Once again Andy Malton from thegemsstock.com is back to provide us with some great backcountry advice - this time he's spilling the beans on one the latest backcountry crazes sweep the planet: heli-assisted touring, or using a helicopter to access remote splitboarding terrain. You can browse a number of international trips here, but for now we'll let Andy explain the basics...
It’s probably fair to say that most riders regarded heli-boarding as the ultimate snowboarding experience. Guaranteed untracked powder combined with the excitement of flying over the mountains and, in many cases, a luxurious lodge to stay in overnight. The big problem of course is that the cost puts it beyond the reach of most, at least when it comes to the multi day, 5 star experience anyway.
A slightly more affordable alternative to heli boarding is cat boarding. As rad an experience as this is, you are limited in scope as to how far the cat can travel during a day, which is not very far. The other option is to just get out there using your own lungs and a splitboard to earn all your turns the traditional way.
However, recently some heli board operators have started to offer heli assisted touring programs that are fast gaining in popularity – and it’s easy to see why. Heli assisted touring could be the answer to anyone who wants the best of both worlds – all the advantages of heli boarding combined with the delights of splitboarding, all rolled into one.
Here’s how it works – after rolling out of bed with a mild hangover from nailing shot skis in the bar the night before, you head to the lodge for some breakie. You grab your splitboard and gear and wander out to the heli pad before being whisked up into the mountains and dropped in some crazy remote location surrounded by insane mountains. You then proceed to spend the day skinning up then riding down prime backcountry terrain, all the while knowing that both the environment and your wallet are taking less of hit than they would be should you be riding the chopper all day. At the end of the day you either take a long run back down to the lodge or get a heli pick up if required. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?!
The advantages over a typical regular day’s splitboarding are obvious; heli assisted touring means that initial schlep up into the alpine at the start of a day is avoided. A helicopter can access areas that in some cases might take days to get to on splitboard alone.
There are also many advantages over your average heli boarding trip; it’s cheaper and cleaner for sure and as you’ll be spending more time on the ground, it’s a good way to become more in tune with the surroundings and to get a good feel for the snowpack and avalanche conditions – something that isn’t all that easy when you’re flying around in a helicopter. Plus touring is good exercise and is a more soulful way to soak up all those mountain vibes.
It’s worth pointing out that both helicopters and planes have been used as a way of accessing remote huts and camps in the mountains for decades, especially in BC and Alaska. However, rather than being the transport to facilitate multi day camping expeditions, this new breed of heli assisted touring is a done in a day affair with riders coming back down to the lodge overnight before getting another bump up the next morning.
It’s probably not surprising given the abundance of heli boarding operations there that British Columbia is the place where most of the heli assisted touring opportunities exist at the moment. The big, remote mountains of BC are the perfect place to make the most of a helicopter to access touring terrain. There are many first descents still to bag and some valleys and peaks remain completely unexplored.
But it’s not just Canada where heli assisted touring is catching on – the Swedish and Norwegian Arctic is a prime location due to the extensive wilderness there and you can even do it in the highest peaks of them all – the Himalaya. Here are a few recommendations of where to go:
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Bella Coola Heli Sports
“Combine Vail Colorado, Whistler BC and the entire Swiss Alps, cover everything with powder snow, then remove all but 16 of the skiers, and you have Bella Coola Heli Sports"
Erm, that sounds ok, I suppose. Bella Coola operate in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. Their tenure is vast and contains some of the best big mountain terrain in North America. Anyone who’s in doubt as to just how epic the Coast Mountains are should take a look on Google Earth at the area between Vancouver and Alaska – thousands of square miles of wilderness, no roads, no towns, just huge mountains that get pounded with 30m of snow a year. The 3 Valleys it aint.
Eagle Pass Heli
Eagle Pass gets a mention due to its location in the Monashee Mountains and the snowboarder friendly set up they have. Eagle Pass Heli is run by Scott Newsome - the first person to pass the ACMG lead guide qualification on a splitboard. The Monashees have legendary snowfall along with killer backcountry terrain that’s just made for shredding.
These dudes are based up in Arctic Sweden - an area that fully lends itself to the idea of heli assisted touring. Arctic Elements run 4 day trips where you get a couple of heli runs on the first day followed by a few days of splitboarding out of a backcountry hut, before getting picked up by the heli at the end of the trip.
Points North Heli
Points North are one of the many heli operators based in Alaska, although they are the only ones based in the town of Cordova. Situated on the coast between Valdez and Haines, they run a heli assisted touring program with a difference – guests stay in a permanent backcountry camp set up within their tenure in the famous Chugach Mountains. This is heli assisted touring for the adventurous, although the camp does look pretty plush with big Arctic Oven tents and a wood burning stove to keep things comfortable. It goes without saying that the splitboarding on offer around camp is mind blowing with insane amounts of snow and kickass terrain.
Himalayan Heli Adventures
Yep, you can go heli touring in the Himalaya too. Based out of Manali in one of the snowiest parts of the Himalayan chain, Himalayan Heli Adventures will give you a heli bump up into the alpine among some of the highest peaks on Earth for a day of splitboarding, before dropping you off at their lodge again in the evening. Some runs start as high as 5000m and as you’d expect in the Himalaya, the mountains look pretty mind blowing.