Heliski Snowboarding : Alaska

Heliskiing is off-trail, downhill skiing that is accessed by a helicopter, not a ski lift. Heli-skiing is essentially about skiing in a natural -- albeit highly selected -- environment without the effort or gear compromise required for hiking in. Most heli-skiers are seeking specific, pleasurable skiing conditions that are hard to replicate in the highly manipulated terrain of ski resorts: particularly powder snow, but also long descents, smooth corn snow, old-growth tree glades, steep and extreme terrain, or for the more adventuresome, wild snow and a natural, variable environment. The presence of the guide and machine offer some protection against the risks and discomforts unavoidably associated with entering this mountainous environment.

Heliskiing has become an increasingly popular activity since its inception in the 1960's, with operators established in Canada, the continental USA, Alaska, Greenland, New Zealand, Indian Himalayas, Russia, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Chile and Europe.

The mountain terrain that heli-sking takes place in is diverse. Runs vary from high alpine glaciers, to alpine bowls, to steep chutes, to gladed trees. The type of terrain skied correlates to the mountain topography and snowpack characteristics where an operator is based. For example, Alaska heli-ski operations generally lack tree skiing due to the low tree line yet ski glaciated peaks where the strong maritime snowpack clings uniquely to very precipitous slopes. Meanwhile, Canadian operations with their old growth forests often ski tree runs for challenge, better visibility and wind-sheltered snow -- especially during periods of inclement weather. Inland mountain ranges have thinner, weaker snowpacks which generally offer the lightest powder and best weather, but somewhat less extreme slope angles due to increased slab avalanche hazard and dry, fluffy snow that simply falls off extremely steep terrain. Some operations have runs nearly 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters in vertical relief. Average runs are more likely 2,000 feet or 700 meters.

U.S., Canadian and some other operations typically treat the helicopter like a ski lift, picking up and dropping skiers repeatedly on the best snow sections for 5-12 runs a day (let's call it the "Canada-model"). European and some other operations typically treat the helicopter like a taxi, dropping skiers near a high peak, then leaving them to work their way back to a road (the "European-model"). This generally involves some ski mountaineering, even though the trend is downward.

Heli-skiing can take place in remote mountain regions where seldom visited terrain exists. However, helicopters are expensive to operate over long distances, economically favoring operation near paved, plowed road heads. Controversy often erupts when heli-skiing conflicts with wilderness values or overlaps with self-powered backcountry riding near established ski areas and populated areas at these same road heads. This conflict has led to bans on heli-skiing in France and other European Union countries, strict regulation of landing zones elsewhere in the Alps, and active citizen resistance to unfettered helicopter access in places like Utah's Cottonwood Canyons. Non-motorized winter users specifically object to the noise, pollution and carbon footprint, mechanical disruption of undeveloped natural areas and unfair competition for untracked snow in areas easily and more frequently reachable by foot.

Heli-skiing is very well promoted in all Warren Miller skiing movies and has its own star athletes: Seth Morrison, Mark Abma, Glen Plake, Dean Cummings, etc. which -- along with its significant expense -- has helped to create heli-skiing as a status symbol to some degree.


Hans Gmoser, a mountain guide and Austrian immigrant to Canada, is generally credited with starting heli-skiing in 1965 in the Bugaboos Mountains of British Columbia (although he experimented with helicopter accessed skiing in the years proceeding in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary). Evidence suggests that heli-skiing may have even taken place earlier in the late 50's or early 60's in Alaska, Wyoming or Utah based on old photos in ski books.

Required Skill Level

Anyone who has had previous experience in skiing can try heliskiing. Nevertheless, being able to ski on intermediate and advanced runs consistently is one of the requirements for anyone who aspires to go heliskiing. The introduction of "fat' skis in the last ten years has enabled less experienced skiers to participate. Most operators have such skis available either for free use or rental. This equipment substantially reduces the amount of energy required to ski untracked snow.

One should also be able to manage skiing along all types of terrain and in all possible snow conditions, and should be knowledgeable about avalanche safety. Experts recommend that skiers who try heliskiing should start a fitness program two months in advance and should be acclimatized a few days before the heliskiing trip. Being fit is given prime importance in this skiing discipline since it imposes challenging runs that may lead to serious risks.


