The Ultimate Ski Challenge
If steeper and deeper is your type of skiing, head to British Columbia for an adrenaline-inducing heli-skiing adventure.
Like a scene from Apocalypse Now, nine Bell 212 helicopters skimmed in formation above the treetops of Blue River, British Columbia, and choppered toward us, their powerful engines thumping in rhythm, beating out a song that is the sweetest music to a powder skier’s ears. They dropped onto snow-covered pads at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing Resort, landing perfectly in nine white hurricane clouds, and a few minutes later, on the thumbs up from the pilot, I scrambled aboard and was transported to a Valkyrie’s-eye view of some of the finest backcountry powder-skiing mountains in the world.
In less time than it takes to ride lifts to the top of Vail, we flew into the thickly timbered Caribou range, landed, disembarked, and found ourselves up to our belly buttons in the softest eiderdown snow you can imagine, miles from a lift, dwelling, or—most important—crowd. The helicopter left to pick up another 10 skiers and two guides, and all was silent.
Any decent ski resort in North America can pony up a solid skiing vacation, filled with nicely groomed runs, fast lifts, gourmet dining, and shopping for the compulsively acquisitive. But only in the sweet prestigious purview of helicopter skiing will you experience anything like this. Ahead of me were thousands of turns per day through the lightest, driest snow on the planet—just me and a handful of like-minded powder hounds. I’ve skied 50 days a season for the past 20 years and accumulated more than four months heli time, and I’d bet my last pair of long johns that, though there’s nothing wrong with resorts, when you hunger for a fresh challenge, when you want steeper and deeper and the cocktail party bragging rights that come with them, only helicopter skiing will do.
We had the good fortune of having the man himself, Mike Wiegele, as our guide. Peering almost straight down through my ski tips, I could see the 212 waiting at the LZ, or landing zone, a mere speck below. Ours was an experienced group, filled with old friends of Wiegele who’d skied this rugged terrain together for years, and we’d all been on this run before. Wiegele tapped my pole, said, “Let’s go skiing,” and dived into powder.
We slalomed through the trees, a 12-person chase, snow blowing overhead on each turn, played hide-and-seek in clouds of white, emerged from the forest with another thousand feet to go, and still Wiegele kept skiing. Eventually we ran out of down, Wiegele zipped across a frozen creek on the valley floor, and we collapsed in heaps around the chopper. As the pilot turned on the ship and the engines began to whine, I knew it was the beginning of a song that I will never tire of hearing.
Where to Heli-ski
Bella Coola Heli Sports
High MountainHelicopter Skiing
Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing Resort
Points North HeliAdventures
Purcell Helicopter Skiing
Ruby MountainHelicopter Skiing
Sun ValleyHeli Ski
Uniglobe Specialty Travel
Mike Wiegele operates in the promised land of helicopter skiing: British Columbia. His resort is surrounded by the Caribou and Monashee mountains—the center of one of the world’s most productive snowbelts for consistent, high-quality powder snow. There is enough snow to keep you on skis from November to May.
High-season rates are $8,463 Canadian (about $6,500 U.S.) for seven days of skiing, lodging, and all meals. You’re on your own for travel to Kamloops, the staging point, or you can use the resort’s recently introduced concierge service (Uniglobe Specialty Travel) to book a direct charter from Vancouver.
You’ll be based at Wiegele’s “Heli-Village” just outside tiny Blue River, which features 81 rooms in 24 chalets. Standard double accommodations are simple but “alpine elegant.” Think rough-hewn log walls, fat duvets, and river-rock fireplaces. You can pay extra for your own room or even a private chalet.
Meals are unbelievably good. European-trained chefs whip up gourmet breakfasts and dinners, which are spread over a 20-foot buffet; you might actually gain weight despite all the exercise. Seven massage therapists work out your kinks, and there’s a full gym/spa with free weights and Nautilus machines. If you didn’t have real-world obligations waiting at home, you might never leave.
All Downhill, All the Time
Wiegele guarantees 80,000 vertical feet of helicopter lift during a seven-day stay, but he doesn’t charge for extra vertical if the weather’s good and greedy powder hounds just can’t stop skiing. That breaks down to six to 10 runs a day, weather and light dependent. Runs are typically 2,000 to 3,000 vertical feet—about like skiing from the top of Vail to the bottom. Groups of 10 are divided by skiing ability, with two guides to every group. Strong groups move faster, but no group skis quicker than its slowest member. Safety is paramount, so you tend to ski sections of this wild terrain piecemeal, working your way down the slope, which allows lots of room for letting the stunning mountain scenery sink in. The day starts around 8:15 a.m. with a flight deep into the surrounding peaks and runs until late afternoon (you get a box lunch on the hill). If you tire out, you can catch a refueling flight back to base. Thanks to rentable, powder-specific fat skis that tame the wildest snow, odds are you’ll go bell to bell. —S.C.