Heli-boarding isn’t the newest trend in snowboarding but recent growth in the industry has made it a lot more accessible to us “joe average” snowboarders. What used to be an exclusively rich person’s domain, is now an experience that can be enjoyed for those of us who are not part of the top one percent.
With this new affordability, Heli-boarding is growing in popularity and is the best way for the avid thrill seeker to discover uncharted territory. Which isn’t to say that it’s cheap. Let’s face it, after forking out for a board, gear, accommodation and the ludicrous prices resorts charge for a three day lift pass, you could hardly call snowboarding an inexpensive pastime. That being said, your average snowboarder is not exactly the most frugal of dudes. Indeed many who partake in the sport would pay anything for the perfect line or to carve freshies in untouched pow. Which brings us to the helicopter…
Heli-boarding is all about backcountry freeriding. It involves a helicopter to access remote areas and slopes of virgin powder snow. Chances are you’ve already seen the YouTube videos or at the very least heard of it, and surely the little adventurer inside you has had its interest piqued. The practice began in Canada, spearheaded by Austrian born Hans Gmoser. Using a single helicopter and operating out of some remote ramshackle buildings, Gmoser built one of the largest Heli-skiing companies on the globe. This spawned numerous copycats in Alaska, New Zealand, Italy, Switzerland, Chile, Argentina and even the Himalayas.
Chances are you’ve already seen the YouTube videos or at the very least heard of it, and surely the little adventurer inside you has had its interest piqued.
The format of Heli-boarding packages varies somewhat according to where you are in the world. Single day packages are the norm in places like New Zealand and Japan, whilst multi-day trips are common in Canada and Alaska. Most places also offer mixed group packages where you share the helicopter with up to five other groups. Some go as far to offer private deluxe trips where the accommodation is lavish and exclusive and the chopper is at your disposal.
The single day package is probably best for those who just want to dip their toes in as it is by far the cheapest option and allows the most bang for your buck. Obviously, the more friends, or like-minded shredders, you can band together the better as the cost goes down when spread over more riders. In this scenario, a group booking is probably preferable.
Snow resorts are constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to providing new experiences for their guests. Recently the popularity of off -piste and backcountry terrain have shown that most people are looking for that unique mountain experience, with little to no queuing in lift lines if possible. Heli-boarding takes that idea one step further, providing excellent freedom and convenience. Having the ability to move from one remote summit to the next and providing a wider choice in terms of slopes and powder.
Having established itself as a popular activity, Heli-boarding areas have been carefully chosen by professionals and all tours are accompanied by skilled and experienced guides. This minimises risk and allows snowboarders to relax and enjoy the ride, regardless of their level of boarding experience.
I was lucky enough to get the call up last year in Wanaka, New Zealand when I was invited on a dream boys only week long snow trip. Included was a full day’s chartered Heli-boarding with Harris Mountains Heli-Ski. As for most of our team it was our first time in a Helicopter and our first taste of that holy grail of backcountry snowboarding. To say we were frothing would be an understatement!
On our third day of cruising around the local resorts blindly under grey skies and low light, the clouds lifted and the winds dropped. I swear I could hear tiny angels singing through the valleys. We were given the green light and promised a full day of the most epic Heli-boarding of the season so far. We were not lied to!
Our morning started quite gingerly (and over caffeinated) with the excitement causing nauseating angst in the crew at breakfast. Adding to the stomach full of butterflies was the stern briefing we received from our guide, local mountaineering legend Hugh Barnard, just a few days earlier.
He took us through the dangers we were about to face, most obvious the risk of avalanche, and gave us some insight into how to not have your head removed by a helicopter’s rotor blades. He even had some stories for us of dear friends he had lost to the mountains. We were sent away from that talk with an avalanche kit each and a lot to ponder. We spent some valuable time in the next days working on our avalanche safety.
The setup was straight out of a James Bond film with the immaculate shed filled with shiny white helicopters, refuelling pumps and high tech gadgetry.
We arrived the next morning at Harris Mountain Heli-Ski early and eager. After being split into two groups (the group was to “heavy” to fit in the one chopper) we were taken by our guide to meet our pilot. The setup was straight out of a James Bond film with the immaculate shed filled with shiny white helicopters, refuelling pumps and high tech gadgetry. Our pilot, James Ford is a straight up dude, exuding confidence and focus. We are told his father in law owns the company and some nerves are put at ease.
Once we are packed tight into the utilitarian passenger section of the chopper the rotors fire up and we climb into the alpine region of the Harris Mountain range looking for the best descents. If you’ve never ridden in a helicopter then i can only describe it as exhilarating, but not if you suffer any form of vertigo.
The pilot takes the machine up over and in between the spires and crags of these massive mountain ranges. As he converses with the guide on where to safely drop his cargo, he counters turbulent up gusts of wind blowing up from the valley along the mountain faces. When they decide on a drop point he fly’s by and pulls a gut-wrenching turn into position. It’s at this point, seeing that you’re literally sat on top of him, that you have to resist the increasing urge to tell the pilot that maybe we should land somewhere else. The tiny snow covered cliff face he is about to land on is barely big enough for the helicopter, let alone the five of us.
Time is money in this game and the sooner you strap in, the sooner the thrills become real!
We did twelve drops that day, a few more then average and it was everything i had dreamed it would be and more. Knee deep powder all day, fast sections, deeper pockets, natural features, hips and spines. This really is the pinnacle for snowboarding. After a brief stop and a gourmet lunch offered as part of our package we were back at it all afternoon with our guide letting the reins out a little after assessing the avalanche danger during the morning session. If you are contemplating whether it’s for you, then don’t hesitate! If you get a chance to experience Heli-boarding then you have to go. This is a life changing day for snowboarders of all levels. Once you’ve been I guarantee you will spend the next few giddy days trying to organise your next Heli-Boarding trip.
Check out some more great snowboarding travel stories in our snowboard.com-Travel Guides