Ski stories get bigger in the telling, but the first accounts of heli-skiing are pretty epic on their own. An Austrian immigrant to Canada, Has Gmoser was living in Banff when he founded Canadian Mountain Holidays expedition company in 1959. Gmoser aimed to reach ever-more remote stretches of the Canadian Rockies and, by 1965, the company was using helicopters to fly skiers to thrilling runs in the Bugaboo Mountains.
“From there the sport started to take off,” says Jeremy Roche, who couldn’t resist the pun and acts as director of marketing and retail for CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures. Today CMH is the largest outfitter for the sport in the world, with 11 dedicated winter resorts.
Heli-skiing gives you a VIP pass to pristine powder, long descents, and natural features impossible to find in the resort environment. Hiring a guide lets you focus on your runs, not on navigating the unfamiliar mountain.
Here’s what to know:
Heli-skiing is surprisingly accessible. “Generally speaking, if people can ski intermediate or above runs, and ski on varied on terrain in a resort setting, they would be able to heli-ski,” Roche says. Just be sure to select a destination with terrain that matches your ability level; if you’re a novice, look for areas with wide-open glaciers with low grades.
Look for knowhow. The best guides have completed the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) certification or the destination country’s equivalent. Certification holders have demonstrated skills in areas such as skiing and ice climbing, avalanche evaluation and rescue, and mountain medicine. Top guides will also have multiple years experience in the industry. CMH guides, for example, have an average of 14 years experience.
Check out the outfitter’s safety record. You might have to do a bit of digging here—it’s unlikely an outfitter is going to run a banner on their webpage if they’ve had a bird crash. How old are their helicopters (and what maintenance plans do they follow)? What avalanche mitigation techniques do they use? What’s the guest-to-guide ratio? More guests mean less individual attention—and a wider range of ability levels among the guests.
Opt for the top terrain. Does the outfitter have exclusive access? How many people are going to be skiing there? Some CMH lodges have as few as ten guests carving the slopes.
British Columbia remains a Mecca for the sport—the terrain and snowpack throw a combination punch that knocks out many of its competitors. But there are several noteworthy destinations in North America. The Swiss Alps, Chile, and New Zealand are also popular spots to heli-ski or heli-board.