Conditions encountered when heli-skiing range from effortless powder or corn snow, to the most difficult snow possible such as breakable wind crust. Simply, it's skiing in an uncontrolled mountain environment. Consequently, conditions often vary from run to run due to wind and solar aspects. Guide experience and the mobility of the helicopter enable careful matching of terrain to the current conditions within the limits of the operator's permit.

Conditions vary depending upon the time of year. Some experienced heliskiers opt for spring skiing because of longer days, warmer temperatures, and different ski conditions such as spring snow (granular "sugar" snow, which when skied in good conditions makes for one of the most relaxed skiing descents). Spring days also mean more daylight and the opportunity to ski greater vertical. In fact, it is not uncommon for spring heli-skiers during week long ski packages to exceed 200,000 feet of cumulative skiing.

Others patrons specifically go earlier in the year to seek and often find deep, fresh powder snow. The length of skier descents depends on the weather, snow stability and quality as evaluated by the guides and pilots.

The expense and short duration of both the heli-skiing contract and evanescent snow conditions can lead to a "feeding frenzy" mentality. Heli-skiers seek to maximize vertical drop and number of runs, so skiers need to be reasonably fit and take advantage of efficient gear to avoid slowing the group.

Equipment and gear

Avalanche transceivers are required and a buddy system is mandatory because of the dangers of avalanches. Clothing needs mirror ski resort activity level: layered clothing fit for sub-zero temperatures, goggles, hat, ski gloves, and neck warmers. Having a backpack is not allowed by some Canadian-model operators but one can bring a small pack to store basic pieces of skiing gear. European-model heli-skiers are really just ski-mountaineers with a vertical assist, so they require ski touring equipment appropriate to the location and conditions, including glacier travel equipment if necessary.

Fatter off piste, powder, freeride or "all-mountain" skis are used by the majority of heliskiers. They are less tiring in use and handle difficult terrain more easily. The introduction of these skis, originally known as "fat boys" has led to an increase in the amount of vertical feet skied, as the skiers become less tired, (and spend less time looking for lost skis). They have also been linked with decreased injury rates.

Heliskiing operations

There are as few as 4 or as many as 12 skiers, depending on the aircraft type and numbers. Most operations offer private heli-skiing charters and daily, three, four and seven day packages are common in the Canada-model.

On most tours, a group of heli-skiers are led by an experienced guide. In fact, it is difficult or impossible in many areas to hire a helicopter for heli-skiing without a professional guide certified by UIAGM (IFMGA).

The helicopter typically meets the ski group in an open area in a valley. European pilots are very aggressive and accustomed to operation in narrow mountain valleys, so landing in a wide spot of a narrow mountain road is not uncommon.

The guide or a helicopter crew member load the skis and poles into an exterior basket. The skiers board the helicopter and are lifted off and carried to a landing zone on the mountain. These LZ's may be officially designated, but regardless, they are generally familiar to the pilot.

While it is possible to "hot load" [or unload], meaning to take on or drop off passengers while hovering with the skids near but not touching the ground, it is safer and more common for the helicopter to actually settle onto the snow and reduce power to the rotors while the passengers disembark. This tends to reduce blowing snow, increasing visibility and reducing confusion and flying ski equipment. The guide unloads the skis, setting them flat on the ground. The skiers move away from the helicopter, hold onto their gear and clothing, face away and remain crouched until the helicopter has moved far enough away that the gusty propwash and stinging driven snow is no longer a problem.

Heliskiing safety

The primary safety concern of heli-skiing operators is the danger of avalanches. Reputable heli-skiing operations employ guides and pilots who are trained and experienced in evaluating snow conditions, snow stability, and risk management. They may even conduct occasional explosive avalanche control in association with the land management agency. When avalanche conditions are elevated one may end up skiing safer, more gentle slopes, sometimes with the use of an alternate snowcat rather than the helicopter.

Most tours will include in the price the use of avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes and will provide training on the use of them and other avalanche rescue equipment. Some operators are beginning to offer additional avalanche protection that reduces avalanche burial potential or increases burial survival time, i.e. avalanche air-bags or avalungs.

Other hazards include deep tree wells, falling "snow mushrooms", crevasses on glaciers, common mountain terrain features such as cliffs and creek beds, and -- obviously -- typical ski-related injuries. Helicopter crashes are also far from unheard of.


"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."    — Robert A. Heinlein

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