WHAT'S A HIMALAYAN KINGDOM to do when a limping world economy, Maoist uprisings, and an international travel slump have whacked its tourism industry? If you're Nepal, you always have the mountains to fall back on. After three years of negotiations, the country is opening its section of the Himalayas to a foreign-owned heli-skiing operationthe first permanent commercial heli service in the world's greatest range. Founded by Craig Calonica, a former U.S. Ski Team racer based in Chamonix, France, Himalayan Heli Ski Guides, headquartered in Kathmandu, will begin flying its customers up Nepal's virgin slopes in mid-January. Starting at a staging base in Pokhara, 100 miles west of Kathmandu, expert clients will be whisked to various camps at the foot of the Annapurnas, catching rides to 18,000-foot ridges, jumping out, and heading down the mountains' 5,000- to 9,000-foot lines. On a good day, Calonica estimates, a skier could tick off 39,000 feet of untracked descent.
Calonica, a 49-year-old veteran extremist who has attempted three unsuccessful ski descents of Everest, started scouting routes last spring after securing permission from the Ministry of Tourism. With help from a handpicked team of top Chamonix guides that includes Jerome Ruby, Dede Rhem, and Stephan Dan, he cut Nepal's first heli-ski lines during test runs on the flanks of 26,040-foot Annapurna II and 24,688-foot Annapurna IV, in the Manang region. "The conditions were incredibly superior to anywhere we've ever skied before," he says. "We were shocked by how good it was." If weather permits, Heli Ski Guides hopes to begin running trips in the Everest region this winter.
Laying down first tracks won't be cheapthough Calonica declines to discuss prices, the experience will probably set you back about as much as the down payment on a new truck. Even so, the company's Ecureuil B2 and B3 helicopters are already booked through April. Among the early clients looking into trips were film companies Teton Gravity Research and Warren Miller Entertainment, both eager to send skiers down Nepal's big faces.
Nepal's government is excited by the possibilities too. "Heli-skiing will bring new target groups to our country in a season when most people do not want to come to Nepal," says Shankar Koirala, joint secretary of Nepal's Ministry of Tourism. Officials are considering waiving fees for five to ten years to promote the sport, which means the government might not see an immediate influx of cash. But the hope is that the whirlybirds will bring people back to the mountainsand put a better spin on Nepal's tarnished image.