region of $1000 for a 5-ride trip. Most heli-ski operators will not offer packages for less than 5 rides or maybe 3, simply due to the cost of getting the helicopter in the air and making the flight. Having said that, Silverton Mountain Heli does in fact offer single trip heli-ski offers, however this is rare, and does not include the essentials required for a heli-ski such as super-fat powder skis and avalanche equipment – you won't be allowed to fly without avalanche equipment (or skis... obviously). You will need to have already purchased this equipment, or add it onto the price of the package for rental. It is often possible to pay an additional fee on top of the base price to get extra runs added onto the 5-run package or 7-run package you have purchased. You will simply need to talk to the trip organiser to get this sorted out. If there is one thing I can guarantee, it is that any additional runs you pay for, you will not regret. My experience heli-skiing will live long in my memory as one of my best and most sensational days.
How good do you have to be to heli-ski?
The answer to this question is simple, as long as you are a comfortable skier off-piste, you will be able to find a heli-skiing package that suits your needs. This factor is important – you NEED to be able to ski off-piste comfortably. Up in the clouds away from the resort, there are no groomed runs. It's all deep powder snow, metres deep, up to your waist as you are skiing, as far as the eye can see. Heaven as it’s also known. If you are not comfortable skiing off-piste, don’t waste your time with a heli-ski, it will just be a waste of money and a waste of everyone's time as you struggle down the slopes.
How dangerous is heli-skiing?
All skiing comes with an inherent risk. All sports do. The further you travel outside of the controlled area of a ski resort which is constantly patrolled and looked after, the more dangerous it gets. Heli-skiing takes this to the extreme. Yes, the ski instructor that travels with you to guide you on the trip is highly experienced and has been trained to identify avalanche risks, however this does not mean you are going to be 100% safe, as mistakes and oversights can happen. Avalanches can be hard to predict and even harder to deal with if they happen, which is why it is essential that you carry high quality avalanche equipment every time you travel off-piste. As long as you are cautious and careful, and follow the instructions of your guide carefully, that is all you can do to minimise the risk of an avalanche, and the relatively small number of deaths caused from heli-skiing is testimony to how good a job these guides and heli-ski companies do. Beyond that, there is always risk.