While the experience can occasionally be found on heavy snow days at resorts throughout western Canada and the U.S., the feeling is found almost every day heli-skiing. For me, the unforgettable run came one sunny afternoon while skiing with Great Canadian Heli-Skiing out of Heather Mountain Lodge, about 35 miles west of Golden, B.C.
The feeling was of complete control while seemingly floating through the deep powder snow of a run called Goats in Lust. Don’t ask about the name. It was three turns into the long, semi-steep run in the Selkirk Mountains when it happened – like some other force took over and all I did was relax and go along for the ride.
The mind, the body and the skis all in perfect harmony with the snow. Off a ridge near the 7,200-foot level and effortlessly bouncing about 30 turns through deep, pillowy virgin snow until coming to a halt near the bottom of the bowl, where our guide was waiting.
It was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had on skis. It’s one that thousands of skiers and boarders get to experience every winter. Heli-skiing is expensive, but thanks to fat skis it is one that even intermediate skiers like myself can now enjoy.
Canadian Mountain Helicopters out of Banff, Alberta, pioneered heli-skiing in Canada in the mid-1960s and while it remains the largest heli-skiing company in the world, there are a growing number of operations throughout the Rocky Mountains. Mike Wiegele and his operation in Blue River, B.C., made the sport fashionable in the 1970s and ’80s and “boutique” companies took the activity to a whole new level in the past decade.
Using small five-passenger helicopters, a number of smaller operations have sprung up throughout British Columbia and their birth created a more intimate style of heli-skiing. Or perhaps it’s just a return to the sport’s roots.
“In the beginning they used to use two-seater helicopters, very small intimate deals,” Greg Porter of Great Canadian Heli-Skiing told me after that day of skiing.
“As we went through the ’80s there was a real boom and with the increased demand the size of the companies grew and the size of the helicopters also expanded. After that huge growth people who were used to the small-group experience were saying, ‘Where have the good old days gone?’ ”
The industry reacted with the birth of small-group skiing. Even Wiegle and Canadian Mountain, while maintaining their traditional large-group skiing, offer the smaller group experience where a guide will take out four or five skiers, rather than groups of 10 to 12.
The smaller groups create new opportunities for skiing. Larger groups naturally require larger areas because heli-skiing is about making your own first tracks every run – none of this skiing in someone else’s tracks. Smaller groups can access different types of terrain, and there’s rarely a bowl that’s too small for four or five skiers.
Plus, finding three friends who are compatible skill-wise is a lot easier than trying to find 11. With small groups, the operators can usually match up the skiers quite well so everyone is skiing at a similar pace and having the same amount of fun.
In the end it comes down to what type of experience people want. And it’s not just the skiing. The location, accommodation and services offered by the various companies can change dramatically. There are now more than 20 heli-ski operators in B.C., most of them flying into the Rocky, Columbia, Purcell or Selkirk mountain ranges. Most heli-skiing packages are for four to seven days, although the boutique operators offer two and three-day packages. R.K. Heli-Ski out of Panorama resort has one-day skiing available.
So when’s the best time to go heli-skiing? Traditionally it’s mid-January to the end of February when conditions are usually the best for snow and weather. But, as Porter said, “basically so much powder snow goes to waste” in the spring.
“Skiers and riders are at their strongest, days are longest, unlimited vertical is the best value at this time of year,” he added. The added bonus is prices are discounted at the end of the season.