Heliboarding: Whitelines' Essential Guide

IF YOU'VE GOT A SPARE GRAND TO SPUNK, HERE'S HOW TO DO IT

Remi Lamazouere tasting fresh mountain air in Abkhazia. Photo: Eric Bergeri.
Remi Lamazouere tasting fresh mountain air in Abkhazia. Photo: Eric Bergeri.

People often think of heliboarding as the preserve of the rich and famous, staying in expensive lodges in the middle of nowhere and spunking thousands of pounds on aviation fuel. And no doubt about it, it’s never exactly cheap – heli’s cost an average of £2300 an hour to charter (that’s for the time it is actually in the air). So short of remortgaging, what are your options?

The Alps

You don’t have to go to a remote cabin where the only lift option is a helicopter. There are plenty of operations in Europe where you can just book in for a day. Italy. Switzerland and Austria all allow heliskiing/boarding with one drop costing between €100-180. France banned heliskiing in 1985 to protect the mountain environment, but there are a few loopholes – for instance UK company Val Heli will pick you up in Tignes or Val D’Isere and drop you over the border in Italy to ride. Legendary UK freerider James Stentiford is also offering a week-long camp that includes both a day with Val Heli and a night in a mountain refuge, accessed by splitboard – visit stentifordsnowboarding.co.uk

Chamonix is another good option, sitting right in the corner between Italy and Switzerland, so you can hang out and ride in the freeride mecca and see where the snow is best before booking a couple of heli days (Italy will be the option if the storms have been coming from the south west and Switzerland will be better after northerly storms). Check heliskicourmayeur.com

 

PROS:

  • Easy access and loads of accommodation options; it’s the Alps innit.
  • Cheaper than going long haul
  • Can get a taster during a regular shred holiday

CONS:

  • It’s not quite like the wilderness of Alaska and Canada – you’re never that far from the resort crowds or ski and splitboard tourers.
  • Landing zones are restricted so you can’t always reach the best snow or terrain without a hike.

 

The ultimate for any rider. Photo: Phil Tifo.
The ultimate for any rider. Photo: Phil Tifo.

ALASKA

‘AK’ is THE place on most riders’ bucket list, and for good reason: it offers incredible sustained steeps, a stable snowpack and total wilderness. Once again though, you don’t quite have to rob a bank to experience it – why not hit up a few of the resorts over there and have a couple of days heli-ing when the weather is good?

Even if you have just a day or two in the air, Alaska will be trip of a lifetime.

The mountain resort of Eagles Crest, just outside the Alaskan capital of Juneau, has got some awesome terrain. Then, once the weather window looks promising, ditch the lifts and jump in the chopper with local outfit alaskapowder.com. Or, for the full Absinthe experience, follow in the footsteps of Nicolas Müller, Gigi Rüf and head to Haines. It’s a bit of a pain to get to – either a long boat ride from Juneau or a quick hop on a sea plane – but once there, book into a motel and wait for the clouds to clear. Haines is a rad hippy town full of people escaping the real world (plus a few probably running from the police). Book your heli drop(s) with South East Alaska Backcountry Adventures, and when the time comes, drive out to a café called 33 Mile where you get picked up.

Another option is Valdez, birthplace of heli skiing in AK. You can fly into Anchorage, go and ride the nearby resort of Alyeska, then head over to Valdez for a couple of days in the chopper. There are also some mountain passes you can access by car on bad weather days, as well as some splitboard options. Check alaskabackcountry.com.

Finally, Points North Heli Adventures in Cordova access some epic terrain, though they are a little more expensive and there are not so many options if the clouds settle in.

All in all, taking the long haul flight out of the equation it is definitely possible to shred AK on something resembling a budget, just be prepared for storms and have a back-up. As James Stentiford puts it: “I’ve been to Alaska six times and had three amazing trips; the other three I’ve hardly set foot outside the motel, let alone got in the heli. Even if you have just a day or two in the air though, it will be trip of a lifetime. It’s a gamble but one worth taking.”

PROS:

  • The best riding on the planet, hands down
  • Stunning scenery and ‘out there’ vibe
  • Heli days can be combined with resort visits to keep costs down

CONS:

  • The weather can be awful; you can go there for two weeks and not see the sun (and of course, helis don’t fly in cloud).
  • The terrain can be pretty full on. It’s more for experienced riders and even the fun runs in Haines are pretty engaging.

 

Travis Rice taking on New Zealand's Harri Mountain. Photo: Tim Zimmermann.
Travis Rice taking on New Zealand’s Harri Mountain. Photo: Tim Zimmermann.

CANADA

British Columbia has a ton of heli options, but budget trips don’t really happen since most of the operations tend to be of the luxury all-inclusive variety. Thankfully, there are plenty of more affordable catboarding spots (see next page) but if you do happen to have £5000 or so burning a hole in your pocket then check out the following:

Line Up Explorers

Canadian Mountain Holidays

Eagle Pass Heliski

Last Frontier Heli

PROS:

  • Tons of heli companies competing for your dollar
  • Epic terrain and guaranteed powder
  • A genuine luxury experience

CONS:

  • Often remote, so hard to combine with resort time
  • Super expensive

 

Rest of the world

If North America and mainland Europe seem too well-trodden for you then you can combine your heli dream with a trip somewhere different. New Zealand boasts several operations, many of which offer individual drops. The South Island is where it’s at, so base yourself in Queenstown or Wanaka, shred the local resorts and when it’s on, check out:

Harris Mountains Heli-Ski

Alpine Heliski Queenstown

Methven Heliski

Wilderness Heliski

Alternatively, why not go off the grid with a trip to Russia, Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas or Chile? LUEX Snow Travel offer lots of options, and Elemental Adventure are a British company specialising in unusual powder destinations. It’s not cheap, but you get a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

PROS:

  • Sometimes get more heli hours for your buck, especially in the less developed countries.
  • Can score first descents in the right spots
  • Chance of real adventure

CONS:

  • Often involve an expensive long haul flight
  • Harder to just pay for individual drops unless in NZ
  • Usually less riding options in poor weather

 

Ultimately, your heli experience really comes down to the company you go with and above anything the quality of your guide – so look for a recommendation if you can.

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Shredding on a shoestring

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