Heliboarding on a Budget
Words & pictures by Sam McMahon.
Heliboarding: for snowboarders it's seen as the ultimate way to travel. Forget chairlifts, splitboarding or even sledding to the top of a mountain; we're talking Standard, Absinthe, Mack Dawg... some aspirational Art of Flight shit here. It used to be what becoming a pro was all about - hell, even big mountain Jeremy Jones blew all his pocket money on aviation fuel back in the day.
And we can see why - that high octane, magical blend of petroleum-based hydrocarbons is more addictive than heroin. We would all take helicopters everywhere, all the time, if only they weren't so damned expensive. A day of rotary-powered luxury in Colorado will set you back well over $1,000, or a week at a dedicated lodge in Canada almost 10 grand – and that's before your travel; which is why, when we heard that Val Heliski can get you up in the air for a mere £250, we had to investigate.
Their operation runs predominantly out of La Rosiere, around 40 minutes from Tignes or three hours from our own base in Morzine. We brought along fellow 'ziner and long-time friend of WL Dom Harington who, despite years as a pro and a trip the Sochi 'Lympics under his belt, had never stepped inside a chopper up until this point. So, bundling up against the spring morning chill, we set off in his shonky yellow van.
We were greeted by Claire (who runs Val Heliski with her husband Tom) and Josh, their intern and resort guide – making him possibly the luckiest seasonaire in the entire Alps last year. Heli drops aren't actually allowed in France under their environmental laws, so he took us over the Italian border to the sister resort of La Thuile for a safety briefing (which yours truly managed to wander off and miss) and to meet our guide for the day, Nicholas – a chain-espresso drinker and certified mountain man. We also hooked up with the other punters, two American military dentists wearing Beardos named (and I shit you not) Bryce and Stash. These guys were also on their first heli experience and were prepping for the day ahead with some morning beers which, seeing as this was Italy, was perfectly fine with Nicholas. On the way over we got to whip by the insane lift-accessed terrain La Rossiere has to offer, featuring untouched chutes literally just off the side of the piste and pristine faces requiring only a short hike in or out. Given it hadn't snowed in the region for over a week, and our home resort had been tracked out for days, we found ourselves frothing to come back, heli or no. Apparently barely anyone goes off piste here, and with a seasonaire population consisting of mostly nannies, it's one of the few resorts that isn't a total sausage fest. Score!
And then, one by one, they started to arrive: the helicopters.
Before we took off, we also had the chance to chat with some of the other groups getting ready to embark. I've ridden my fair share of places with a variety of groups, but I've never experienced anything like the levels of stoke, excitement and anticipation that surrounded us – especially considering the decidedly average spring conditions on offer at the higher altitudes: warm, heavy and wind blown. As this was a 'taster experience' day - a £250, one-drop package designed for heli virgins of all levels and which includes a full day hiking and exploring with a guide - everyone from the onesie-clad Yanks to a gnarled Dutch skier was raring to go.
And then, one by one, they started to arrive: the helicopters.
Just like we've all imagined, the experience is just, well, awesome. As in literally awe-inspiring. There's nothing like crouching down as it lands then ducking under the spinning blades to make you feel like you're in the movies. Think of all those slo mo, coming-out-of-the-heli scenes you've seen before - it's like that, only more so. Fuck it's cool.
Once boarded, the thing lurches off into the sky. As a friend had helpfully reminded me the night before, a helicopter is the only vehicle that will crash instantly if the pilot lets go of the controls. No cruising down the motorway, eating fish & chips whilst driving with your knees here - even as a passenger you can tell that flying the damned thing is like playing one of those cup and ball games... only made from a grenade. Not that we cared - we were too busy high-fiving, snapping selfies and manically screaming "HELICOPTERS!", all cool gone out the window. I'm sure the pilot was having a great time.
Landing was more of the same, and once the euphoria had cleared somewhat we were able to take a look at our surroundings. Holy Hell.
No matter how many times I've done it, there's still nothing like being on top of an Alp with a clear view
No matter how many times I've done it, there's still nothing like being on top of an Alp with a clear view - not even a ride in a chopper. With the Aosta Valley, Les Deux Alpes and Mont Blanc all laid out before us – and not a drop of sweat spent to get here – this was a special moment.
Lest this end up as a piece in which I just wank on about how good heliboarding is, it was probably apt that we had the two Americans to bring us back to earth. Because the reality is, unless you're Jake Blauvelt, heliboarding means sharing lines with mixed abilities and differing attitudes. With Nicholas happy to let them blunder around despite a clear lack of control, Bryce and Stash (by now three pints to the good) set about tomahawking down the pristine powder face, capturing it all on the ubiquitous GoPros. Luckily, Dom is nothing if not a pro, so we set about finding pockets of fresh for him to slash and jump into. It was March, but with an entire, untracked mountain at your disposal there's bound to be some fun stuff - the pictures, all from the one descent we had, say it all.
On the hill, the Italians can be even more relaxed than they are when overtaking you on a single lane hairpin. Combined with an American tourist mentality the spectacle was dumbfounding. When Nicholas pointed out a recent slide, he was called upon by one or other of the onesies (we struggled to tell them apart) to "fuckin' make another one, I wanna see that shit happen."
Back over the border, stupid requests like that would be instantly shot down by guides; here in Italia, Nicholas simply slid over to Dom and requested that he "ride over there and do a hard turn." Only when Dom had set off and was out of earshot did I realise that no one had been joking and that he'd been set off on a collision course with a potential avalanche. All I could do was turn my lens and document the situation for the eventual police report.
Luckily, Dom's British sense of direction meant he ended up missing the target and skidding into the previous avalanche's path, where his 'hard turn' threw him face first onto the remaining icy layer. At least the dentists were happy with this, howling at Dom and his slightly bruised ego.
Reckless though this may have been, I did develop a new-found love for the Italian shred mentality: this is clearly a nation that knows how to have fun on a mountain! And never fear, we were about to have our revenge on the Yanks...
The descent ended in a wide open chute, somehow still packed with good-as-new fluffy stuff. After giving the snowpack a few cursory prods, Nicholas looked over to me and Dom, smiled, and told us to rip it. "Don't worry, I will wait for... the other two," he said, gesticulating at the horizon behind us. Without hesitation, my camera was stowed away and we went after it, whooping even louder than in the heli as we weaved across the face together, hitting banks and corner drops. This was living.
Riding out the couloir and back along the valley floor to where our pilot was due to meet us, we only had one cliché to finish the day with. Laughing uncontrollably, like children who'd just raided the sweet shop, we turned to each other and screamed: "GET TO THE CHOPPER!"
We suggest you do too.
A Taster Heliboarding Experience with Val Heliski leaving from La Rossiere will cost you £250 (€299), if you can find a group of four or don’t mind chancing it with randoms. Included in the price is one drop with a descent of around 2000m, plus a full day with a qualified mountain guide with whom you’ll be able to hike and explore more terrain after the heli has dropped you back off. Extra drops cost £250 per person.
Thanks to Chris Moran from All Conditions Media for arranging the day.