Heli-skiing
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skier with helicopter in background

Heli-skiing is off-trail, downhill skiing that is accessed by a helicopter, as opposed to a ski lift. Heli-skiing is essentially about skiing in a natural, albeit highly-selected environment, without the effort required for hiking into these areas as in ski touring or ski mountaineering.[1]

Most heli-skiers are seeking specific, pleasurable skiing conditions that are hard to replicate in the highly manipulated terrain of glades, and steep slopes.

The presence of the guide and aircraft offers protection against the risks and discomforts unavoidably associated with entering this mountainous environment, allowing skiers with little or no mountain sense to enjoy a natural environment.

The term heli-boarding is used if the participant is snowboarding instead of skiing. For the purpose of this article, “heli-skiing” also covers snowboarding in this manner.

Contents

[edit] Locations

Heli-skiing has become an increasingly popular activity since its inception in the 1960s, with operators established in Switzerland. B.C. Canada is the most popular area for heli-skiing with over 90% global market share.

The gladed trees. Rarely, operations have runs nearing 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters in vertical relief. Average runs are more likely 2,000 feet or 700 meters.

The type of terrain skied correlates to the mountain ranges have thinner, weaker snowpacks which generally offer the lightest powder and best weather, but somewhat less extreme slope angles due to increased slab avalanche hazard and dry, fluffy snow that simply falls off extremely steep terrain.

[edit] Operations

U.S., Canadian and some other operations typically treat the helicopter like a ski lift, picking up and dropping skiers repeatedly on the best snow sections for 5-12 runs a day (the “Canada-model”).ski mountaineering, even though the trend is downward.

There are as few as 4 or as many as 12 skiers, depending on the aircraft type and numbers. Most operations offer private heli-skiing charters and daily, three, four and seven day packages are common in the Canada-model.

On most tours, a group of heliskiers are led by an experienced guide and possibly an assistant, or co-guide. Helicopter skiing access is also regulated in many mountain ranges, eliminating the possibility of simply contracting a helicopter for random drops.

The helicopter typically meets the ski group in an open area in a valley. European pilots are very aggressive and accustomed to operation in narrow mountain valleys, so landing in a wide spot of a narrow mountain road is not uncommon in the Alps.

The guide or a helicopter crew member load the skis and poles into an exterior basket. The skiers board the helicopter and are lifted off and carried to a landing zone on the mountain. These LZ’s may be officially designated, but regardless, they are generally familiar to the pilot.

While it is possible to toe-in [or unload], meaning to take on or drop off passengers while hovering with the skids near but not touching the ground, it is safer and more common for the propwash and stinging driven snow is no longer a problem.

After unloading, the clients do not ski off at random; the guides decide exactly where the clients will ski. Often a guide will go first to assess the snow, avalanche starting zones, cliffs, crusty snow or other potential difficulties that are not obvious to untrained eyes. In very treacherous glacier sections, the clients may be instructed to stay in the guide’s track. On a broad, stable slope, the guide may allow the clients to spread out and pick their own line of descent.

[edit] Conditions

Conditions encountered when heliskiing range from effortless powder or corn snow, to the most difficult snow possible such as breakable wind crust. Conditions often vary from run to run due to solar aspects. Guide experience and the mobility of the helicopter enable careful matching of terrain to the current conditions within the limits of the operator’s permit. Customer expectations are generally for easier, more pleasant snow conditions. It is unlikely that anyone ever paid the heliski premium desiring to ski breakable crust.

Conditions vary depending upon the time of year.[4] Most patrons specifically go earlier in the winter during colder temperatures in order to seek and often find deep, fluffy powder or granular, recrystallized “sugar” snow, which when skied in good conditions makes for one of the most relaxed skiing descents.

Some heliskiers opt for spring skiing because of longer days, warmer citation needed].

The length of skier descents depends on the elevation change.

[edit] Skills and techniques

Canada-style heliskiing is identical in execution to ski resort runs is a requirement, however.

Europe-model heliskiers also need to be competent in crampons.

All heliskiers must be able to manage skiing along all types of terrain and be able to get down the hill in all possible snow conditions. Avalanche awareness is helpful, but it is not mandatory, since it is the guides duty to mitigate this danger through client training, careful route selection and group control.

