A Brief History of Helicopter Skiing
Hans Gmoser usually gets credit for being the father of the sport of heli skiing. The enigmatic Austrian moved to Canada at a young age and began guiding in the Rocky Mountains, where he pioneered several challenging routes and first ascents. As a filmmaker, he produced highly acclaimed skiing and climbing films. He was also one of the founding members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), Canada’s premier guide certification agency. In 1963, he first tried using a helicopter to shuttle skiers up remote slopes in the Bugaboo Mountains in the Purcell Range. He returned to the Bugaboos in 1965 to run the first two commercial heli-ski weeks from an old logging camp, near Radium, BC. His guiding outfit, Rocky Mountain Guides, grew to become Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the largest helicopter skiing operator in the world.
Today’s heli skiing is a far cry from the logging camps and long skinny skis of those bygone days. Luxury lodges, gourmet food and specially designed gear for deep powder skiing are the norm. But as BC was the birthplace of heli skiing, it continues to be the epicentre of the sport today.
Why Go Heli Skiing?
Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to be first on the chairlift at your local ski hill on a powder day or have done some slack country skiing or riding in deep powder with an experienced ski buddy. That thrill of gliding weightless down a mountain, the whoosh of light airy snow past your goggles is part of what attracts people to heli skiing. Some say it’s like a surfer riding a perfect wave. Being able to do that all day, with a helicopter instead of a crowded gondola, the adventure and camaraderie, is what the sport is all about.
With that best-day-ever experience, add in remote, luxury lodging, 5-star dining, and the beauty and serenity of the mountains and you can see why for many, heli skiing is a true bucket list experience.
Why BC Is The Best Place To Try Heli Skiing
Since those early days, BC has seen the industry grow to more than 20 heli ski operations, more than anywhere else in the world. The vast wilderness and sparse population of the province means skiers can roam the mountains here and not see another sole outside their group. In fact, BC’s heli ski tenure system means that each operation has exclusive rights to the area they ski, so you will never cross paths with another cat or heli ski outfitter when you’re out riding in the mountains.
The terrain in BC is also very well-suited to backcountry skiing. The northern latitudes and Pacific storms bring reliably deep powder to the mountains here. There are numerous different mountain ranges in BC, each with their own unique types of skiing. Mountains here are generally smaller than in the Alps, with average heights of between 2000-2500 meters, but they offer a unique mix of alpine bowls, glaciers and lower elevation tree skiing. The impressive variety of terrain, from beginner to expert, allows great skiing in conditions that are not possible in other places.
Being the epicenter of helicopter skiing has created an infrastructure for the sport not found anywhere else. Guiding associations such as the ACMG and CSGA train their guides specifically for working in the heli skiing industry. Heli skiing and snowcat skiing have become an important part of BC’s tourism industry, bringing in almost $200 million to the province each year and providing nearly 3000 jobs. From lodge staff, to chefs and guides, no other place can compare to the highly experienced personnel found in BC.
BC’s heli ski pilots are some of the most experienced mountain pilots in the world. While heli skiing may be what they do in the winter months, these highly-trained pilots spend the rest of the year working in remote mining, logging and hydro operations, so they’re literally flying in these mountains year round. They intimately know the terrain, weather systems and most importantly, when to fly and when not to. Safety is paramount and never compromised.
BC’s Heli Skiing Regions
Many people (wrongly) assume that heli skiing takes place in the Rocky Mountains in BC. In fact, most of the heli skiing takes place in the mountain ranges to the west of the Rockies, such as the Selkirk Mountains, Monashee Mountains, Coast Mountains and the Skeena Mountains near Terrace, in Northwestern BC. The Rockies tend to have a very thin and unstable snowpack, so they are not conducive to quality heli skiing.
The majority of heli ski lodges are located in the southern interior of the province around the towns of Revelstoke, Nelson and Golden. This area offers excellent peak-season skiing, but is less reliable in December and in the late season by April. Also, there are no major airport hubs here, so access normally requires flying into Kelowna Airport, then long drives on winter roads to reach these remote ski lodges.
