Heli skiing - the phrase had always sent cool chills up my spine. The elitist,
expert, edgy sport sounded too risky and remote for me. I grew up skiing in
bounds at Eastern ski resorts. Still, my hard core skier friends and my husband
(who has long craved a week long heli trip) insisted it was the ultimate, a
lifetime must. So, I swallowed my fears and took flight last week. Greg & I
heli-skied in Bella Coola, British Columbia, and it was as extreme, exciting,
and epic as my highest expectations.
Heli skiing is nothing like resort skiing, no crowds, lifts, trails or access
roads, that’s what makes it so unique and unspoiled. First, there is the hurdle
of getting to the wild high alpine reaches of Western Canada. We flew to
the 2010 Olympic host city of Vancouver, stayed the night at the luxurious
Fairmont Airport Hotel, to fly the next morning over Whistler and the
astonishingly beautiful Pacific Coast mountains to Bella Coola, midway between
Washington and Alaska.
We met our guides at the heli hanger for our safety briefing on transceivers,
probe and shovel, and the Avalanche air bag we would trigger if caught in a
slide. Safety is serious when heli skiing in high alpine backcountry, miles from
civilization. You better pay attention, and quickly develop trust and respect in
your guide, pilot and new heli ski mates. My pulse was racing contemplating the
dangers, but we soon boarded our helicopter with two snowboarders from Austria,
and we were soaring over snow capped peaks in our A-star B2 chopper, the Porsche
of helicopters that would be our private ski chauffeur for the week.
I knew heli skiing would be a rush, but I hadn’t anticipated the exhilaration of
the helicopter rides. The pilot zooms over jagged 8,000’ mountain peaks, and
touches down on a summit knife’s edge. You step out into a flurry of snow with
the whirl of chopper blades overhead, huddle with your group until you are left
to silence, just your gear and your guide, and 4,300 square miles of snowy
alpine peaks as the helicopter disappears.
Bella Coola Heli
Sport has the largest ski tenure of any heli ski outfit in the world, 2.6
million acres of exclusive terrain, bigger than the Swiss Alps. Conversely it is
one of the most intimate heli ski companies with just 15 skiers sharing two
helicopters and a 60-acre resort based in the magnificent mountains, where you
are catered to be a super attentive staff.
What started as a private resort for ski film crews like Warren Miller and Doug
Coombs, and crazy base jumpers Shane McConkey and Luigi Cani, is now one of the
most posh heli ski resorts in Canada. While other heli ski operations based in
British Columbia’s inner mountain ranges serve the masses (Mike Wiegele and
CMH), Bella Coola hosts 15 skiers a week in private cabins with the 1929
gentlemen’s camp – The Tweedsmuir Lodge as the luxurious gathering place for
gourmet meals and après ski around the grand fireplace.
Heli skiing has its ups and downs, literally. You are up and down, in and out of
the helicopter ten to twenty times a day. You ski everything from windblown snow
on the exposed summits, to deep powder, glaciers, and snow soaked glades, often
all in one 3,000’ vertical run. The beauty of flying in an A-Star helicopter,
our pilot and guides had access to over 900 runs among seemingly endless
territory for our group of four to track up.
As you catch your breath and admire your tracks at the end of each amazing run,
your helicopter approaches to whisk you back up for more untouched snow and
magnificent scenery which resembles the Alps – only without chalets or
chairlifts in sight.
There are down days to heli skiing, and we had a few due to low clouds hampering
helicopter visibility. You can fly fish in the river, enjoy yoga and a massage,
play billiards or board games, watch a ski flick – many of which were filmed at
Bella Coola, or just relax by the fire with a book or wifi. During down times
and lavish dinners, you bond with your new heli ski buddies. Our Austrian
snowboard heli-mates are now lifelong friends, given our shared adrenaline
charged adventures on the hill and laughs in the lodge.
My heli skiing fears are over. I can see how skiers get hooked on the
expensive heli-ski habit. After having millions of snowy acres to ourselves,
it’s hard to return to the confines and crowds of the average ski resort. I was
also reassured that safety is top priority, with the guides’ constant snow pack
and avalanche analysis, I can make the educated argument that you are safer heli
skiing than driving to a ski resort, or skiing a busy trail.
Heli skiing comes with its risks, but huge rewards too. While some operations
claim you need to be intermediate, I strongly recommend you be an expert skier
or snowboard to properly appreciate and conquer the terrain, and not hold your
group back. The cost is high, but so are the hi’s when you fly to a fantastic
peak, and ski deep fluffy untracked snow, shared with four to five newfound