Heli-skiing – is it worth the dosh?

So you’ve saved up the pennies – sorry, thousands of pounds – to go heli-skiing. But how to pick your ideal trip? And will it feel like cash well spent?

Heli-skiing: the ultimate trip of a lifetime. Fresh lines all day, zero uphill effort, floating through bottomless pow, blah blah blah: sounds alright. Which is why my ski-mad husband and I used the excuse of ‘winter honeymoon’ to book this extravagant and probably genuinely once-in-a-lifetime trip last year, a few months after our ‘real’ honeymoon in Croatia.

Photo CMH Adamants Helicopter Craig McGee

Photo CMH Adamants Helicopter Craig McGee

Our requirements? Well, we didn’t want to go all the way to Canada (yes, you can heli-ski elsewhere, but this felt like the obvious choice) ‘just’ for heli-skiing, so we built in a few days either side, giving ourselves a fortnight away.

A whole week with the heli seemed too pricey, but three days didn’t seem worth going all that way for: we hoped to find a four- or five-day trip. We preferred the idea of staying with our fellow heli-skiers for fuller immersion rather than meeting daytimes only. We didn’t want to stay by a noisy highway, and hoped to be close to good spots for before and after (perhaps Revelstoke and/or Kicking Horse).

In mid-January I booked Air Transat flights to Calgary at £400 each (not as frequent now; lately Air Canada has been a better bet), departing early February, leaving ourselves scanty time to find something. Luckily, gone are the days when you had to book a heli trip way in advance – Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and Mike Wiegele (both still going strong) were the original operators and their places filled up quickly; now there are a dozen operators in Canada alone. I found a useful comparison table on Powderhounds.com.

As I researched, I discovered the variables that affect appeal and price. Number of guests per guide (from four to 11); number of vertical metres included or guaranteed (this flummoxed me, as I had – and still have – no idea how many metres we’d want or be able to ski) and the price of extra vert; wilderness lodges versus lodges in towns; take-off from the door or a 20-minute drive away; what equipment is provided. There was a lot we hadn’t thought about – and did we want to be among trees or in the high alpine?

I ruled out operators that were too far from Revelstoke or Kicking Horse, sent emails to the rest and the quotes started to land.

Eagle Pass Heliskiing (‘Small Groups, Big Difference’), south of Revy, offered a three-day Unlimited Vertical Lodge package, with four skiers per guide, ‘shared accommodations and bathrooms, gourmet meals, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages’, Wifi and hot tub, plus skis, poles and safety gear (including airbag). Cost per person? CAN$6303.75 (then equivalent to £3600).

Great Canadian Heli-skiing, near KH, offered a similar package of five days in groups of four, with unlimited vertical. Price: $10,352.50 (£5915) per person. Selkirk Tangiers, at Revelstoke, had a three-day package for $3890 (£2223), with groups of 10 to 12, with 12,000m included, 9000 guaranteed and every 1000m extra $101 plus tax. I was put off these two by checking the location of the lodgings, both looked very close to the Trans-Canada highway.

By contrast the lodge at Mica Heliskiing, north of Revy, looked quiet, being accessed by air. They had two places on a four-day package, with four guests to a guide, a guarantee of 4500m a day (extra 1000m: $145) and take-off from the doorstep. Including transfers from Kelowna, this cost $8497 (£4855). This was the most expensive quote.

Last came Pure Powder, UK agent for CMH, which has 11 lodges, some of which are better for less experienced skiers and some for more adventurous types. We put ourselves towards the latter, and were offered seven days in the heli-accessed Galena Lodge, with skiing in groups of 11 direct from the lodge ($11,994/£6853). The other option was five days at K2 Rotor Lodge in the lakeside town of Nakusp, a couple of hours south of Revelstoke, via a car-on-ferry route ($6401/£3657). Both included about 4500m a day and cost $125 per 1000m extra. Plus, every guest at the Rotor Lodge gets a pair of the following season’s K2s, to keep…

Weighing up value, duration and location, we opted for CMH Rotor Lodge, took a deep breath, and put a cheque in the post.

Photo CMH Bugaboos Brad White

Photo CMH Bugaboos Brad White

So how did it turn out?

Half an hour’s group stretching before breakfast, study the weather blackboard to choose optimal layering, 10-minute minibus ride to the helipad for 9am, bundle in and belt up, then ski, ski, ski!

The last snowfall had been more than a week before, but we really did shred knee-deep powder all day, every day. Lunchtime picnic, dropped by the support heli, was in a sheltered clearing or on a scenic ridge (depending on weather), with soup, sandwiches, coffee and tasty extras such as nuts and chocolate.

En route home at 4pm a stop at the brilliant outdoor Nakusp hot springs – daily ticket included, bathers and shoes stowed in the minibus each morning – and by the time we were home it’d be dinnertime. Maybe enough energy for a beer afterwards, but, like most of the 40 or so guests, usually we were in bed by 9.30pm. Repeat for five days.

The first surprise was that a larger group had its advantages: more sociable, time to catch your breath and less chance of getting lost in the trees. The Rotor Lodge’s ‘tenure’ is well forested (altitude 1060 to 2880m) and we buddied into pairs and made plenty of noise to stay together. Hearing the other pairs made route-finding easier, especially as the guides (who rotated between groups each day) skied pretty long pitches.

Weather during our stay varied from sunshine to low cloud and I was impressed that the helis can fly in fairly low visibility (turn to page 78 for a pilot’s perspective). It was cold: down to –30, but when you’re skiing powder rather than piste it’s much easier to stay warm. Our longest wait time for a pick-up was about 10 minutes, but normally closer to zero.

CMH describes the town of Nakusp as ultra-funky; we failed to find out as we were too knackered, and the lodge was too warm and comfortable to want to venture out exploring. They also say it’s a hideout of hard-chargers and that there’s a chance to cross paths with the K2 ski team (who test equipment there): we didn’t spot them, but most of the guests, we reckoned, qualified as hard-chargers.

The K2 Team get to grips with heli access-only terrain |CMH K2 Alex O'Brien

The K2 Team get to grips with heli access-only terrain |CMH K2 Alex O’Brien

Many were Americans (Nakusp is one of the closests heli outfits to the US border); some were ski pros (one family included a patroller son and a daughter who worked for Smith); one German was travelling with her guide, on a trip that included some ski touring too.

There were few Europeans: we got on well with the only other Brits, one of whom, disastrously, tore his knee ligaments in a fall on the first day, second run – and these guys had been looking forward to this trip of a lifetime for years.

Each day there was a chance to go home after lunch and a few people bowed out then or mid-afternoon. We skied to the end each day, sometimes joining up with another group that had also been depleted. Each day everyone’s vertical metres were posted on a chart and added up to a personal total. We didn’t take too much notice of it. At the end of our stay, though, it dawned on us that we might have an extra bill to pay…

That turned out indeed to be the case and between us we had racked up almost £1000 worth of vert – though on the plus side our beer bill was miniscule. We made up for it by spending the next few nights in a $99 highwayside motel and going cross-country skiing: after all, that all-day powder is a tough act to follow. FL

 Have you been heli- or cat-skiing? Tell us about it: write to skeeks@fall-line.co.uk

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