By contrast, because of its far north latitude, and proximity to Pacific storms, Northern BC’s Skeena Mountains receive reams of snow by early December and have a much more reliable early season snowpack. That northern location also means the skiing is still excellent well into April and even beyond. And Terrace BC is a major airport hub, due to the region’s mining and resource sector, and is easily accessible with upwards of seven flights per day from Vancouver.
Heli Skiing Safety and Equipment
The biggest concern for both guests and guides is of course avalanche safety. Few guests realize that before they even roll out of bed in the morning, their ski guides are already taking part in the day’s safety meeting. Heli ski guides make use of detailed mountain weather reports, avalanche forecasts and advanced services such as Infoex. Most heli outfits also have their own snow safety teams, that are out digging pits and making field evaluations each day, when skiers are out having fun. All of this information, along with a big dose of caution, goes into the planning for each day’s skiing.
Once you’re out on the slopes, your guides will continuously monitor conditions, and if they notice something that isn’t right, will dial down the terrain choices to keep their guests in the safe zone.
In the unlikely event that there’s an avalanche, guests will have all the safety equipment they need. Most heli ski operations will provide their guests with avalanche transceivers, airbag backpacks, shovels and avalanche probes, and will spend a few hours instructing their guests on how to use this equipment before they go out skiing.
And because you’re not on a groomed ski hill, other obstacles such as cliffs, trees, tree wells and crevasses may be present, so it’s imperative that you always listen to the directions of your guide.
How To Choose A Heli Ski Operator
All heli ski operators are not the same. Before deciding where to go, you must know what kind of experience you’re looking for and what type of skier you are. Some operations, like CMH, cater to less experienced skiers. Others cater to experts. (For most operations, you should at least be able to confidently ski blue runs at your ski resort). Some heli outfits are very large operations, with lodges accommodating 100 or more guests and helicopters flying with 10-11 skiers. Others are a smaller, more boutique experience with lodges that only accommodate ten guests and helicopters with 4-6 skiers.
One of the most overlooked aspects of booking a heli ski trip is the number of groups sharing a helicopter. Unless you’re prepared to spend a small (actually large) fortune, you won’t have the machine all to yourself. For some day heli skiing outfits, that could mean five or even six groups, all sharing the same helicopter. That means more waiting, and less fresh tracks. Even most ultra small group heli outfits that promote ‘only 4 skiers per group’ neglect to say that there are three or more groups all sharing their helicopter. Three groups of skiers generally provides a good overall heli experience, and is the industry norm, but two groups will provide a much better riding experience.
Another important aspect of choosing a heli ski operation is ease of access. Many of these remote lodges, by their very nature, are hard to get to. That can mean flying to small out-of-the-way airports, with irregular service, and driving or riding the lodge’s bus for 4-7 hours on icy roads in the middle of a Canadian winter. Good access from major hubs, like Vancouver Airport, can make the overall experience a lot less stressful.
Down days are another factor to consider when choosing a heli ski operation. The storms that bring in all that powder can prevent a helicopter from flying in the mountains. When that happens, is there a ski resort nearby you can go to, or will you be stuck reading in the lodge? For that reason, a few operations have snowcat skiing backup, so you can still get in some exceptional riding on storm days.
Finally, what type of lodge experience are you looking for? The level of service in the heli ski industry is generally quite good, and can range from a mid-market level to over-the-top opulence. If you have less keen skiers in your group, or are bringing a non-skier spouse, make sure to check what lodge amenities and other activities, like snowshoeing, might be available.
A Premium Small Group Heli Skiing Experience
Since 2004 Northern Escape Heli Skiing has operated small group heli skiing in Northern BC’s Skeena Mountains, near Terrace, BC. Our boutique heli experience, new Mountain Lodge, snowcat skiing backup and big mountain, deep powder skiing attracts riders from around the world. Our lodges are easily accessed from Vancouver via Terrace Airport. For more information, see our Guide to Heli Skiing in BC, contact us or see our booking page.