Heliskiing, king of the off-piste
A vertical descent of more than 1,500m awaits you at Riksgränsen ski resort (Sweden), 200km north of the Arctic Circle. A helicopter makes its way through the clouds and fog and, at the top of the mountain, it leaves the group of impatient skiers to confront the freest and most reckless descent possible, over virgin snow.
This dream for any skier or snowboarder is made possible through heliskiing, one of the most exclusive winter sports. It involves being taken to insurmountable peaks in a helicopter, so you can go down the mountainside off-piste, in places that are otherwise inaccessible. This sport was originated by a Canadian, Hans Gmoser, who, following a successful helicopter expedition to the Cariboo Mountains, British Columbia, in 1963, decided to market it and make his experience in the high mountains available to the most daring.
Photo: Justin McCarty/ alaskaheliskiing.com
Boarding the helicopter on water, from a yacht, adds an extra bit of excitement. Agency Elemental Adventure lets you discover protected routes in Greenland, Alaska and British Columbia via the sea. Opportunities to access the most difficult slopes multiply with this aquatic operations base.
Exploring indomitable nature is one of the greatest pleasures of this sport, and it also makes it one of the most demanding. Todd Jones, video producer and member of an expedition with Last Frontier, one of the agencies that operate in British Columbia, says “the runs are huge and the sense of solitude is unrivalled”. On clear days, the helicopter can climb to heights of 3,500m. Downhill skiing on interminable slopes tests the legs of the most experienced skiers, who can enjoy up to 8,000m of slopes. Pure off-piste skiing in eternal white landscapes, with descents down open stretches of snow, along natural contours and through clearings between trees requires a high level of technique and preparation.
As Kilian Jornet, world champion of alpine skiing would say, “the mountain makes you be who you are”. In the case of heliskiing, the solitude and cold will test your stamina to the limit. There is a high possibility of avalanches and, while the activity takes place in groups of between five and ten people, with specialized guides, each skier carries their own rescue pack and receives a survival course.
Luxury isn’t at odds with these basic surroundings. In south New Zealand, near lake Wakatipu, you will find Blanket Bay, an exclusive complex immersed in the mountains. The chalet-suites have stone fireplaces where you can shake off the cold after a heliskiing session in the summits nearest the South Pole.
Canada and Alaska offer the best terrain in the world for doing this extreme sport. But, the price won’t suit every pocket. A journey of five to seven days normally costs $10,000, and an hourly excursion costs about $1,000. Whistler ski station, British Columbia, is one of the most popular destinations. Chosen by Ski Magazine as the best alpine resort in North America, it has the advantage of having very soft snow and descents with different levels of difficulty. Agencies like CMH Heli-Skiing offer exclusive lodges, with eco-friendly luxury cabins that compensate for the crude environment. Hydromassage baths, saunas, a select wine menu, masseurs and gourmet meals make up the more glamorous side of heliskiing.
Whistler Mountain, Alaska, has the record for the longest slope in North America, measuring nearly 1,800m.
In Alaska, the mountains are a wild destination for the pro skiers and snowboarders who visit this area every year, between February and March. There, the temperatures are extremely cold and the moisture in the snow is absorbed, leaving a velvety powder. “Haines is blessed with plenty of snow and more sunshine than anywhere else in south-east Alaska,” says Seandog, guide for agency Alaska Heliskiing, which has operated in this area for over 20 years. Slopes with an incline of up to 60 degrees make this chain, attached to the Davidson glacier, the ideal place to start the descent.
Source: Passenger 6A.