If you're into skiing at all, you've no doubt drooled over one of the countless slowmotion backcountry YouTube clips of skiers carving perfect turns in pristine powder. And if you're like us, your stomach probably dropped a bit after watching the helicopter the skier rode in fly away, slicing dramatic arcs in perfectly blue skies after plopping them off at the top. Admit it, you were insanely jealous. But with heliskiing becoming more popular—and more available to ski bums across the U.S.—there's no reason this can't be the year you finally try it.
Heliskiing started in Canada in the mid-1960s when Austrian transplant Hans Gmoser opened Canadian Mountain Holidays, still in operation today. He'd fly intrepid skiers to the tops of previously unreachable mountains so they could experience the freshest powder—and the fastest terrain.
Fast-forward 50 years, and the thrilling sport Gmoser created has spread across the globe. While the premier destination for diehards is still British Columbia, there are plenty of domestic locations that offer access to some serious slopes. A variety of travel outfitters run trips in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, and most are located just a short drive from the big resorts you're already used to visiting. In other words, these treks are the perfect option for skiers who are bored with the bunny hill and looking for a day of adventure—and a better day of skiing than they've likely ever experienced before.
Most times, when you hit a commercial ski slope, it will have seen a wave of riders before you've even buckled your boots. This packs in the snow, making the slope a lot harder—and leading to crappy runs. "You're usually skiing about a foot above bumps and ruts, so it's not always a lot of fun," says Jon Schick, owner of High Mountain Heli-Skiing in Teton Village, WY. It's no wonder, then, that the promise of fresh, untouched powder is the biggest draw for first-time heliskiers. "Top to bottom, no one has ever before skied the runs we take our skiers to," explains Paul Butler, president of Heli-Ski U.S. "It's a skier's version of paradise."
The heliskiing season typically starts in December and runs until at least April, although weather conditions determine whether you'll hit the mountains on any given day. Operators price excursions in different ways, but most offer a flat fee (where you'll typically get seven trips per day down the mountain) or a package where you're paying for the time the chopper is airborne. Flat fees generally run $1,000 a day per skier, while packages vary wildly, costing hundreds to thousands—the more airtime you buy, the higher the price. One round-trip (bottom to top and back) lasts from 20 to 40 minutes.
While there's no test that determines your eligibility for a heliskiing trip, this isn't an endeavor for novices. You're going to be miles from almost everything (which is kind of the point), so you should be confident in your ability to get down any slope in one piece. "If you have good technique, you should be able to easily adapt," Schick says.
Intrigued? Then you'd better start practicing. Both experts agree that the best way to get ready for your first plunge down an untouched mountain, aside from being in great shape, is to ski the hell out of your old one. "Get your ski legs under you," Schick says. "Take multiple days at the resort and then come out and go heliskiing." And don't take your first runs at the local spot lightly—dropping a grand to heliski and not being fit enough to last a full day isn't a good way to impress the snow bunnies at the lodge.
FACT: Contrary to popular belief, you don't jump out of the chopper. It lands.