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Heli, Yeah

Vail? Excellent. Aspen? Love it. But if you want to take skiing to a whole other level, hop onboard a helicopter.

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Ups and Downs: A "hot pick," where guests jump into a whirring Wiegle chopper.   

Ihad no idea how hard my heart could pound until I found myself standing outside a postcard-pretty, lavishly appointed log cabin in the cold, early-morning light of Blue River, British Columbia. A fleet of nine Bell 212 helicopters appeared on the horizon, skimmed the Douglas-fir tops, then touched down to pick up their payloads. In less time than it takes to reach the top of Vail, I was standing above some of the finest backcountry powder terrain in the world, up to my bellybutton in thesoftest eiderdown snow you can imagine, miles from a lift, dwelling, or, most important, a crowd. My magic-rotor ride left to pick up more skiers and guides, and all was silent. Except for the thumpa-thumpa coming from my chest. Cue Ride of the Valkyries.

Any decent ski resort in North America can pony up a solid skiing vacation, filled with nicely groomed runs, fast lifts, gourmet dining, and shopping for the compulsively acquisitive, but only in the sweet (and elite) purview of helicopter-skiing will you experience something like this. Ahead of me were thousands of turns per day through the lightest, driest snow on the planet, just me and a handful of like-minded powderhounds who’d cracked open the kids’ college fund for a little enjoyment of the here and now. I’ve skied an average of fiftysomething days a season for the past twenty years and logged more than four months’ cumulative heli time, and while there’s nothing wrong with resorts, nothing at all, when you hunger for a fresh challenge, when you want steeper and deeper and the cocktail-party bragging rights that come with them, I can tell you that only heli-skiing will satisfy the hunger.


An afternoon run on the aptly named Paradise.  

Helicopters have been used to ferry skiers commercially since the mid sixties, when a guide named Hans Gmoser explored the powder-fat interior ranges of British Columbia with a few deep-pocketed clients footing the bill, and today helicopter-skiing is an industry of its own; Canadian Mountain Holidays, Gmoser’s company, now has twelve backcountry lodges and more than 100 guides. Mike Wiegele, who launched Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in 1970, books 112 guests at a time in his “heli-village” in Blue River; it’s so popular, you have to make reservations a year in advance. There are day operations in the Lower 48 and pioneers up in Alaska who will take you into the domain of knife-edge, experts-only terrain. In short, the “rotary club” has become huge.

My week at Wiegele’s began with a safety briefing on big-mountain terrain, avalanches, and tree wells (holes around trunks that can open up and swallow you like a trap door), followed by an opening-night feast. The food at Wiegele’s is phenomenal, which might be surprising to those who’d assume you survive in backwoods B.C. on tree bark and melted snow. Each morning, European- trained chefs whip up eighteen-odd dishes for breakfast, including all manner of egg concoctions and fluffy French toast and pancakes. For lunch, expect a hearty brown-bag affair (say, an Italian cold-cut sandwich, with fruit, juice, a candy bar, and a cookie) eaten on the hill. For dinner, the menu rotates, but the twenty-foot buffet usually includes a giant salad bar, steak, chicken, pastas, and, on Friday nights, lobster. It’s a daily feast designed to satisfy herbivores and carnivores alike (gluttony—on powder and powdered desserts—might be the first sin of heli-skiing). Stuffed to the gills the first night, and with just enough sense to avoid the bar, I staggered into Tiffany, one of 24 deluxe log cabins, waved good night to the river-rock fireplace and private kitchen, and tumbled into bed under a fat duvet.

Where you actually ski at Wiegele’s depends on the weather, visibility, snow conditions, and snow stability. If it’s sunny, you might be up in the high alpine peaks of the Monashee Mountains, east of Blue River, skiing down glaciers that could swallow Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island effortlessly; if it’s socked in and snowing, like my first morning, you could be weaving between the cathedral-like stands of massive spruce trees in the Cariboos.

We started out slowly as the guides gauged our skiing skills—and listening abilities. Heli-skiing isn’t cheap, and it tends to attract wealthy alpha males—arbitrageurs, heart surgeons, etc.—who aren’t generally used to taking orders. In avalanche-prone terrain, however, the guide is CEO, CFO, and SEC all in one, and he (occasionally she) tells you where and when to ski, alerts you to possible hazards, then leads the way.


Details

The promised land of helicopter-skiing is British Columbia. Canadian Mountain Holidays’ weeklong packages run from $5,000 to $8,000 (Canadian) depending on accommodations and time of year (800-661-0252; cmhski.com). Mike Wiegele’s high-season rates are about the same, $8,463 for seven days (800-661-9170; wiegele.com). Wasatch Powderbird Guides, in Salt Lake City, offers trips for $770 per day (800-WPG-HELI; powderbird.com). And if you want the radical frontier, head up to AK to Dean Cummings’s H20 Heli Guides (907-835-8418; h2oguides.com), from $2,850 for three days.


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