The expense and short duration of both the heliskiing contract and evanescent snow conditions can lead to a “feeding frenzy” mentality when the clients are making multiple runs. Canada-model heliskiers seek to maximize vertical drop and number of runs, so skiers need to be reasonably fit and take advantage of efficient gear to avoid slowing the group.

[edit] Equipment and gear

ski touring equipment appropriate to the location and conditions, including glacier travel equipment if necessary.

Fatter splitboard where situation warrants it.

[edit] History

Hans Gmoser, a mountain guide and Austrian immigrant to Canada, is generally credited with starting heli-skiing in 1965 in the Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia with his company, (although he experimented with helicopter accessed skiing in the years proceeding in the front range of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary). Evidence suggests that heliskiing may have even taken place earlier in the late 50s or early 60s in Alaska, Wyoming or Utah based on old photos in ski books.[5]

Heliskiing is very well promoted in all Dean Cummings, etc. which—along with its significant expense—has helped to create heliskiing as a status symbol to some degree.

[edit] Partial Timeline[6]

  • 1936: Airplane inventor helicopter technology as facing, “several seemingly insurmountable difficulties, en route to success.”
  • 1939: Russian immigrant New York.
  • 1958: Alaska, using a Hiller helicopter with a Soly conversion. Ahead of his time, his operation didn’t last.
  • 1965: Bugaboo Mountain terrain with his fledgling Rocky Mountain Guides, Ltd. Gmoser later forms Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH).
  • 1966: Sun Valley Heliskiing.
  • 1968: Rocky Mountain Guides opens the Bugaboo Lodge, the world’s first heli-served five-star backcountry cabin.
  • 1970: Hans Gmoser.
  • 1973: Wasatch Powderbirds Guides starts operations in Wasatch Mountains.
  • 1974: The industry’s first avalanche related fatality occurs with CMH [7].
  • 1974: High Mountain Helicopter Skiing in Dr. Richard Sugden. From 1974 – 76, they did only two or three flights a year, with Kjerstad Helicopters. During the drought year of 1977, they flew only once on 16 inches of snow!

Determined to make the business successful, however, Miller printed a brochure and rented an office in 1978. Business improved throughout the early 80’s until 1984, when the Wyoming Wilderness Act established the Jedediah Smith and Gros Ventre Wilderness areas, ousting the heli-ski service from its best terrain.[8]

  • 1977: Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing.
  • 1977: helium. We tied the balloons onto our waists. In the event we were caught by an avalanche, the balloon would ride high and dry, easily revealing the whereabouts of a buried skier.
  • 1978: Canadian heliskiing and HeliCat Canada in 2006.

[edit] Heliskiing safety

A safety concern of heliskiing operators is the danger of avalanches. Heli-skiing operations employ guides and pilots who are trained and experienced in evaluating snow conditions, snow stability, and risk management. Many guides are trained and skills assessed according to standards set and maintained by the Canadian Ski Guide Association or the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and/or International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA). Many guides also enter the profession after years of personal experience, ski patrol experience, other guide experience, and a high mountain I.Q.

They may even conduct occasional explosive avalanche control in association with the land management agency, though this rarely happens. When weather is inclement for flying or avalanche conditions are elevated, select heli ski operators are equipped for alternate means of access by snowcat. With such operators one may still have an opportunity to ski safer, gentler or heavily treed slopes, with the use of a snowcat rather than the helicopter.

Most tours will include in the price the use of avalanche rescue equipment. Guides, and increasingly guests, carry radios to communicate within the group, between groups, with the helicopter and the lodge.

Some operators are beginning to offer additional avalanche protection that reduces avalanche burial potential or increases burial survival time, i.e. avalanche air-bags. Kenai Heli Ski in Alaska is the first operator to mandate all guests ski with avalanche air-bags.[9].

Other hazards of heliskiing include falling into very deep tree wells, “snow mushrooms” dropping from trees, Helicopter crashes are also far from unheard of.

Financial hazards include pre-paid ski days lost to un-flyable weather. However, this may be mitigated through the use of snowcat back-up thus guaranteeing skiing everyday. Heliskiing agents qualify and book tours based on client requirements.

[edit] Critics

Environmental groups like Mountainwilderness have expressed their concerns and opposition to Heliskiing because of its negative impact on a mountain’s quietness, atmosphere, and environment.

[edit] References

[edit] External links



This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Heli-skiing, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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